I love cats. Guys, I don’t mind saying it. I’m not a dog person. In fact, for the vast majority of the last 29 years, I’ve lived with at least one cat, and very often with two. These cats are as good as kids from my perspective. Most of those cats have been partners in crime with me. So, I guess you can say I have something in common with our lead in this week’s movie, The Black Cat.
However, this is only very loosely based on the Edgar Allen Poe short story by the same name. In that, it’s about a man and his wife who love animals. In particular, he seems to have a special bond with a large, black cat. When he develops an addiction to the sauce, the cat decides he doesn’t really like the guy anymore which is only made worse by the drunk man torturing the cat by removing its eye, and even hanging the cat from a tree.
This 1843 story has been the inspiration, suggestion, or basis for many a film version. Universal Studios twice made movies “suggested” by the story, but neither held any kind of similarity outside having a black cat in them. Multiple times, Italians have made adaptations of this like Sergio Martino’s Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (a title that just rolls off the tongue) in 1971, Dario Argento’s version in the anthology film Two Evil Eyes, and then Fulci’s version that we’re going to talk about today.
Fulci’s version takes place in England. Our lead in this movie is the grumpy Patrick Magee. I have quite a bit of affection for Magee. You see, my favorite director of all time is Stanley Kubrick. Magee has appeared in two of his films – A Clockwork Orange, as the guy who gets revenge on Malcolm McDowell’s Alex, and Barry Lyndon as the Chevalier du Balibari. But he was also in Dementia 13 as well as many Amicus horror productions in the 60s and into the 70s – including Tales from the Crypt. Sadly, he passed away one year after this movie was released due to a heart attack from being a very heavy drinker.
Speaking of heavy drinking, let’s go back to two points made earlier. Why hasn’t The Black Cat seen a faithful adaptation as opposed to only having elements adapted or the title suggesting ideas for almost wholly original ideas? I think there’s a simple explanation. I don’t think many major studios would want to try. First, I don’t think you can make a full feature out of the short story, so you need fluff the movie a bit to fill it out. Then, I mean yes, there are many times in which we see people hurt animals in movies, especially if the person doing the harm is a villain. That said, if you’re just adapting a story that features a guy who likes animals devolving into a drunk and an animal abuser, with little more to the depth of the character other than being an unreliable narrator, it’s tough to say what the hell you’d end up having. It works fine for written media, but not for plays or films in a long-form format. I think what you have to do with a story like this is just take what can help flesh out another plot and just say that your movie is inspired by “The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe”.
Alright, enough of this bullshit. Let’s get into this kitty cat movie already!
The movie opens with a man getting in his car to go… somewhere. What he doesn’t realize is that he has an unexpected travel buddy in the form of a black cat! He growls, which irritates my cats lounging around in my living room while I watch this movie. He causes the driver to look at him a few times, and it is seemingly implied that the cat basically hypnotizes the dude. This makes this dude take his hands off the steering wheel which leads to his car wrecking. This makes the guy go flying through the windshield where he and the car catches on fire.
The cat travels back home in the streets of this English town while the credits play. When the credits abruptly end, this slinky kitty enters the house where his friend, Patrick Magee lives. He’s just chilling in a room listening to a creepy ass reel-to-reel of screams and children’s laughter. I’m guessing this guy is every bit as stable as I have ever seen Patrick Magee be in any movie I’ve seen Patrick Magee in.
When the cat comes into the room, Patrick Magee stops the playback and just kinda looks at the cat. When he restarts the recording, the cat jumps up and scratches his arm after growling at him a few times as if to say, “Motherfucker, quit with this creepy shit, dude.” Magee plays Robert Miles. Miles is a cranky old man who is known for being fairly hostile. He used to be a professor of the supernatural. He shares this house with the equally grumpy cat. The recordings he’s listening to are recordings he collects from tombs of the recently dead. You see, he’s a really creepy guy, but also a medium. I assume he’s trying to find a way to, I dunno, communicate with the dead?
I’m not sure he’s going to be all that successful, but, you see, I’m almost positive that in order to do ghost stuff, you have to:
- Have tats, or desire tats
- Be from Las Vegas
- Have a couple other knuckleheads with you with either shaved heads or long hair and/or beards
- Only do this shit in pitch black darkness
- Have stupid equipment that seems scientific, but really is not at all
- Own many “Affliction” shirts
- Scream at the ghosts to “COME AT ME, BRO!”
Without these things, I don’t think you can call yourself a successful ghost hunter.
However, I must digress because we meet American Jill Trevers. She’s played by Mimsy Farmer. She is going around and taking pictures of things and such. She finds the entrance to a tomb busted open so she decides to go for a look. She finds something rather macabre – the skeletons are outside their coffins. Some are strewn about the floor, some are chained from the ceiling while another is just splayed out in the open. She also finds a small microphone on the floor.
Elsewhere, a couple is having a makeout sesh on this guy’s boat. When they realize they aren’t going to have that much privacy, they go to a boat house that the guy, Stan, says is airtight and has no windows. Despite the girl, Maureen, not really loving the idea of all this, Stan, and the rest of us, wins out as she takes off her clothes.
Now, this part is a little confusing. Fulci uses a lot of “cat eye view” in this movie. What I mean by that is that we often seeing things through the cat’s eyes as it wanders around, finds targets, etc. In this scene, we see the cat approach the door that Stan opened with a key and locked with a key. We see what appears to be the cat leaping through the keyhole maybe? It’s now in the room and it breaks into a portion of the room where it messes with the air conditioner. What the cat has done is lock Stan and Maureen in a room with no ventilation, no lights, and no air conditioning. The cat took off with the key so they can’t get out. Basically, they’re going to bake and suffocate in the room.
That’s a smart cat. But also a confusing cat. Did the cat phase through the door? Did it literally leap through the keyhole? Why this couple specifically? Did he know to wait until after Maureen (the very lovely Daniela Doria) took off her clothes for us dudes in the audience?
That night, Professor Miles stalks the cemetery and finds a new grave to record audio from. The guy Miles is trying to reach was the guy from the beginning that the cat helped kill before the credits. While he records, and tries to communicate with the man in the extremely foggy and moody cemetery, the cat shows up to watch. As Miles tries to convince the dead to speak, soon, he sees the needle on the recorder start to bounce to indicate the dead are speaking to him.
Additionally, Maureen’s mother, Lillian (Dagmar Lassander), has called the police about the girl going missing. The police say they have found no sign of Maureen and they have also found no sign of Stan. The hope is they have run away together, but you can never be so sure. The police in this village have called in someone from Scotland Yard, Inspector Gorley (David Warbeck).
Gorley notices the American photographer Jill Trevers. He’s curious if she has anything in the photos she is taking of the ruins in and around the village. At the local pub, Jill hears a guy who was at the cemetery the night before tell his drinking buddies that he saw Miles speaking to the dead. They think he’s a drunk and a coot, but he knows what he saw, goddammit. Jill wants meet Miles because she’s kind of curious in the weird. There’s an old guy at the pub that warns her that Miles is a bit “queer”. He’s a loner. He speaks to the dead. He likes cats. He’s a weirdo. He’s a little queer.
Oh my god… That’s me!
So Jill goes to meet with me, er… Miles. He’s like, “I bet they told you some stories about me!” She explains that yeah, they say he can speak with the dead. He’s a tad curious why she brought back his microphone. She asks why he does it alone and sneaks around like he does, but he thinks he has to because this small village is full of a bunch of dolts who don’t understand the things that he, as a medium, does. She asks if it scares him, but it doesn’t.
Also, look at this picture:
Creepy house? Check. Does creepy things like talk to the dead? Check. Has little to no lights in the house? Check. Shadows obscuring his face with the type of voice that he has talking about the dead? Oh, that’s a big ol’ check. Is Patrick Magee? All the checks. Yup, this guy is creepy and very bizarre.
Jill eventually states that he frightens her. Like, no duh, right? He starts talking about how pretty she is, how soft her hands are, how her eyes are bright, etc. This, understandably, freaks her out. He then attempts to hypnotizes her, to what end I do not know, but the cat attacks him and scratches up his hands like a mofo. Jill decides that maybe it is a good time to leave. But before doing so, she asks him about the cat and he says they need each other and they are bound by hatred. The cat will try to kill him.
Later on that night, a local drunk stumbles out of the bar and starts his very wobbly and slow walk home. The cat leaps out in front of him and scares the guy. He throws a rock at it, which I’m going to assume was a mistake on his part – that and the obvious 37 beers he had over the past couple hours. He’s soon noticing that everywhere he looks, there’s the black cat. The cat eventually forces the man to go into a barn where he tries to lock himself in to keep the cat out, but the cat is mega smart and is able to operate the mechanism to open the door.
Then, to prove drunken Englishmen are very not smart, he tries to balance himself precariously across two small boards that are above some spikey nails below. The cat has no problem slicing up his hand to make him fall onto the spikes to kill him.
Gorley comes to Jill and requests her assistance. He needs a photographer to take pictures of the drunk dude’s body. As she takes pictures, she notices the scratches on his hand. She’s reminded of the cat scratching up Miles earlier that day.
Speaking of Miles, he’s listening to one of his recordings. He hears voices essentially begging to be let go and asking to be allowed to pass over. He also hears another, scary voice that speaks in what I assume is Latin. I should point out this bit of spoiler – these recordings and the voices on them are never really addressed. Miles is a supernatural expert and medium, but we never see him actually do anything with these recordings and the various spirits asking for release. The spooky Latin voice is never really addressed either. It’s almost as if this is only here for spookiness factor.
He’s interrupted by Maureen’s mother who is desperate for his help. Lillian asks him to try to help her find her daughter. He uses a ring and he sees water, green grass, darkness, a door, and a missing key. Lillian uses the clues to go to where Maureen and Stan were. Also… Apparently Lillian and Miles had been together at some point in the past. She even offers up that if he helps her, she’ll, like, do him again. I’m guessing that is something I’m very glad is not in this movie. I like Patrick Magee and all, but I don’t what him scoring hot mature redheads.
She finds the key and they open the door to find that Maureen and Stan are super dead. So dead, in fact, that rats are eating their faces and shit. Miles shows up and is asked some questions to basically attempt to see what could have gotten through the grating where the power controls were. When he looks in, he sees paw tracks and realizes that it was the cat that was there.
Speaking of the cat, we hear the cat’s low rumbling growl in Lillian’s house as she has some bad dreams about seeing rats eating her daughter’s face and shit earlier that day. She thinks she sees two yellow eyes in the darkness, but when she turns on the light, it’s only a creepy porcelain doll. However, the cat is indeed in her house. He sees an oil lamp, the fireplace, and maximum opportunity to fuck shit up and knocks the lamp over so the whole place goes up with the combination of the oil and the flames from the fireplace. Lillian tries to do something about it, but is unable to escape thanks to the house collapsing in just the right way to prevent her escape. Also, nightgowns are very, very flammable.
And arms so very, very noodly.
By the way… This is a seemingly small English village. Doesn’t it seem really out of the the blue that so many people are suddenly turning up dead in very peculiar ways? I mean, one whole family of mother and daughter has been wiped clean from the face of the planet. One guy dies in a barn, on spikes. Another by suffocation. Another by car accident and burning.
Seems quite peculiar to me, if I do say so myself, old man! Pip pip! Cheerio! That’s a good chap!
Jill brings the photos with the cat scratches to Miles. He’s like, “Yeah, man, that cat is evil!” She doesn’t believe him, but he says something quite similar to what I was thinking – she brought him the pictures of cat scratches. So… What did she think he was going to say? She thinks that maybe Miles is controlling the cat to do the bad things, but he says it’s actually the cat who dominates him. He even suggests that maybe, as if the cat was human, we should hang him.
Later, after Jill makes like a tree, that’s exactly what Miles plans to do. He drugs the cat with stuff in his food and takes it outside where he plans to hang it from a tree – like in the Poe story. Thankfully, we only see it in shadow as Miles hangs the cat to rid himself of it. When he does, it seems as though the cat dies, and just as it does, a powerful burst of wind throws open the windows of Jill’s room and starts making a huge mess as the bed shakes all over the place, things fly off shelves and other furniture, and, when it all calms down again, there’s a silhouette of the hanged cat on the wall of her room.
When Miles returns to the basement where he fed the cat, he also sees the silhouette which causes him to drop his candle that nearly burns him to death like Lillian. When he puts out the fire, a more permanent drawing of the silhouette is now burned into the wall. Not only that, but the cat is nowhere to be found, even in the tree where he was hanged.
Meanwhile, Gorley starts working with the main sergeant of the village, Wilson, and states that things are quite interesting because of all the mysterious deaths. He thinks there is more than meets the eye. At the station, Jill is present when Wilson shows up with more stuff from the scene where Maureen and Stan were found. Wilson states there is fur from a black cat. Jill plans to show Gorley the pictures of the scratches, but she doesn’t have them. Curiously, she’s not brought the pictures of the drunk man’s hand.
Gorley goes to Jill’s place and wants to know more about this cat stuff and find out what she knows of Robert Miles. She reveals that she might know more about Miles than people think. While she explains things to Gorley and how she believes the cat is supernatural, the cat returns to home much to the surprise of Miles.
Now, here’s the crux of the whole thing that Jill is trying to say to Gorley – she thinks Miles is lying when he says the cat dominates him. She believes that Miles is manipulating the cat to carry out things a normal cat wouldn’t really be able to. Sure enough, even Miles laments that now that the black cat has cheated death, there’s no way he’ll be able to control him any longer. That night, the cat goes out hunting and starts leaping for and swiping at Gorley’s face before using its mesmerizing gaze to make him walk out into traffic and get hit by a car.
Jill goes to Miles and he explains that he killed the cat and buried it under the tree. She still believes him to be the real power behind the cat’s attacks. He says that what happened to Gorley was only an accident. She doesn’t believe him. So she sneaks into his house to look around when Miles steps out to run some errands, mail a few things, pick up his Kroger order, you know, what people do during the daylight hours.
After sneaking around for a bit, Jill finds all of that cool Teac technology that Miles has and starts listening to some of the real creepy shit. She doesn’t get to hear too much, and totally doesn’t even turn the players off when she sees that Miles has returned. She hides out in the basement while Miles goes upstairs to see what’s going on with his reel-to-reel players playing. While she’s walking around in the basement, she happens upon the cat. She uses the flash on her camera to keep the cat away from her. However, it only works for a short bit because the cat both can teleport around the basement and the flash stops working. The cat tries to leap at Jill, but she escapes and runs right into Miles.
He explains that the cat indeed didn’t die. Instead, the cat decided he wanted to live. She tells him what she thinks happened. She still thinks that he used the cat to kill those people. He says that’s not true. Instead, the cat only understands his deep seeded hatred toward people who think he’s a weirdo and doesn’t understand things he does about the human mind. But since the cat cheated death, he is now being controlled to do the cat’s bidding.
Miles knocks Jill out and goes to her place and packs up all her things. When he returns to his home, we see that he’s got Jill tied up in a section of the cellar. There, she’ll be walled in alive. At the hospital, Gorley has survived his run in with the car the other day. He tells everything to the other inspector brought in to pick up the investigation. Gorley checks himself out and goes with Sgt. Wilson and Inspector Flynn to talk to Miles. Miles is a bit surprised to see Gorley, but they ask about Jill, and even play along with his story that Jill has returned to London. Gorley also says that he believes Jill came here to see his cat, tipping his hand that he knows more than what Miles expects.
The police are about to leave, satisfied that there’s nothing here out of place, but they hear a cat meowing. They go to the cellar where they find the newly bricked up wall. They find Jill barely alive and that the cat was accidentally walled up with her. The cat leaps out and back Miles up to the wall where he confesses that he didn’t want to kill anyone, but the cat has now gotten his revenge by revealing his crimes to the police.
The movie ends with the cat wandering through various locations in the town and through the now abandoned home of Robert Miles where it stops to gaze upon the eerily chalked picture of himself hanging from the tree that was burned into the wall.
I quite like this movie. I think it is among Fulci’s best stuff. We can debate if it is THE best film of his or even the best version of this story, but it’s up there. Fulci can be hit or miss for a lot of people. This one seems to be quite in touch with what it wants to be. What that is is a little bit of psychotropic, a little supernatural, and a little well paced procedural. It’s not particularly gory, but it is moody and does well with atmosphere of broken down homes, foggy cemetery scenes, and dusty tombs. It does what it needs to do and has a solid cast of good actors to carry this movie.
I also like to think about some of the other things that would happen in real life if things played out like they do in this movie. For example, we have a situation in which the cat and Miles hate each other’s guts, but it seems as though he has saucers and various other things to feed the cat. Does he hate feed it? Do they just have an understanding? Later, Miles says that the cat is dominating him. Does that mean that when he left that one day and Jill snuck in that Miles was out running errands specifically for the cat? Were they out of cans of Fancy Feast and Miles had to hit up the Petsmart to get more?
Whatever the answers are, it doesn’t matter, the movie is quite good. Check it out at your local movie house. For next time, we’re going back into the dark underbelly of exploitation to talk about those gross ol’ Nazis. This movie promises to be one of the most vile sexploitation/nazisploitation movies ever – The Beast in Heat.
Yup… I guess I gotta go there.
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One thought on “The Black Cat (1981)”
I love black cats and I love horror, so I really enjoyed reading this post!