Even while Lucio Fulci’s zombie quartet was wowing the splatterati in the early ’80s, any attempt to do critical justice to his underrated non-Z offerings was thwarted, if not by sheer unavailability then by the poorly panned, scanned, expurgated and washed-out looking video releases that some of them did manage… One On Top Of The Other, Lizard In A Woman’s Skin, The Naples Connection, Manhattan Baby and “The Eroticist” all suffered in this way, as did the film under consideration here. All have subsequently been resurrected and reappraised in all their diverse digital glory and now it’s the turn of Fulci’s 1981 effort, The Black Cat…
Fulci only got the gig directing Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) for Fabrizio De Angelis after both Enzo Castellari and Joe D’Amato had turned it down. When that one scored big time at international box offices, De Angelis overlooked the obvious claims of Fulci to direct his quickie cash-in on his own quickie Dawn Of The Dead cash-in, 1980’s Zombi Holocaust (possibly in an attempt to boost profits by cutting costs, possibly because he just couldn’t get on with the notoriously irascible Fulci), ultimately signing up Castellari’s dad (!?!) Only when City Of The Living Dead aka Gates Of Hell (1980), wrought by Fulci and his crack team of collaborators (Salvati, De Rossi, Frizzi) for rival producer Giovanni Masini, brought home the Grindhouse bacon, did De Angelis see fit to liaise once more with Lucio for that crucial 1981 brace of low-budget living dead miracles The Beyond and House By The Cemetery. In the meantime Fulci had undertaken this predictably looser-than-diarrhoea Pasta Paura variation (“freely adapted”, as the credits readily admit, by Biagio Proietti) on Poe’s portentous pussy parable for producer Giulio Sbarigia.
Much loved by UK horror hounds, Fulci obviously found these British Isles a convivial environment, as witnessed by his swinging London giallo Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971) and the Beachy Head opening to The Psychic / Sette Note In Nero (1977.) Here he appears to have gone native, turning in a rendering of The Black Cat that you might swear, if you didn’t know differently, had been produced by Amicus in the early ‘70s. This impression is underscored by the iconic presence of Asylum star Patrick Magee (on top scenery-chewing form) in the role of Professor Robert Miles, whose attempts at communicating with both the eponymous evil moggy and recently deceased inhabitants of his village recall nobody as much as doomed maverick record producer Joe Meek. Rumour has it that this role was originally offered to Peter Cushing.
The rolling pea-soupers that frequently fill the screen are another nod to the iconography of Brithorror but also reminiscent of the prevailing weather conditions in City Of The Living Dead’s Dunwich. Needless to say, the man who directed that priest-hanging, brain drilling, gut-puking atrocity doesn’t let all this eldritch atmosphere obstruct the unfolding of the expected cavalcade of ultra-violence… I mean, Daniela Doria’s in this film (misspelled as “Dorio” in its titles, though a victim by any other name…) for Chrissake! Surreptitious hanky panky is often the cause of DD’s demises in Fulci’s films and here, as “Maureen Grayson”, she sneaks off with the amorous Stan to make out in a boat house, only for that darned cat to make off with the key and sabotage the air conditioning, so both of them suffocate (which apparently involves foaming rabidly at the mouth), their putrefying corpses (in a typically gratuitous Fulci touch) subsequently being gnawed on by rats.
Because their disappearance follows hot on the heels of a guy going head first through his windscreen then burning to death in the wreckage of his car (after another run in with that malevolent moggy), Scotland Yard bike over one of their finest, Police Inspector Gorley (!) to this rural backwater. As played by David Warbeck, his double act with local beat bobby Wilson (“Al Cliver” / Pier Luigi Conti) makes for a characteristically skewed and perversely enjoyable Italian take on British police procedure (and approved hair styles!)
Not that this dynamic duo can do much to quell the ever-accelerating accumulation of bodies… the local drunk is stalked through a derelict building by you-know-what until he falls from a beam and is impaled on some handy-dandy spikes. Then the feline fiend starts a fire in the house of Maureen’s mom (Dagmar Lassander), who ends up crashing through the bedroom window in her flaming flannelette nighty (wasn’t that a George Formby song?) Warbeck ends up in hospital too after his own run-in with the eponymous flea-bag, though Fulci’s decision to cut the sequence of his convalescence and spring DW as a surprise survivor at the picture’s climax meant that his customary directorial cameo, this time as a doctor, also had to go.
Did I nearly forget to mention Mimsy Farmer as “Jill Travers”? If so it’s because her turn as an ex-pat American photographer (who spends her time strolling around local cemeteries and climbing down into the catacombs and ossuaries with which Fulci apparently believed our English countryside to be littered) is one of her least effective forays into the field of Pasta Paura. As for her misfiring love scenes with Warbeck… put it this way, David – normally gentlemanly to a fault – remembered her to me as “that odd bitch”! He also told me that Fulci advised him not to worry too much about acting in The Black Cat because the script wasn’t up to it! The film is indeed an entertaining albeit insubstantial souffle, which only serves to underscore the intensity of Magee’s mesmerising central performance, a performance that is doubly (trebly?) impressive given that he was simultaneously battling the poor script, alcoholism (not very effectively) and Fulci (the director intimated to me that their troubled working relationship culminated in an actual fist fight!)
Of course the other factor holding everything together is that Fulci (when he could take time out from beating up his lead actors!) was a considerable visual stylist. With the aid of favoured DP Sergio Salvati he mounts painterly compisitions and delivers familiar low slung steadicam shots (here rendering feline POV), signature tracking zooms and ultra close-ups on characters’ eyes (while uncharacteristically resisting the temptation to force sharp objects into them.) Editor Vincenzo Tomassi, art director Massimo Antonello Geleng and production designer Massimo Lentini all make sterling contributions to that Fulci look. Makeup FX technicians Franco Di Girolamo and Rosario Prestopino substitute satisfactorily for the De Rossis and music wise, the absence of Fabio Frizzi barely registers, given a splendidly quirky Pino Donaggio score that perfectly compliments Fulci’s visuals by alternating the beautiful (wistful woodwind motifs) with the bizarre (droning bag-pipes!)
Arrow’s 2K restoration of The Back Cat presents all this sound, vision and feline fury with admirable clarity, restoring this previously marginalised title to the pantheon of late ’70s / early ’80s Fulci classics where it belongs. This edition boasts, furthermore, some truly nifty bonus materials. In “Frightened Dagmar”, Frau Lassander reflects on her lengthy exploitation career and how the roles dried up when she attained “a certain age.” Interesting that the supposedly misogynistic Fulci found roles for her when her bloom had faded though, as she laughingly recalls, he nearly did set fire to her for real. I’m yet to check out the audio commentary by erstwhile Fango editor Chris Alexander but can’t help wondering if Stephen Thrower might have been a better choice to deliver it. Thrower fans fret ye not, though, as he’s all over the rest of this disc. The featurette From Poe Into Fulci: The Spirit Of Perverseness hints at the painstaking approach to Fulci studies which make the upcoming, updated edition of his Beyond Terror tome from FAB Press such a tantalising prospect. At Home With David Warbeck is a lengthy interview with the much-missed actor at his Hampstead pile, The Convent. Looks like it was recorded on super-VHS at best but Jeez, did it bring back some wonderful memories. Shortest and sweetest though is In The Paw Prints Of The Black Cat where ST, in suitable rambling attire, takes us on a walking tour of the film’s Hambledon and West Wickham locations, including the caves where Mimsy Farmer had a rummage among them bones and Francis Dashwood before her had hosted his Hellfire Club bunga-bungas. By its very nature the shortest of shorts, this one had me wishing that it could have gone on ten times as long. You get a trailer and a reversible sleeve of course but no booklet… apparently that was reserved for the pricey box set in which Arrow previously paired The Black Cat with Sergio Martino’s Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key, a title which I’ll be reviewing in these very blog pages shortly.