Italy. 92 minutes. Directed by Lucio Fulci, 1981. Starring Patrick Magee, Mimsy Farmer, David Warbeck.
Scotland Yard detective Gorley and American photographer Jill Trevers are enlisted to solve a series of strange murders in an English country town. Professor Robert Miles is a scholar who claims to be able to contact the spirits of the deceased–and has an antagonistic relationship with his pet cat. Trevers notices cat scratches on the victims’ bodies and gradually comes to suspect Miles’ involvement in the murders. But if the professor is guilty, how is he committing the murders, and how is the cat involved? And can Trevers and Gorley keep from becoming the killer’s next victims?
On paper, The Black Cat doesn’t look any more promising than any other Fulci movie, so why did I end up liking it more than most of his efforts?
Well, first of all there’s the story. Is it, in any meaningful sense, based on the Poe story? No it is not, aside from two scenes (one actually cribbed from “The Cask of Amontillado,” because why not). But it’s a lot more Poe-esque than I’d expected it to be…if Poe were alive in the early ’80s and wrote sleazy exploitation films, The Black Cat might be one of them. Best of all, it’s a lot more cohesive-seeming than your average Fulci effort. It might not make a lot more sense than The House by the Cemetery, but at least it pretends it does and doesn’t constantly go out of its way to point out how little sense it makes.
Meanwhile, the acting’s a damn sight better than it usually is as well. That doesn’t mean that David Warbeck (Gorley) and Mimsy Farmer (Jill Trevers) put in fantastic performances, but they do their jobs well enough and their characters actually seem to have motivations. Patrick Magee’s performance as Professor Miles isn’t quite as successful: while he’s actually a pretty good actor (as evidenced by his supporting roles in films such as A Clockwork Orange) he’s got a peculiar acting style that’s a bit more theatrical than his co-stars. He’s not bad but he clashes with everything else.
Finally, Fulci de-emphasizes the extreme gore that’s become his hallmark in favor of focusing on mood and style. Don’t get me wrong, he hasn’t eschewed exploitation completely and there’s plenty of sex and blood to go around. The difference is that The Black Cat isn’t an excuse to deliver the sex and blood. Freed from that constraint, Fulci turns in one of his most beautifully photographed and atmospheric efforts. Of the films he’s done that I’ve seen, only The Beyond is superior on these counts.
Which means, of course, that those who go into The Black Cat expecting a squick-fest might walk away disappointed, but that’s not my problem. This is the sort of film I’d been hoping to turn up in Fulci’s filmography for quite some time.