Probably the least heralded movie from Lucio Fulci’s “gothic period”, The Black Cat isn’t a classic but will interest fans of Italian horror. Edgar Allan Poe’s famous, much-adapted short story inspires only the climax, but the bulk of the movie is impressively claustrophobic, played in twitchy close-ups between the frightful feline and its mad master, Professor Robert Miles (Patrick Magee). Miles is a paranormal researcher who uses his demonic familiar to gorily slaughter those he feels have done him wrong. Nosy American photographer, Jill Travers (Mimsy Farmer) stumbles onto these mysterious deaths amidst a quaint, English village and teams up with Scotland Yard’s Inspector Gorley (genre icon David Warbeck) to bring the culprit to justice. But is Miles in control, or the cat?
The film strives for ambiguity but winds up just confusing. After the cat lures Gorley into a horrific accident, Miles screams: “No! I didn’t want that!” Then he looks disappointed when Gorley turns up alive. Fulci allegedly cranked this one out with little passion involved. It is a less inspired reworking of Poe than Dario Argento managed with Two Evil Eyes (1989), but there are moments to savour. Mimsy Farmer attacked by rubber bats; a foggy village with superstitious locals straight out of Hammer Films; the beguiling mix of occult lore, super-science and metaphysical chatter; and a victim who cowers when the cat opens a locked door.
Fading sex kitten Dagmar Lassander (seen to far better effect in The Frightened Woman (1969), also available from Shameless DVD) plays Miles’ ex-lover, whose face melts gruesomely while she burns to death. Poor, perpetually abused beauty, Daniela Doria takes her top off and dies foaming at the mouth (yet it’s oddly touching the way she reaches out to hold her lover’s hand).
Performances are all over the shop. Magee glowers mercilessly, while Warbeck is less strident than usual (although he grapples memorably with that killer kitty). Fulci regular Al Cliver (real name: Pier Luigi Conti) plays a Cockney copper in rural England, but biggest offender is Mimsy Farmer as an icy, aloof heroine hard to empathise with. The Black Cat treads the line between Fulci’s excellent, early gialli like A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) and the tedious zombie flicks he’s best known for. He conjures on e delirious set-piece where supernatural forces storm Jill’s bedroom, while his recurrent eyeball fetish provides some striking close-ups. Moreover Fulci’s prowling POV shots create a dreamy atmosphere, aided by Pino Donaggio’s surprisingly lyrical score. Plus it’s hard to resist any movie where a cat magically reappears and disappears at will.
Italian director whose long career could best be described as patchy, but who was also capable of turning in striking work in the variety of genres he worked in, most notably horror. After working for several years as a screenwriter, he made his debut in 1959 with the comedy The Thieves. Various westerns, musicals and comedies followed, before Fulci courted controversy in his homeland with Beatrice Cenci, a searing attack on the Catholic church.