The Black Cats: Perversity Through the Eyes of Three Italian Masters | Fulci
By Pat Brennan
“When you hear this cat breathing down your neck…start praying!”
— Tagline from the film The Black Cat (1981)
Adapting a preexisting work, especially a beloved one, can be a tough tightrope to cross. Take too many allowances with the story and you’ll not only receive scorn from its fanbase but also run the risk of appearing to be piggybacking on the popularity of the original. However, if you follow the source material too closely, your work could have a paint-by-numbers tinge to it, like you were too afraid to take a chance and put your own personal twist on the piece. Striking that perfect balance of honoring the original while also making it one’s own is a daunting task, even for the most seasoned storytellers.
Lucio Fulci, the legendary Italian director known to horror fans the world over as “the Godfather of Gore,” faced this challenge with his adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” To many, the final product of his attempt bears a resemblance to the short story in title alone, and a quick glance at the film’s logline certainly supports that view. But if you dig a little deeper, past the surface trimmings of its admittedly nonsensical-at-times plot, you’ll find a story that pays homage to the heart of Poe’s tale while also taking its examination of humanity’s innate perversity into frighteningly different territories.
What a strange beast this Black Cat is, though.
A small village in England sees a series of puzzling accidents claim the lives of a few unlucky citizens in gruesome fashion. Headscratchers the lot of them, so the local police enlist the help of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Gorley (David Warbeck) to help find the connective tissue between these baffling and bloody incidents. Gorley soon partners up with Jill Trevers (Mimsy Farmer), a photographer who stumbles across a connection to the crimes that’s as strange as the deaths themselves: a little black cat. The cat’s owner, a local paranormal psychologist/hypnotist/psychic by the name of Professor Robert Miles (Patrick Magee), refuses to cooperate with the investigation though it’s obvious that something sinister is shared between the old man and his feline. As the bodies begin to pile up, Trevers and Gorley must solve this deadly mystery before they themselves fall under the black cat’s gaze.
Are you having a difficult time seeing the similarities between this synopsis and Poe’s original story, other than the spooky kitty? You’re forgiven, friends, because similarities are few and far between. It’s been documented that Fulci’s enthusiasm for this project was fairly low. Perhaps this was due to the filming taking place so close to that of his masterwork, The Beyond (1981), it preoccupied the director’s mind. Or maybe it was because Fulci had only agreed to direct The Black Cat as a favor to its producer and found himself uninspired by the material. Regardless of the reason, Fulci appears to have cared little for staying within the lines of Poe’s work, choosing instead, in his collaboration with screenwriter Biagio Proietti, to create a story all his own.
Yet, Poe’s fingerprints are everywhere in this picture. Of course, there are the obvious nods to the author’s short story, like the cat being hung from a rope, its execution appears as an image in the scorch marks found on a burnt surface, and a (thought to be) deceased character’s body is hidden behind a brick wall only to be discovered by authorities after they hear the frantic cries of the titular feline. Then there are the slightly more nuanced tips of the hat to the author’s work in general, such as Professor Miles’ skills as a hypnotist and ability to speak with the dead through the machines he has created. This character certainly feels like a reference to Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which some readers may remember from Part One (link) of this series as George A. Romero’s choice of adaptation for his segment in Two Evil Eyes (1990).
However, Fulci’s understanding of perversity and its importance to the story really shows that he appreciated the core of Poe’s tale. “The Black Cat” is a warning against the darker half that lurks in all of us and a reminder to be vigilant of its presence.
Fulci’s iteration takes it one step further by wondering what would happen if you could physically divorce yourself from those base urges. What if the worst of you found a proxy to operate through? And if it did, how much damage would it do before it could be stopped? Fulci’s adaptation takes this scenario and runs with it in a typically gory fashion. We’re never really given any backstory as to how this happens, but there’s some sort of psychic bond between paranormal guru Professor Miles and his cat. As a result, his anger and bitterness are poured into the animal, and it becomes the means by which his revenge is visited upon his many enemies in the village. One by one, the adorable little feline (they try their best to make it intimidating through some feral growling sounds that were added in post but you still just want to cuddle the darn thing) dispatches those that have ridiculed Miles over the years because of his questionable choice of vocation, making his perverse urges a reality.
At first, it’s unclear whether Professor Miles understands that these murders are taking place, but it’s obvious that he knows something is up with this constantly-present tiny ball of fury that seems to hate him. He confesses as much to Jill later, saying that the cat’s will overpowers and dominates his own. This takes Fulci’s initial idea of our inherent perversity achieving physical realization into truly terrifying realms.
Our darker natures can be unpredictable, but at the very least we can control them most of the time. Now, consider this: a guy cuts you off in traffic and for a split second you have the urge to ram their bumper and send them flying. For most of us, this sudden lust for blood is easily stifled so you move on and go about your day. Now imagine that that impulse is given flesh (and fur, in this case), tracks down the culprit from earlier, and does to him what you wanted to do in that brief instance when you were at your worst. And this keeps happening again and again.
What Fulci comments on beautifully in his examination of perversity isn’t how unsettling its existence is within us, but rather how horrifying it can be when we lose control of the beast within. Just as the narrator of Poe’s short story finds himself disgusted with the stranger he becomes after his alcoholism causes the worst of his character to surface, Professor Miles is appalled by the depravity he has inadvertently unleashed on his community and his inability to stop it. He learns very quickly that the black cat’s life cannot be extinguished in the same way we can never truly kill off our own dark sides. The man will never be rid of its presence and can only watch as its victims multiply.
The Black Cat isn’t often included in lists of Lucio Fulci’s best work and that’s probably justified. The film disappears when placed against the multiple highlights seen in his filmography, and if we’re being honest, its plot does ultimately feel a bit too thin by the time its credits roll. But oddly enough, Fulci’s version stands up when taken within the context of the slew of big-screen Poe adaptations released over the years. Impossibly, a film whose story is virtually unrecognizable to the source material manages to capture the essence of the original better than many other attempts to do so. And the fact that it also manages to say something unique while honoring the story’s core makes it all the more remarkable. 🩸
Pat Brennan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, and Rue Morgue. He lives in New Brunswick with his wife, son, and very needy cat. Follow him on Twitter @PBrennan87.
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