One of Lucio Fulci's oddest films, ''The Black Cat'' is a supernatural tale, loosely based on the Edgar Allen Poe short-story of the same name. It is mainly noted today for being the first of two films Fulci made with cult actor, David Warbeck -- the second being the legendary ''The Beyond'', which was made the following year. At first glance "The film seems like a bit of a come-down in comparison with its august partners: there are no rotten worm-riddled zombies here; no popping eyeballs, no bloody entrails spilling; and jets of blood gushing are nowhere to be found! Instead, the film plays remarkably like a sedate partner to the late-seventies British psycho thriller -- the kind Hammer or Tigon Pictures were knocking out as the British film Industry declined at the end of the seventies.
Fulci had filmed in Britain before, shooting some of "Lizard In A Woman's Skin"in London; yet a great deal of that picture was still obviously shot in Italy and, like many Italian gialli that tried to make use of a UK setting, it didn't really feel authentically British. With its small village backdrop, and in making liberal use of a cobwebbed, 17th Century country manor that could have cropped up in many an old Hammer film, "The Black Cat" could easily pass for a late period British film, with its weirdly unsettling spin on Edgar Allen Poe's original short story the only striking reminder of its Italian origins. Indeed, part of the fun in watching this film now comes in spotting all the usual ill-dubbed european bit-part players (who tended always to crop up in countless euro-sleaze-horror flicks from the period) trying to pass themselves off as "the friendly village Constable" or the "rustic drunken local". The English country village location gives the 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 (played by Patrick Magee) who stands aloof from the rest of the community.
The one sure thing the movie definitely has going for it is a great cast: Patrick Magee takes on a role that probably would have been played by Cushing or Christopher Lee if this were a typical British thriller; his character is the archetypal eccentric professor whom, in his hermitic isolation, could be either malevolent or just misunderstood by society at large. He 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 (and long ago) departed. An American photographer, Jill Trevers (Mimsy Farmer), arrives to photograph some local ancient ruins of Roman origin, 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 at the boating house and disappears through a vent. It turns out that 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 girl's 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 but also a material embodiment of his hate and resentment; it eventually becomes too powerful, and begins to control him.
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 with hypnotic powers!) -- I found this a rather beguiling (though ultimately, minor) entry in the Fulci oeuvre. it also has an outstanding piece of theme music written by Pino Donaggio.
The DVD from Shameless is a vast improvement over Redemption's older, non-anamorphic version. Here the colours are much more vivid, and although there is a persistent recurring black line running down one edge of the screen every now and then, this is a perfectly reasonable transfer of a nicely photographed 2.35:1 aspect film. Extras consist of a bunch of trailers for other current Shameless releases.