Cats in the Brain

“The latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree.”

Both Lucio Fulci’s THE BLACK CAT and Sergio Martino’s more memorably titled YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY rework Poe’s “immortal classic” in lurid and rambling fashion, only really returning at the end to play the climax “straight”. Which kind of seems a mistake, since the visualisation of a recognised story flattens the delirium they’re otherwise aiming to evoke.

Bonuses include the charm of Fulci enacting his usual vicious brutality, with familiarly over-exposed, fumbling special effects, in a leafy English village — Fulci seems to have liked England, he set several movies there. There’s also the acting — Patrick Magee hams it up for Fulci (theory: by pushing his actors into extreme and contorted styles of playing, Kubrick may have actually ruined them — Nicholson was never quite the same after THE SHINING, and as for Magee…) in an amusingly out-of-control manner, palsied and weirdly enunciated.

The acting in Martino’s film is more traditionally “good”, with Anita Strindberg and Luigi Pistilli genuinely, uncomfortably unappealing in the leads, and some welcome sex appeal shipping in by the reliably underdressed Edwige Fenech. What disappointed me was the lack of swooning beauty and striking images, which are what I go to Italian horror for. I counted two lovely moments, though ~

When a preposterously over-the-top prostitute shows up in town, her near-instantaneous murder is a depressing inevitability. This disturbing little scene is one of the last things she sees. Love the doll.

Gratuitous lesbian love scene — with rather striking dissolve from two silhouettes.

Fulci being the mad doctor he is, his movie has a more consistent visual quality, with low-flying cat POV shots, and the cat himself is full of personality. Plot revolves — or spins, rather — around Magee’s tendency to astrally project his spirit into the cat and use it to do his murderous bidding, a sort of feline MONKEY SHINES avant la lettre.

By chance, in revisiting Freddie Francis and Robert Bloch’s horror compendium TORTURE GARDEN, for the sake of the third episode, in which Peter Cushing keeps a reanimated Poe in his cellar, churning out new tales of Mystery and the Imagination*, I realised that the film’s first episode was very much Poe-derived. Michael Bryant (a sort of Martin Amis type, crisply fervid with ciggie) murders a supposedly wealthy uncle (enabling Francis to repeat some of the persecuted-person-in-a-wheelchair he tried out first for Karel Reisz when he shot NIGHT MUST FALL) — so far, so Tell-Tale Heart. Then he unearths a coffin with a headless skeleton and a very much alive cat. This one isn’t pure black, so it photographs with more personality. As it psychically brainwashes Bryant, he speaks aloud the transmitted thoughts: as he says “you’re hungry,” Francis cuts to the little fellow licking his chops. Francis’s horrors always have a cheeky sense of humour.

* Cushing and Jack Palance are both huge fun (Cushing gets a drunks scene) and Francis blocks their conversations very nicely, and I don’t mind that the set wall visibly wobbles during their fight and I’m more bemused than annoyed that Palance plays a Brit and Cushing a yank, but really, the ending falls apart disastrously. It’s amusing that the great Poe collector has actually collected Poe himself, but the pay-off ought to involve something of the author’s personality, not just some diabolical double-cross. Still, the rest of the film has magnificent stuff from Burgess Meredith (as Dr Diablo) and Michael Ripper (as the personification of ubiquity).

For Anne Billson.

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16 Responses to “Cats in the Brain”

  1. Pyewacket is an excellent actor. And Kim works brilliantly with him. Just put a different ending on that movie and it’ll be fine, thanks.

  2. But it’s still great.

  3. Just think it’s a shame she gives up witchcraft. Hollywood is normally so good at having its cake and eating it, some little wink from Kim at the end would’ve been quite acceptable.

  4. Well she knows she can get anything she wants with a magic spell and she’s tired fo that. She wants Jimmy to love her for herself. IOW it’s a variation on Judy/Madeline in Vertigo — which was shot the same year.

    This time there’s a happy ending.

    I wou;d have loved to have seen what Jack Lemmon does when he turns out all the street lights. There’s a oblique reference to his “love life” in the script.

    And knowing the West Village as I do (AND John Van Druten) i have a pretty good idea of what it would be.

  5. Have you seen Stuart Gordon’s version of The Black Cat that he did for the Masters of Horror series? Jeffrey Combs plays Poe, and the film intercuts Poe’s real life with wife and cat (poor but in many ways contented), with the morbid story he is writing in which horrible things happen to all of them. Gordon is in top form and Combs makes such an effective Poe that he and Gordon spun off a one-man-show theatrical version, “An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe,” that played here in Los Angeles.

  6. Magee did the so-so BLACK CAT (and CHARIOTS OF FIRE) the same year as he did Borowczyk’s stunning BLOODBATH OF DR JEKYLL. His turn in that is about as odd as Palance’s in Franco’s JUSTINE.

    YOUR VICE may be less visually enticing than Martino’s other gialli but it makes up for it with those great performances from Pistilli and (especially) Strindberg. And the film gets a little bogged down when Fenech turns up (where usually the opposite is true) and we get the (yawn!) motorbike race sequence.

  7. I agree with Shadowplay on the Kim giving up her powers angle. It felt like a kind of castration to make her marriageable – as if remaining a witch would make her not a ‘nice’ girl – not the marrying kind. But then – loss of respectability has always made life more interesting for women – at least in fiction.

  8. Christopher Says:

    If my tuckus was rubbing up against against Kim Novaks breasts I’d phlutter like pyewacket too!..

  9. I’m trying to recall how I Married a Witch ends — pretty sure Veronica keeps her powers and there’s a hint that they’re hereditary too. You just have to keep them hidden from the muggles/mugs.

  10. As I recall it ends with an indication that her daughter clearly has them.

  11. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by dcairns, Anne Billson. Anne Billson said: Halloween cats blog by @dcairns. Dedicated to me! http://bit.ly/cdCdV0 [...]

  12. There is also a very nice version of The Black Cat from 1995 which is almost a narration of the story until the final scene. It was the first film of Rob Green, assistant editor on films like Licence To Kill and Soderbergh’s Kafka, and who went on to direct that surprisingly interesting and atmospheric ‘Nazis vs ghosts’ film The Bunker.

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