Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Black Cat (1981)

Director: Lucio Fulci
Screenplay: Lucio Fulci and Biagio Proietti
Cast: Patrick Magee (as Prof. Robert Miles); Mimsy Farmer (as Jill Trevers); David Warbeck (as Inspector Gorley); Al Cliver (as Sgt. Wilson); Dagmar Lassander (as Lillian Grayson)

Synopsis: In an English village a series of bizarre deaths start to place, leading to a London police inspector (Warbeck) being call to help in the cases. American photographer Jill Trevers (Farmer) however finds that the culprit could be even more bizarre than the deaths themselves - an evil black cat that exists in the home of psychic medium Prof. Robert Miles (Magee), who uses recording technology to document the voices of the dead.

For any director or individual who has consistently contributed to "Abstract Cinema" as almost a patron saint, it's appropriate to cover their obscurer films to see how their work transferred over their career per entry within the filmographies. Lucio Fulci had a length career so naturally there's quite a few films within his that are obscured by his more well known horror movies. Quite a few of the obscurer ones I've watched have as much an incredibly dreamlike tone to them, and while The Black Cat is a lesser work compared to the films bookending it - City of the Living Dead (1981), The Beyond (1981) and The House By The Cemetary (1981) - it's still cut from the same cloth in terms of quality.

The film has plenty of loose plot threads - of why the murders are taking place in terms of motive, how the evil cat exists - alongside details that are never built upon beyond surface dressing like Miles' ghost recordings. But if you're comfortable with the illogical nature of these sort of Italian genre movies this is far from a problem. The unpredictable tones of these films have always been amongst their greatest virtues, The Black Cat a nice and spooky horror yarn where the questions left answered are actually appropriate for the style it has. The film's free improvisation on the Edgar Allen Poe short story means it's not an adaptation at all, despite taking moments from the story, but set in England (with English on-location shooting alongside Italian sets) it does have an appropriately Gothic tone worthy of the cribbed source material. It's also appropriately more driven by the mood than its plot as Poe's stories usually emphasised. Lucio Fulci had a tendency to stray off conventional scripting for his horror films and even when the stories where very structured there were aspects, side details, that would lead to brief diversions taking place that take up large portions of the films, not connect to the central plot inherently but rewarding detail. (One here, involving a levitating bed from a haunted house film, was forced upon him by the producer and also shows, when it's not like the former, it nonetheless is entertaining despite its incongruous nature). These aspects thankfully became a great part of his work becoming part of the films' personalities and their overall quality.

This specific film benefits from those working in front and behind of the camera as well as much, its cast in particular even if dubbed in post-production suitably strong in charisma to guide the narrative along. An actor like Patrick Magee, able to dub his own voice as well, adds an entire level of quality to a film just by himself, as he psychically acts with such tremendous resonance in his sullen looks that the material improves inherently even if the premise is silly. He makes the idea of a killer cat that lives in his gothic home and mauls him occasionally sincere, and the menace he also shows is intense from his use of facial expression. David Warbeck is the same even if he doesn't get as much screen time as a viewer may expect from his character - one slight change in expression when he gets a speed ticket from a village policeman is one of the best moments of the film alone. Out of the trio of main actors, only Mimsy Farmer feels behind the other two but only because the two men are so distinct. Especially as this is one of Fulci's less violent films of this early eighties period the quality in everything else helps boost the movie as more of an unconventional supernatural drama. That said, do expect some gristly cat attack sequences and possible one of the most dangerous looking house fire sequences I've seen in a while, a nastiness still prevalent even if its dialled down from the films that surrounded it.

Technical Quality:
Even if the plots made little sense in many of them, the Italian genre films still succeeded the likes of those made by Hammer in Britain when it came to technical quality. At their highest in quality, they trump most horror films in mood made in around the world during this era barring a few exceptions. The cinematography is impeccable by Sergio Salvati, clever and inspired camera angles and movements throughout that are nonetheless subtle and not merely for showing off. Fulci himself also likes extreme close-ups of eyes, be they feline or human, which has a boldness as a trope for this film as well, and other trademarks of his like the slower pace adds to the prevalent mood. Only his obsession with fog machines is sadly absent. The use of first person for the titular cat, far from silly, has a grace to it that is matched by the cue from Pino Donaggio's score in having a suitable tension to it, as the frame crawls on the floor stalking victims.

Having Donaggio score the film is a huge advantage for The Black Cat, and the result is incredibly lush and tranquil with moments of almost sarcastic grimness to parts of it. The score is the kind that is severely underrated and also boosts the quality of the film around it up altogether in how elaborate it is.

Abstract Spectrum: Psychotronic/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
If I let the film onto the list, as I am, there might be at least one or two films I need to re-evaluate from my blog's back catalogue of reviews. But there're cases where you forget, as someone who watches a lot of cinema, that a film like The Black Cat could have create a stronger reaction from people not used to watching such films. A die hard Fulci fan is going to miss the less obvious but still immensely "odd" aspects of this film compared to his more well known and dreamlike films like The Beyond. While the plot here goes from A to C easily, so much if left unexplained that I have to step back and think carefully of it whether it makes sense or not. That I tend to ignore this completely with each viewing of the film and go along with its atmosphere instead is as much a factor of it being "abstract".

Fulci's films are some of the most atmospheric of Italy's golden era of genre filmmaking, with only Dario Argento and Mario Bava having a consistently large enough filmography of films that are similarly moody. Set in England, he managed to avoid the clumsiness that could've happened with a lack of knowledge of another country, but like The Beyond with Louisiana its an England entirely of its own existence out of time. A warehouse of storage palettes becomes a maze of strange, jagged patterns straight out of Orson Welles' The Trial (1962), a backdrop merely for a drunk fleeing from a single cat that is yet with great seriousness in the moment. Mimsy Farmer when she's introduced photographing ruins suddenly enters a crypt and one is taken into a Gothic location from one of Roger Corman's Edgar Allen Poe adaptations briefly until she climbs back up into daylight. An attempt to escape a home suddenly ends up becoming a random rubber bat attack that Fulci had a bizarre obsession with.

This isn't even bringing in the reinterpretation of Poe's original Black Cat story. The cat here can here teleport and duplicate itself to savage a human victim or hypnotise them to stumble out in front of a car. He can coordinate suffocating a couple in a locked room where the door was closed on their side. That the cat is even considered a murder suspect is strange, baffling the characters themselves as an idea. How the Poe story ends is inherently surreal in the content of the original story prose, Poe willing in his depictions to exaggerate his ideas on perversion, despair and evil with literal concepts such as talking ravens and bladed pendulums. Placed in the context of this murder mystery, the ending's nightmarish nature is even more apparent.

Personal Opinion:
It could be seen as tenuous how abstract The Black Cat is, but especially in his horror films and certain other works like Conquest (1983) and A Lizard In A Woman's Skin (1971), he's so partially entrenched in the illogical with many of his movies that I can't simply dismiss it. As for the film in terms of entertainment, it has plenty especially in its artistic virtues to appreciate. 

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