Although the works of Edgar Allan Poe have long been a favourite with horror filmmakers, their very nature as short stories and non-narrative mood pieces, makes them something of a challenge to adapt. Thus this 1981 entry from Lucio Fulci wisely follows the approach favoured by Roger Corman and AIP in the 60s, taking a central motif from Poe but otherwise making a free interpretation, as an English village is beset by a sequence of near inexplicable accidents that ultimately prove the work of a supremely malevolent, supernatural black cat.
First a man dies in a car crash, on an otherwise clear road and with near perfect driving conditions. Then another somehow conspires to fall and impale himself. Then two young lovebirds go missing, leading to a call for Inspector Gorley of Scotland Yard (David Warbeck), who speeds into town on his motorbike and is given a ticket by the local constable; hardly the most auspicious of starts.
As Gorley gets his bearings the missing girl's mother (Dagmar Lassander) pays a visit to the local medium and all round oddball Professor Robert Miles (Patrick Magee) who divines that she may be found in a nearby boathouse.
Unfortunately the rescue party arrives too late, with the young couple having suffocated and been picked at by rats. Miles realises that the black cat, with whom he is engaged in a constant battle of wills, must have committed the murders. Accordingly he poisons and hangs the creature, only for it to return from beyond to wreak further havoc, starting a fire that kills Mrs Grayson and compelling Gorley to walk in front of a car…
The Black Cat is a film that divides fans of its director, Lucio Fulci, for its avoidance of the trademark gore seen in his other films of the same period such as Zombie and City of the Living Dead – though as the synopsis above indicates there are still plenty of unpleasant and even wince-inducing incidents – with a greater emphasis on mood and atmosphere.
Regardless of the plusses and minuses here, Fulci's frequent disregard for narrative logic – how did the lovebirds suffocate when the rats could get in but the most obvious example, albeit perhaps as the sort of thing that could have been gotten away with in a more absurdist, quasi-surrealist, horror nightmare like The Beyond – and obsession with close ups of characters' eyes in particular are much in evidence, as is his liking for the rack focus shot that switch our attentions between foreground and background planes of action, cumulatively marking the film out as unmistakably the work of its auteur maudit.
Elsewhere – and again giving the lie to the slumming explanation that Fulci only made the film to keep his hand in or as a favour to a friend – there are some surprisingly elaborate crane shots and inventive POV shots using a distorted lens to simulate the perspective of the cat itself.
Though the solid cast of reliable Euro-Cult regulars – also featuring Fulci's victim of choice Danielle Doria and Al "not all that" Cliver – and many of Fulci's regular crew – Massimo Lentini, Vincenzo Tomasso etc – do sterling work, honours must go to the animal trainer Pasquale Martino who manages, at one point, to get one of his otherwise recalcitrant charges to open a barred door.
Even so, however, the old adage that one should never work with children or animals – see The House by the Cemetery or Manhattan Baby for futher proof of this truism in Fulci's case – is not refuted elsewhere, thanks to the basic difficulty in getting a housecat to be / act other than what it is.
Not top drawer Fulci by any means, then, but still a somewhat unfairly maligned entry that deserves a second look.