The Black Cats: Perversity Through the Eyes of Three Italian Masters | Martino
By Pat Brennan
“There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a Plunge.”
— Edgar Allan Poe, “The Imp of the Perverse”
How many times have you rolled your eyes upon hearing someone utter the phrase, “money can’t buy you happiness?”
While it’s true that dollars and cents can’t be traded in for something as intangibly precious as love, the ways in which cash can improve your lifestyle are obvious to anyone who hasn’t had a lot of it in their life. Perhaps most luxurious of these comforts is the room that accompanies capital thanks to the status it bestows upon the individual who wields it. Influence allows you to operate under a completely different set of rules than the rest of society, and that’s a road that can lead to a special kind of darkness. We’ve seen countless crimes uncovered over the past few years that managed to stay hidden for so long specifically because their perpetrators had the means to redirect the gaze of those who could have and should have brought them to justice. They bought the space needed to nurture their inner monsters and (unchecked by the laws of human decency) they wallowed in debauchery known only to those with bank accounts large enough to afford it.
While he wasn’t the first to bring Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” to the big screen, Sergio Martino’s 1972 classic Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key takes its core theme of human nature’s inherent perversity and updates it in a way that’s totally unique to other adaptations and re-imaginings. It’s also unsettlingly modern in many ways: a story about privilege breeding depravity, with moments that feel as if they were ripped from the news headlines of the past five years. It’s almost as if (and I know this might sound crazy but hear me out) having too much power and little accountability has been a problem that’s plagued societies for as long as they’ve been around. Hmmm…
The ornately titled giallo follows a novelist-in-decline named Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) and his wife Irina (Anita Strindberg). Their lives together are pure misery: the former is an abusive alcoholic pathetically clinging to his youth while striking out at anyone around him in his frustration over losing his ability to write, and the latter appears to be a shell of a human thanks to the countless physical, mental, and sexual attacks she’s endured at the hands of the monster she’s married to. When murders begin to take place in and around their estate, Irina immediately suspects it’s her scumbag husband, who denies his guilt vehemently. Things are complicated further when Oliviero’s niece Floriana (Edwige Fenech) comes to stay with the couple and immediately forms a love triangle between them. As bodies begin to pile up and the drunken patriarch’s actions become increasingly erratic, things between the three come to a boiling point until the shocking truth behind the killings is finally revealed.
Of the three films covered in this series, Vice’s connections to Poe’s short story are perhaps the least obvious. The black cat itself, which plays such an important role in Argento and Fulci’s takes as a symbol of its villain’s dark half, is barely present and serves only to facilitate a few important story beats taken from the source material, such as the discovery of a victim’s body within the walls of a wine cellar. Those few surface similarities to the work Vice is inspired by could lead one to exclude it from discussions about cinematic representations of Poe’s writing, but that rejection would be unjust. Just as Fulci understood that the exploration of perversity was the essential element to “The Black Cat,” Martino delves deep into an examination of our baser selves, though from a decidedly different angle.
The existence of perversity isn’t something that’s questioned in Vice, nor is its nature examined in any great detail. What we get instead is a picture of the damage that can occur when it’s allowed to blossom undeterred, and how social status can allow that to take place. In Poe’s short story we watch as its protagonist slips down morality’s slope towards ultimate corruption, but in Martino’s film, we begin with the end result of that decent.
Oliviero is a beast of a man, having already embraced depravity long ago. Our first meeting with him takes place during one of the decadent parties he’s constantly throwing for the teenage bohemians from the neighboring town, effectively making him that creepy old dude who thinks he’s still “hip” and seems incapable of letting his glory days go. During this awkward soiree, he assaults Irina in a childish attempt to show off to his perceived peers. This abuse is followed up with the sexual assault of his maid Brenda (Angela La Vorgna), once again performed in front of those in attendance, coupled with racist remarks aimed at the young woman of color. Then, later in the evening, he rapes Irina while possibly fantasizing that she’s his mother.
It’s a stomach-churning introduction, to be sure, but it’s incredibly effective in showing the baseline that Oliviero is operating at. Thanks to the wealth he was born into and his past success as a writer, the man is able to operate this way out in the open. He lives a completely selfish and destructive existence and meets no consequences for his actions. Thankfully, retribution does come for him eventually, and from the person he expects least.
It’s revealed later that Irina has been planning her husband’s downfall this entire time. She and a secret lover have been responsible for the murders that have been taking place and are attempting to have Oliviero either arrested as the murderer or driven mad. She eventually stabs him to death in a fit of rage, giving him the end he’s deserved for far too long. It’s interesting to note though that, in her quest for justice, Irina has had to mine the depths of her own dark side and it appears to have left its mark. As she murders anyone who could lead the authorities back to her, it’s as if she’s been infected by Olivero’s horrible nature, and it soon results in her downfall.
It’s doubtful that Martino was purposefully trying to make a film about the relationship between privilege and perversity. He once said that his movies were “like a soft drink — sparkling, unaffected products for mass consumption.” In other words, pure entertainment, nothing more, nothing less. Yet, it’s hard not to see the parallels between Vice’s villain and some of the real-life scum that has been outed in recent years thanks to the bravery of their victims. This makes it perhaps the most terrifying of the three films we’ve covered, and certainly the most uncomfortable to experience. It may not have the gore of Argento, showcase the supernatural flare of Fulci, or even closely resemble Poe, but Martino manages to show us a facet of the dark that is just as disturbing. 🩸
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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