One of Lucio Fulci's oddest films, ''The Black Cat'' is a supernatural tale, loosely based on an Edgar Allen Poe short-story of the same name. It is mainly noted today, for being the first of two films Fulci made with actor, David Warbeck -- the second being the legendary ''The Beyond'', which was made the following year. Many of Fulci's trademarks are present here, particularly a tendency to film extreme close up shots of people's eyes. In fact, ''The Black Cat'' almost goes completely overboard with this device, repeating it over and over again, as if Fulci wants to hypnotise the viewer. Many of the characters are influenced by, or are trying to influence each other, sometimes through strange, unfathomable modes of psychic control. It becomes very hard in the end, to tell what this film is really getting at, but nonetheless -- despite the precariousness of exploring such themes with a story that depends on a quite ridiculous premise (a killer moggy!) -- I found this a rather beguiling (though ultimately, minor) entry in the Fulci oeuvre.
Patrick Magee plays Professor Robert Miles -- a strange mixture of scientist and medium, who spends his nights skulking around the graveyard of a small English village, recording the voices of the recently departed. An American photographer, Jill Trevers (Mimsy Farmer), arrives to photograph some local ''ruins'', and on overhearing a villager who has observed Miles' odd behaviour in the graveyard, she pays the professor a visit. She becomes fascinated with his conviction that humans have an untapped power to communicate with the dead, but scared when he tries to hypnotise her. Before she succumbs to his powers however, the professor's black cat appears and attacks him, clawing and scratching his hands and allowing Jill to free herself from the professor's spell. Later, the villager who originally saw Miles in the graveyard is also attacked by the cat and falls to his death. Inspector Gorley of Scotland Yard (David Warbeck) is called in to investigate, and he asks Jill to take some photographs of the body. She soon notices the scratches on the victims hands, and this reminds her of similar wounds suffered by the professor.
Other cat related deaths begin to occur -- a couple suffocate in an airless room when the cat steals the key and disappears through a vent. It turns out, the mother of one of the victims used to have a relationship with professor Miles, and she goes to him for help. Using his psychic powers, the professor manages to track down the bodies ... but then the cat also causes the death of the girls' mother. Jill goes to Miles to confront him over the black cat's involvement with the deaths; he tells her the cat is evil, but Jill suspects the professor of having some influence over it because of his powers. It's not long before both she and Inspector Gorley (who she confides in) become targets for the paranormal pussy
The film builds up to a climax that involves the central idea from Poe's original story -- a body bricked up behind a wall. The cat is an instrument of the professor's psychic control; it eventually becomes too powerful, and begins to control him.
The English country village location gives this peculiar little film a unique aura of strangeness. Having grown up living in and around this kind of small, quaint village, the setting has a particular resonance for me -- but in general, the benign order and insulated nature of life in these kinds of places comes over well, and contrasts with the isolated, embittered Professor who feels misunderstood by the rest of the community. His resentment is supernaturally externalised in the form of the black cat in a way that reminds me of Hitchcock's ''The Birds''.
This is the PAL version of the film released by Redemption (for sale in Britain and Ireland), but there is also a NTSC version which, apart from having different artwork for the cover, seems to be the same print as the PAL version, and includes the same extras. The main let down here is that the picture is not anamorphic, and the print of the film used is not in the best of shape, with sparkles and even a few colour flashes toward the end of the film; the sound though, is a nice crisp mono with no distortion. In terms of extras we get a short gallery of artwork from around the world and a trailer, which is interesting as it contains a shot of one of the victims' bodies that is not in the film.
Since Anchor Bay have released a disc with an anamorphic, enhanced version of the film, it would seem that there is no contest over which disc to buy -- however, it's not so straightforward because this PAL version does contain one extra that might make it worth your while getting hold of it. Namely a forty minute piece of footage of Fulci and Warbeck answering questions from the audience at Eurofest 84, before a screening of ''Beyond the Silence'', Fulci's last film. Fulci mainly ignores the actual question asked and goes off into amusing rants concerning his low opinion of producers and censors and anyone else who's done him wrong. He also reveals a respect for Quentin Tarantino (who allegedly saw ''The New York Ripper'' 25 times), and claims he wants his daughter to marry him! The film comes with subtitles because of the poor audio quality, but I found it fairly easy to understand most of the time. If you don't mind the fact that this disc is non-anamorphic (I didn't feel it suffered too much) then get this disc for the Fulci interview, but if you insist on the very best quality possible, then the AB version is probably the better version despite it's lack of extras.
''The Black Cat'' gets a bad rap from a lot of horror fans because of it's lack of gore and suspense, but despite this I found it immensely enjoyable. All the central performances are good but Magee is particularly satisfying as the tormented Professor. If you like your horror quirky and subtle, then it is definitely worth a look.