Although he's regarded as an astute horror director, Stuart Gordon's theatrical background with Chicago's Organic Theater often ensures very solid performances from veterans and newcomers alike, lending credibility to sometimes bizarre moments of hideously shocking violence or Level 10 perversion. Whether it's the verbal power of David Mamet's Edmond (2005) or having a severed head gaze upon Barbara Crampton's beaver in his breakthrough film Re-Animator (1985), Gordon can direct anything with a special flair for the Grand Guignol, but he's equally adept at small character pieces.
His second effort for the Masters of Horror series, after “H.P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch-House” (2005), “The Black Cat” is an extremely tight and clever version of Edgar Allan Poe's famous tale of a drunkard who kills his wife and walls her up in the basement, only be to undone when the wailings of their pet cat alert the police to the husband's hideous deed.
On the one hand, co-writers Dennis Paoli and Gordon stay faithful to the story by including the extreme cruelties the husband inflicts on poor feline Pluto, which includes gouging out the cat's eye (a shocking element never retained in prior film adaptations, although riffed to some extent by goofball Dwain Esper in his 1934 film Maniac, where a drug addicted loon plucks out a cat's eye and devours it like a yummy Hershey's Kiss); and hanging the cat by a noose.
Being huge fans of Poe, the filmmakers also switched the story' lead character (who recounts the tale in first-person) to Poe himself, opening up a window of opportunities to include true-life biographical elements. The ploy works extremely well, and manages to be fun for Poe fans, and provides some educational context to the author's ongoing, masochistic torment that plagued his poverty-stricken life to the end.
Gordon also keeps the cast small, and spends a lot of time ensuring Poe is portrayed as a man drawn towards grisly actions because of multiple stressors, including alcoholism, a young wife slowly dying of consumption (T.B.), el cheapo publishers who pay pennies for his beloved poetry, and only have eyes on more horror tales.
“The Black Cat” could easily have been another bland revisitation, but Gordon and Paoli's script really make this a must-see for Poe fans, particularly because Gordon extracts just the right combination of insanity from Jeffrey Combs to ensure Poe isn't transformed into a goofy caricature. Combs plays Poe with a great deal of sympathy, yet he reigns in his own performance indulgences (often present in films like Re-Animator and The Frighteners) and milks his sometimes striking resemblance to the pioneering author of short horror and detective fiction.
Part of Combs' portrayal is helped by makeup, a Poe-ish nose from KNB, and poofy hair, and being a Stuart Gordon film, when there is violence, it's detailed and explosive, whether it's gysers of spittle and blood, or a cat's ocular trauma, and poor Virginia Poe getting her squealing head split open by an ax.
The tone of the finale is rather unexpected, but very pleasing, and reinforces the filmmakers' love for one of horror's greatest authors. (Even the main title sequence makes generous use of Harry Clarke's chilling black & white drawings for the 1916 Poe anthology, Tales of Mystery and Imagination .)
Anchor Bay provides an excellent transfer of the desaturated colours Gordon used to evoke a black & white film (network Showtime poo-pooed any monochrome cinematography), and the extras include standard making-of and effects featurettes. The commentary track with Gordon and Combs is one of the best in Anchor Bay's series, because it has two Poe devotees comparing source material with their own reworkings, and offering many bio details that will leave viewers with a pretty decent overview of an author and poet branded as a drug addict by some of his worst detractors.
A real winner in the Masters of Horror series.
This title is available separately, and in a life-sized skull that houses the complete Second Season of Masters of Horror which includes "The Black Cat," "The Damned Thing," "Dream Cruise," "Family," 'Pelts," "Pro-Life," "Right to Die," "The Screwfly Solution," "Sounds Like," "Valerie on the Stairs," "The V Word," "The Washingtonians," and "We All Scream for Ice Cream."
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan