Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story The Black Cat has been adapted in almost every era of cinema, from Universal’s two classic offerings ‘suggested’ by Poe’s tale to Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962) and Dario Argento’s 1990 version, starring Harvey Keitel. What links these films is not so much their source material but their shared lack of fidelity to the text, twisting Poe’s work into narratives that bear little or no resemblance to the short story that bore them.
Both Italian adaptations on offer in Arrow Video’s beautifully-produced new box set sit very comfortably within the tradition of loose reworkings. The first film, Sergio Martino’s Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972), is a work set firmly within the Italian giallo mode, dripping with sex, blood and pretty repellent sexual and racial politics. Your Vice very loosely follows the plot of its source, expanding on the The Black Cat’s ten pages with a story soaked in corruption, violence and twisted sexuality.
Where it detracts from Poe, it succeeds in adapting the tale’s Gothic heart; it makes perfect sense that a 1972 European vision of Poe resembles a giallo. Indeed, Poe’s own sense of ‘the spirit of perverseness’ takes on new meaning and life through Martino’s lense, colouring the world with a sickly, yet seductive, pallor. Despite its title’s audacious claim to fidelity, the box set’s second film, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat (1981), truly stretches the limits of the term ‘adaptation’, calling to mind such other exercises in spurious titling as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Despite being an Italian production, presented here with both English and Italian dubbing, The Black Cat still feels distinctly English: from the folk-horror score that recalls The Wicker Man (1973), the village setting and the largely English cast, led by a terrifically creepy Patrick Magee. Indeed, The Black Cat feels very much at home alongside the classic mid-century British horror of Hammer and Amicus studios. That is to say, we can expect the supernatural, sex and plenty of red paint splattered on the walls.
In this regard, Fulci’s film is a triumph and the opening dialogue-free sequence is a masterclass in creating a sense of uneasy dread and malevolence; as with Your Vice, The Black Cat largely dispenses with Poe’s narrative, instead luxuriating in his atmosphere, finding new ways to express his ‘uncanny’. What lets Fulci down, sadly, is the somewhat directionless narrative, being a morass of go-nowhere plot threads, half-finished ideas and one or two sequences overtly stolen (or in ‘homage’ to, depending on your point of view) from The Exorcist. Additionally, while the supernaturally powerful cat has a great deal of terror-potential, this is often squandered in sequences that are more likely to raise titters than shrieks. Luckily, however, a meandering plot and unintentional humour are far from enough to detract from this beautifully shot and atmospheric voyage into the dark.