Edgar Allan Poe understood what it meant to wrestle with demons.
Whether it was the loss of cherished loved ones, the wreckage created by his famous temper, or the bouts of alcoholism that constantly threatened to destroy his professional and personal lives, the man staggered through some grim territories during his days on this earth but also knew how to leverage those awful experiences for the benefit of his stories and poems. To this day, the fact that Poe was an innovator of the detective and science fiction literary genres (he practically created the former) seems to usually take a back seat to his writing’s ability to tap into dark universal themes like death, lost love, regret, and the mysteries of the perverse.
His exploration of that last one is perhaps why so much of Poe’s work still has the ability to startle today. The perverse is the name the author gave to the unexplainable and insidious impulse to do wrong for the sake of it being the wrong thing to do. It’s an urge that Poe argued takes hold of all of us at some point in our lives, and it can run the range from the comically trivial (I had a university professor once give the example of his sudden impulse to shout “fuck” in a quiet library) to the diabolical.
What makes this concept so uncomfortable to readers even today is that it’s basically an acknowledgment and reminder of our collective potential for evil. To Poe, horror isn’t so much the fear of the other that lurks outside our doors but rather the unknowable that hides within. The majority of us have the ability to override the perversity that seems to be part of our genetic makeup, but in the author’s stories, we encounter characters who — for one reason or another — are unable to best those urges and are swallowed up by them as a result.
“The Black Cat” is one of the most famous instances of this. Though certainly not the only example of the perverse in Poe’s work, it might be the most well-known thanks to the staggering number of times the story has been adapted for other mediums. It’s been a stage play, a radio drama, a video game, a television short, and a comic book. However, it’s the Silver Screen that’s seen some of the best versions of the notorious title feline, and this series will focus on three of these films.
Most horror fans, when going through the list of adaptations, will notice something very interesting: three Italian cinematic masters of the macabre have taken swings at the story. Sergio Martino was first in 1972 with his deliciously titled film Your Vice Is a Locked Door And Only I Have the Key. Almost a decade later in 1981 Lucio Fulci released his own take, simply titled The Black Cat. Then came Dario Argento’s attempt, found in the second half of the 1990 Poe anthology, Two Evil Eyes. All three vary in terms of style, loyalty to the source material, and general storytelling effectiveness, but they all explore the perverse in their own unique ways.
Beginning with Dario Argento’s short film, this series will examine each of these directors’ efforts at bringing this seminal work of Poe’s to life. We’ll look at how successful they were, how their visions differ, and what their individual cinematic eyes might tell us about the nature of humanity’s darker half.
Part 1: Argento
“It’s the depravity that’s in all of us. Perversity is one of the prime impulses of the heart.” — Rod Usher
Oh, what could have been…
Initially, Two Evil Eyes was meant to be a Poe-themed anthology film featuring the likes of Dario Argento, George Romero, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven. However, when the latter two ended up leaving the picture, its future was put in jeopardy. Undeterred, Argento and Romero decided to soldier on, adapting and directing a Poe story a piece for the film we now know today.
Romero tackled the lesser-known short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” for his segment, while Argento chose to do a modern retelling of “The Black Cat.” Both are entertaining enough, doling out equal helpings of suspense and carnage, but it’s the Italian master’s offering that’s most memorable. Featuring an unhinged performance by Harvey Keitel, moments of bizarre surreality, and some truly startling scenes of brutality, Argento’s segment examines Poe’s idea of the perverse in a way that’s every bit as unpleasant of an experience as the original.
Keitel plays Rod Usher (the first of many Poe puns and references to be made), a seasoned crime scene photographer who has seen things that would turn most people’s hair white. One day his girlfriend, Annabel (Madeleine Potter), brings home a little black cat, which almost immediately brings out something vile from the soft-spoken Usher. He begins to torment the animal, his actions starting small but building to a bizarre climax when he stages a photo shoot around his execution of the feline. Rod thinks his crime has gone unnoticed, chalking up the cat’s disappearance to it running away, but Annabel knows better. She sees the monster her boyfriend has become and understands what he’s now capable of. The only question is: can she escape before his murderous desires are turned towards her?
What triggers the violence seen in Argento’s adaptation differs from its source material, but the theme of inherent malevolence being the bloodshed’s cause rings true in both. In Poe’s story, his narrator is a jovial fellow with a particular affection for animals. When he begins to abuse alcohol, a barbaric streak in him slowly begins to make itself known. This first manifests with his beloved pet cat Pluto becoming the target of his misdirected rage and self-loathing, followed shortly after by his poor wife. The booze is what starts the chain of events that will eventually lead to her murder, but Poe seems to argue that the darkness inside him has always been there; alcohol was just the key that unlocked the door it stood behind.
Argento takes a different approach. When we meet Usher, he appears to be a soft-spoken if a somewhat nervous man who is deeply focused on his job. In this case, that work is photographing crime scenes, and if our introduction to him is any indication, he specializes in shooting the most elaborate and stomach-churning murders imaginable. As we watch him do his thing, snapping photos while stepping around gore and viscera with the blasé attitude of an office worker changing the ink cartridge in a printer, we get the sense that Usher is a man who is very good at compartmentalizing.
However, as we all know, appearances can be deceiving. It takes a special kind of person to remain relatively unfazed when their work showcases the worst the world has to offer, but if Usher seems to be keeping it together rather well it’s only because he’s actually untouched by the humanity he sees. The ruined bodies he spies through the lens of his camera are merely objects to him, not people who have met excruciating ends. He may not have started out this way, but documenting murder after murder has left Usher dead inside, and what’s more, appears to have awoken something awful in him. Its release anxiously awaits like water surging against the walls of a crumbling dam.
That eruption happens the moment he encounters Annabel’s new cat. Maybe it’s because the creature is incapable of protecting itself and he’s enticed by its weakness, or maybe it’s the fact that his girlfriend obviously loves the cat dearly and losing it would destroy her. Whatever the reason, Usher’s need to do his worst finally emerges in disturbing fashion.
After killing the beast and making “art” out of the act (his latest book of photography features various pictures of the cat’s demise), he essentially gaslights Annabel in regard to her pet’s whereabouts. Their life together becomes a living hell as Usher continues to drink heavily while emotionally and physically abusing her. When he has a chance encounter with another black feline that looks eerily similar to the one he’s just killed, Rod is pushed deeper into his lunacy and eventually murders his girlfriend in a drunken rage. Those familiar with Poe’s short story will have a good idea of what comes next.
By the end of Argento’s segment, you can’t help but feel like a shower is in order. The Black Cat is an ugly story to begin with, full of cruelty and violence that squirms its way under your skin, but there’s a level of pessimism to the Italian’s take that pushes it into even bleaker territory. In a tale that already acknowledges the fact that we all have the capacity to do horrible things, there’s something so dreadful about the lack of remorse shown by Keitel’s Usher. While Poe’s narrator weeps for his crimes after regaining his senses, Argento’s protagonist feels nothing for the life he’s destroyed and, worst of all, smugness in his ability to fool others.
And in that sense, Argento fails to capture the true horror seen in the original. Usher feels more like a cartoon villain than a human being, a monster masquerading as a man. He’s fascinated by evil and, after so many years documenting it, decides to add some of his own to the world. Meanwhile, Poe’s narrator is a decent person who has fallen victim to an emerging darker self he didn’t know was there. He’s terrifying because he feels like someone you might meet on the street, someone you might know in your day-to-day life, or someone you might even see in the mirror staring back at you. The impact of his actions hit far harder because both sides of the coin are revealed.
Where Argento does succeed, the ability to scare the bejeezus out of us aside, is in how he details Usher’s detachment to the subject matter of his photography. In many ways, we can be as cold as Usher. We see death and misery (both real and simulated) constantly but are often untouched by it. Usher gains distance from life’s brutality through his camera, while many of us keep it at arm’s length by viewing it through the television, our phones, and our computer screens. That way, it stops being real for the part of our brains that would keep us up at night. It’s an uncomfortable parallel to draw, but if it hits closer to home than we’d like then perhaps that’s the point.
Maybe there’s a little Usher in each of us after all.
Pat Brennan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Rue Morgue, Dread Central, Certified Forgotten, and Killer Horror Critic. He lives in New Brunswick with his wife, son, and very needy cat. Follow him on Twitter @PBrennan87.