THE BLACK CAT
Color, 1981, 91m.
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Starring Patrick Magee, Mimsy Farmer, David Warbeck, Dagmar Lassander
Arrow Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US/UK R0 HD/NTSC), Blue Underground / Anchor Bay (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Shameless (DVD) (UK R0 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY
Color, 1972, 96m.
Directed by Sergio Martino
Starring Edwige Fenech, Anita Strindberg, Luigi Pistilli, Ivan Rassimov, Franco Nebbia
Arrow Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), NoShame (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
One of the most famous gross-out horror stories of all time assaulted readers in 1843 courtesy of Edgar Allan Poe with "The Black Cat," a tale of feline persecution and murderous mania complete with eyeball ripping, cranium splitting, and an unforgettable sting at the end. A highlight of Poe collections for decades, the story has been adapted with varying degrees of fidelity in such films as Dwain Esper's Maniac and Roger Corman's Tales of Terror, as well as four very different Italian horror films. Two of them are collected in the Arrow Films set entitled Edgar Allan Poe's Black Cats, which unites significant films by Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino under one banner. While both make use of the original story's walled-up finale, they take significant liberties with the source material for the rest of their running time and offer a fascinating snapshot of both directors in transitional periods.
Though it will never be a fan favorite on the order of Zombie or The Beyond, Fulci's The Black Cat fits comfortably within his magnificent run of gothic essays during the early '80s despite its relative absence of graphic gore. Ably proving his skill as a visual director capable of generating atmosphere without buckets of blood, Fulci reportedly shot this one quickly without much passion involved, but as fans of Mario Bava's Five Dolls for an August Moon can attest, impersonal and rushed projects can sometimes provide the most interesting results. A small English village is being terrorized by mysterious deaths all linked by the presence of a black cat belonging to the antisocial professor, Robert Miles (the always superb Magee), who leaves tape recorders in graveyards to capture messages from the dead. One unfortunate man is compelled to smash his car into a bloody, fiery wreck; another plunges onto a series of sharp spikes inside a farmhouse; and a young horny couple (including the unfortunate Daniela Doria, one of Fulci's favorite victims) suffocates inside an abandoned building. Nosy photographer Jill Trevers (Farmer) begins to suspect something unnatural between Miles and his pet kitty after paying them a visit, and she relays her suspicions to out of towner Inspector Gorley (The Beyond's Warbeck), who has come to investigate the deaths but finds more than he bargained for. Is the true villain here Mr. Miles, who shares an odd psychic bond with his pet, or the sinister black cat itself?
More of a mood piece than a standard Fulci rollercoaster, The Black Cat benefits greatly from a wonderful cast of Eurosleaze veterans, including the always watchable Dagmar Lassander (who looked a lot rougher the next year in House by the Cemetery), horror and erotica regular Al Cliver, and the perpetually abused and unclothed Doria. The unusual English setting is wonderfully realized by Sergio Salvati's evocative scope photography, which prowls along the ground, soars over rooftops, and creeps into dark, dusty corners when it's not too busy flashing back and forth between close ups of actors' (and cat's) eyes. If you ever wondered what a Fulci-directed Hammer film might be like, look no further. Composer Fabio Frizzi takes a break this time, leaving the underrated Pino Donaggio to provide a catchy, lyrical score which remains sadly unreleased to this day. The story bears little resemblance to the Poe story apart from the title creature and the claustrophobic, ambiguous ending (which is also reprised semi-effectively from Fulci's earlier The Psychic), but the gothic mood is well in keeping with the literary master. Watch it back to back with Dario Argento's "The Black Cat" from Two Evil Eyes for the full effect (and two contrasting Donaggio scores, to boot). Not all curious fans of European horror will like this film, which moves at a deliberate pace and could be an acquired taste at best, but Fulci fanatics should find plenty to savor.
Various companies like Media and Rhino have issued unwatchable pan and scan transfers of this film over the years following its brief 1984 US theatrical run from World Northal, while Redemption presented the only bona fide widescreen VHS edition (in PAL), also briefly available on VCD. Anchor Bay's 2001 DVD (later repackaged by Blue Underground six years later) easily eclipsed them all with a razor sharp, very welcome widescreen transfer, with details so sharp you can see each cobblestone. As with the previous letterboxed version, a thick vertical line appears during a handful of shots on the extreme right of the frame during the opening five minutes, but considering this flaw also appears in the excellent theatrical trailer (included on the disc as well), the glitch was an inherent part of the original negative. The nifty animated menus, complete with cat yowls and Donaggio's main theme, are a nice bonus, and the rather clumsily printed liner notes (craftily hidden on the back of the sleeve) by Travis Crawford offer a nice reappraisal of the film. A British edition followed a few years later from Shameless, also containing the English-language version of the film and the usual newly-created trailers.
The 2015 set (four discs, with Blu-ray and DVD options for two titles) features a new 2K scan of the Fulci film from the original negative, and it's a complete knockout up there in quality with the company's stellar Region B edition of Zombie. Detail and grain texture look fantastic and completely organic, and the exterior shots now have a level of depth that really allows you to fully soak in the film's potent atmosphere. Salvati's eerie, sunlight-splashed cinematography was a little tricky for NTSC to handle, but there are no issues at all here. Both the English and Italian tracks are included with optional English SDH or English translated subtitles, and the Italian version is a very different experience indeed with far more dialogue and background chatter that actually offers quite a bit of extra clarity for the plot. In a nice touch, you can play the film with the English or Italian credits sequences, too. As for extras, you get the usual English trailer, the very similar Italian one, and a batch of new material as well. Beyond Terror author Stephen Thrower offers another of his excellent, insightful overviews here (running 25 mins.) as he examines how the story takes the exact opposite stance as the story (by making the cat the instigator rather than the victim) and how it both departs from and echoes the trends in horror in the early 1980s, with a bit of analysis of Two Evil Eyes to boot. There's also a nice 8-minute "In the Foot-prints of the Black Cat" tour of the original locations with Thrower guiding the camera through the English countryside where Farmer and Warbeck originally strolled including the Hell-Fire Caves. Amusingly, he even tracks down the tennis court seen briefly in one shot behind Al Cliver. A 70-minute interview with late Warbeck finds the chain-smoking actor chatting comfortably in a chair about his entire career with Thrower with a focus on his Italian work, which he loved for the rapid speed of the productions. There are a few fun tangents, too, such as the effectiveness of textured character faces, his extreme distaste for working with Farmer (who was also dropped from the production of Tenebrae right after this film), and a racy anecdote about Lassander. Speaking of whom, she gets a lengthy 20-minute featurette of her own, "Frightened Dagmar," in English and in German with English subtitles and covered virtually every significant title from her career. She shares memories of Fulci and Riccardo Freda as well as her best starring vehicle, the sublime The Frightened Woman, though she remembers nothing of consequence about Forbidden Photos of a Lady above Suspicion. Of course she also talks about shooting the big fire scene in this film, which turned out to be far more dangerous than originally planned, and her baffled reaction on another film to Fulci insisting on putting worms on actress's faces ("I thought he was a little bit sadistic there!").
Next we have the first Italian horror film containing heavy elements of Poe's stories, the 1972 Sergio Martino giallo Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, which lifts its title from a threatening note in his earlier film, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh. Within the span of two years, Martino managed churn out no less than five outstanding Italian horror-thrillers, most starring lovely, raven-haired scream queen Edwige Fenech. One of his most eccentric contributions to the crowded giallo genre, this one breaks with many of the expected conventions compared to its ilk and was barely released in English under a variety of titles like Excite Me and Gently Before She Dies. Here Martino performs a gender-flip on the main characters of Poe's tale and integrates it into a larger tableaux of nefarious doings at the remote Rouvigny estate, where brutal Oliviero (Bay of Blood's Pistilli) torments his wife, Irina (Murder Obsession's Strindberg), at parties filled with exhibitionist hippies prone to breaking out in song and dancing on the dinner table. As much as she hates her husband, Irina (who evidently hasn't seen Diabolique) also feels great animosity towards their pet cat, Satan, and isn't much happier with the fact that Oliviero, who harbors a strange fetish for Mary, Queen of Scots, is messing around with a pretty bookseller on the side. After their maid turns up slashed to death on the staircase, the not-so-happy couple finds even more disturbance with the arrival of Oliviero's sexy niece, Floriana (Fenech), who gets her kicks from going to motocross races and seducing everyone in sight. Meanwhile a sinister bewigged stranger (Rassimov) lurks around the estate with murder in his eyes... but is someone else really responsible for all this bloodshed?
A wild ride from its slinky opening credits to its tire-screeching climax, this thriller moves its suspicious characters from one position to the next in appropriately chess-piece-like fashion, generating the necessary amount of gory and sexy thrills along the way. In many respects this feels like a warm-up for Martino's next giallo, Torso, which appropriates a similar opening titles sequence, disjointed structure, and "exotic" red-herring black female cast member. For some reason Martino also shot both of these films flat instead of scope, a major visual departure from his previous efforts. All of the usual Martino cohorts are here and accounted for, including composer Bruno Nicolai (turning in one of his most melodic scores), cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando, and, of course, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, who could write things like this in his sleep. However, this is really the actors' show all the way, with Pistilli and Lindberg ripping into their juicy, venomous roles with absolute glee; likewise, the always worthwhile Fenech has a field day playing several degrees more wicked than her usual doe-eyed damsels in distress.
A mainstay on the bootleg market during the days of VHS, Your Vice first popped up in a bootleg DVD edition from "Eurovista" culled from a screener videotape; fortunately it was quickly rendered obsolete many times over by NoShame's excellent 2015 DVD transferred from the original negative. One of the company's first progressive-flagged releases, the presentation looks crisp and colorful without any damage or digital bugaboos in sight. The film can be played with a serviceable English soundtrack or the somewhat classier Italian version (with optional English subtitles); both are looped and only match the actors' mouths every once in a while, but the Italian version (which modifies some of the more racist dialogue to improved effect) hits the mark far more often. No trailer is included for this film, but the disc does throw in trailers for the rest of NoShame's Martino releases including The Strange Vice of Signora Ward, The Case of the Scorpion's Tail, The Big Alligator River and Gambling City, as well as a poster and still gallery. The real treat here is a 23-minute featurette, "Unveiling the Vice," in which Martino, Fenech and Gastaldi; the director reveals that this "decadent" film wasn't one of his favorites and is inferior to Torso, while Fenech (who seems very cheerful and still looks astonishing) comments, "All I remember is huge onion omelets!"
The 2015 edition ups the ante considerably with a fresh HD scan from the negative, with the expected jump in resolution giving it a more detailed appearance throughout with much tighter resolution of those red flourishes that pop up throughout. It's still a pretty thick-looking, gritty film at times, so by its nature this won't quite pack the "wow" factor of the Fulci transfer; however, it's as perfect a presentation of the film as one could possibly expect and makes one wish all of Martino's gialli could be reissued looking this good. Both the Italian and English tracks are presented in uncompressed PCM mono with optional SDH and translated English subtitles, both sounding pristine, and again the film can be played with either the Italian opening and credits or the English ones (as Gently Before She Dies). The "Unveiling the Vice" featurette is carried over here, but there are also three new featurettes. In the 34-minute "Through the Keyhole," Martino briefly lays the groundwork for the progression of his gialli up to this point and covers the production in a Paduan villa, the influence of Poe and real-life Italian crime cases, and his thoughts on the massive recent surge in popularity for his films. Then heed the big spoiler warning for pretty much all of Martino's films when you watch the 29-minute "Dolls of Flesh & Blood," a visual essay on Martino's giallo cinema by Movie Matters podcaster Michael Mackenzie. It's a solid primer starting with his assignments in lower positions in Italian cinema through his heyday as one of the best thriller filmmakers of the period alongside other greats like Bava, Argento, Fulci, and Lenzi, with a number of films produced by his brother Luciano (and boyfriend of Fenech at the time). As for Fenech, the gushing 29-minute "The Strange Vices of Mrs. Wardh" has film historian Justin Harries (who stands really, really close to the camera) singing the praises of her appeal while covering the major thrillers and sex comedies that earned her legions of fans over the decades. It's an amusing romp through her career (including her switch to TV hostess and entertainer as well as setting up her own production company), and if you want to see more Fenech skin after the main feature, this one delivers in spades. Finally there's an 8-minute intro of sorts to the film by Eli Roth covering the basics of giallo cinema at the time, its impact on slasher cinema, and the presence of hippie culture still lingering in Italy in the early '70s. Both films come packaged in a box containing an 80-page booklet with a reprint of the original Poe story, Fulci's last interview in text form, and liner notes, with both films in separate cases containing reversible art with the original poster designs and new artwork by Matthew Griffin.