The Black Cat by Aubrey Beardsley
October, the time of year when horror enthusiasts get to proudly fly their colors without fear of being labeled a freak, weirdo or sociopath, when bookstores and box offices, not to mention, the internet, collectively cash in on pop cultures annual thirst for the macabre. For fiction fiends like myself, it’s a time to gleefully indulge in favorite tales of the uncanny and the unmentionable. For most of us, one medium reigns supreme when it comes to the horror: film.
But what movie(s) do you choose to help you ring in All Hallows Eve? If you’re like me and you celebrate horror cinema in all its incarnations. To help us sift through the choices we can turn back to literature for just a moment. Perhaps no author was did more to lay the groundwork for the horror fiction that would come in the following centuries than Edgar Allan Poe. His stories, which often revolved around themes of obsession and guilt, two universal human experiences that, forced readers to readers to identify with that terrifying grey area at the edge of sanity. One tale in particular, “The Black Cat,” deftly plays those two experiences off one another. In the story (spoilers), the narrator becomes obsessed with his and wife’s black cat. After harming it in a drunken furor, his guilt only adds to his obsession, until he finally kills it. Despite his best efforts, the narrator’s guilt remains, until he finds a nearly identical cat as a replacement, but, obsessed with the white spot of fur on the new cat that he believes depicts the method of execution used to kill its predecessor, the narrator eventually reverts to his former madness. In an attempt to kill feline number 2, he mistakenly kills his wife. He hides his murdered wife’s corpse in behind a false wall in his basement, and believes he’s gotten away with it, until that pesky cat, accidentally boarded up with her, gives him away.
This outrageous, but downright effective story has been adapted into film time and time again. The results are admittedly mixed, and rarely faithful but when they’re good, they’re some of the best moments in horror film history. So I submit today my Halloween recommendation: The Black Cat Marathon!
1) The Black Cat (1934), starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, and produced by Universal Studios.
Lugosi in The Black Cat (1932)
It’s important to get this disclaimer out of the way: this adaptation is very loose, so loose, in fact that the normal “based on a story by…” only reads “suggested by a story by…” It does, however, have guilt and obsession in spades.
This gothic horror with a modernist veneer features horror legends Lugosi and Karloff, both in their respective primes. Lugosi plays a Hungarian psychiatrist who, after 15 years in a prison camp plans to confront his old friend, an Austrian architect played by Karloff. Lugosi accuses Karloff of wartime indiscretions, but more importantly of stealing his wife, Karen, while he was imprisoned. The ubiquitous presence of Karloff’s black cat in his otherwise hyper-modern mansion sets off Lugosi’s irrational Ailurophobia. It is the only literal nod to the Poe story, but more importantly, it serves to foreshadow the evil secrets hidden in the house.
The climax is still chill inducing today and one can only imagine how it was received at the time. It’s no surprise that it was Universal’s biggest money-maker of the year. This early adaptation is a true horror classic and a must see for any fan of classic movies.
Price and Lorre from Tales of Terror (1962)
2) Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Terror – segment: “The Black Cat” (1962), starring Vincent Price and Peter Lorre, directed by Roger Corman, and produced by American International Pictures.
This segment from the class Corman anthology Tales of Terror is my favorite Roger Corman film, my favorite Peter Lorre film, and my favorite Vincent Price film. In some ways it’s the most faithful adaptation on this list, even though it essentially fuses “The Black Cat” with Poe’s other classic boarded-up-body yarn, “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Lorre’s character is a drunk who is constantly stealing booze money from his poor wife. One evening, out of cash, but in need of the bottle, Lorre stumbles on a creative solution: a wine tasting competition. There he meets Price’s character, a wine aficionado and dandy extraordinaire. The two end up getting along surprisingly well, but when Price walks Lorre home, the latter’s neglected wife quickly turns to Price, the sophisticated gentlemen, for the affection her lush of a husband has denying her. Lorre eventually gets wise to his wife’s infidelity, and, well, given the source material, you can guess where the narrative goes.
The real joy of this film is the marvelous chemistry between Lorre and Price. It’s a high point for both actors so late in their respective careers and I never get tired of watching it!
3) Two Evil Eyes – segment: “The Black Cat” (1990), directed by Dario Argento, starring Harvey Keitel and Madeleine Potter, and produced by ADC films.
A vicious black cat from Two Evil eyes (1990)
Two Evil Eyes is a joint tribute to Poe from horror masters Dario Argento and George Romero. Romero’s segment is an adaptation of “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” which is a fun zombie/hypnotism film in its own right, but Argento’s segment is the one filled with the gore and excess that the pair of director’s evoke.
“The Black Cat” may not be Argento’s finest work, but it delivers on of the director’s trademark sensationalism and violence in a way that his later work mostly failed to do. It jams Poe’s story into a modern setting and faithfully recreate’s certain aspects of the source material, while diverging widely from others.
Harvey Keitel stars as the disturbed, alcoholic protagonist. He is a crime scene photographer who is far more comfortable in the seedy underbelly of Pittsburg than he is in the realm of domesticity. Keitel plays this role well. Essentially, the film is about the escalation of madness until it crescendos in a sequence of events that is every bit is mad as the finales of Argento’s classics of the 70s and 80s.
There you have it, one classic horror story that leaves a trail of guilt and obsession through golden age of the 1930s, the baroque gothic of the 1960s, and the excessive sensationalism of the 1990s. These are my picks, what will you be watching this Halloween?
Extra credit for the Italian horror fans: If late era Argento isn’t enough for you, there is a Lucio Fulci adaptation from 1981. The movie came out right smack in the middle of Fulci’s gore period, but never reached the cult status of films like City of the Living Dead or House by the Cemetery. I might have included it in this list, except it’s been some time since I’ve watched and don’t remember all that much about it. As I write this, however, it is starting to taunt me from the DVD shelf, maybe it’s time for a re-watch