Friday, August 10, 2007

Masters of Horror: The Black Cat DVD (2006) review

"I've read two or three biographies of his, and one of the things that really interested me is that he's a Southerner. A lot of people don't think of him that way. He wasn't even from Baltimore. I mean, there's a football team named after him and he spent some time in Baltimore, but his formative years were spent in Richmond, Virginia, and in England. Richmond, Virginia is where he came from. During his entire literary career, he had to go where the work was, which was Philadelphia and New York. At the time, this was ten years before the Civil War, all that tension between the North and South didn't come out of nowhere." --Jeffrey Combs (, 2006?)

I cannot fathom it, but somehow, some way, Stuart Gordon just improves as a director with each film. This is the atypical view of movie making, which usually tells us that a director does their best work when they're in their 30s-40s. It's being trashed here, in what is the best translation-to-screen of Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Black Cat" to date.

Gordon and his frequent co-writer Dennis Paoli have given us a wonderful gift: the finest version of a Poe tale, and an illuminating look at the misery that was his life (though tinged with a little joy). Besides his screenwriting work with Gordon, Paoli is a noted Poe scholar, and even star Jeffrey Combs did an enormous amount of research into our greatest writer's peculiar life. This is evident in the use of Poe's favorite song throughout the film, as well as the little details such as his continued wearing of his West Point jacket (its silken-lining worn inside-out--he was expelled from the academy for gambling).

By now, most Americans understand how horrific the 1840s were, largely-thanks to Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York." A good dose of Poe's horror springs from his own specific time-and-place, and his constant displacements weren't uncommon. The vast-majority of Americans were impoverished at this time, slavery was still firmly in-place, the frontier was still young and dangerous, the Indian wars were still raging (with the trail of tears coming during Poe's last years), there was rampant criminality and banditry, rampant corruption, rigged elections, labor violence, unhygienic conditions, an impending war with Mexico, extreme contentions over immigration, and much more. It was a bloody time that echoes our own.

Therefore, it should be unsurprising that horror is popular again, as it would be by the end of Poe's lifetime. America is horror. Contrary to popular belief, Edgar Allan Poe was experiencing reasonable success as a writer at the time of his mysterious disappearance--and reappearance--in Baltimore during October of 1849. He was the only show in town who wrote tales of horror and of the fantastic.

If you've read the short story, you'll know that it's rarely been done well. There are a number of them that literally have nothing to do with the original, and several elements are generally left-out due to how graphic the original short story still is, even today. Edgar J. Ulmer's 1934 version is great, but it's not the same story at all. The same can be said for Lucio Fulci's 1981 film. Roger Corman's take is much closer, but couldn't show us a number of crucial actions (the removal of the cat's eye with a penknife, as well as the protagonist burying an axe in his wife's brain).

The Argento version in "Two Evil Eyes" (1990) has been one of the best until this version. Simply doing the story proud would have been enough, but Gordon and Paoli did-one-better--they fused the facts of Poe's tortured life with the tale itself! This elevates this film to that of a timeless classic, and it's unlikely to be outdone anytime soon, if ever. Coupled with this, cinematographer Jon Joffin's photography is just breathtaking, with a sepia-tone look of an old 19th century tintype. The only tinges of color we see are scant, usually being blood & alcohol, as well as a cat's eye. The effect is dramatic, and the end-result is genuine horror.

Poe's life with Virginia Clemm--his first cousin--was only troubled by their poverty and her tuberculosis, and their love for each other was uninterrupted by her untimely death. She is the muse of "The Raven," and "Annabel Lee," the ghost that would haunt him until the day he died. One could imagine that even in his last moments of delirium, he was thinking of her. Death would not part them, even after Poe remarried and continued to write. The cat in his short story is the guilt and the specter of death (hence, the name "Pluto," the lord of the underworld and death) that haunted he and Virginia throughout their poverty-stricken years together, and she was one of his great champions.

Their love was unconditional, a rarity in this life, but also a part of that romantic "Southern gentility" of the time that would be felled by the Civil War. Poe, after all, was a Southern "gentleman," and part of a fallen aristocracy (like Lovecraft, though he was of Rhode Island extraction) that didn't understand the new industrial order arising in the Northern and Eastern states. He was of a dying feudal order, a pre-capitalist romantic watching his world die. No tears should be shed for the ending of slavery, but other great things were lost in the destruction of the Antebellum South.

This is probably part of why we got such stories of decline and decay from Poe. He was seeing a lot of it during his lifetime, and the beginnings of what he would have rightly seen as a horrible new order in America (you don't have to be a Marxist to dislike bourgeois capitalism). Poe had other problems--mental ones. Jeffrey Combs captures Poe's self-destructive perversity well, and it's going to be a surprise to many how truly Southern his portrayal of the writer's dialect is. But what may come as the greatest surprise is just how tortured his imagination was, and we get some great references to "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Telltale Heart," and more, woven throughout the biographical details and The Black Cat's plot.

Poe had an interesting insight into the minds of killers, and The Black Cat seems very prescient today, considering the link between animal torture that has been found in the biographies of serial killers. Viewers will meet an Edgar Allan Poe that they never knew existed, and hopefully, they will grow to empathize with his difficult life (and those of the living). This isn't one for the squeamish. It's pretty bloody, and filled with madness and obsession--it is Poe in all his glory, and our ongoing American nightmare. Bravo.