Argento’s “The Black Cat,” the second half of a split effort with George Romero, doesn’t completely gel.
As one of the founders of the modern horror genre, it’s no surprise that Edgar Allan Poe’s work has been adapted for the screen so often, although few of these films manage to nail the precise tone of his stories, in which self-imposed madness and supernatural evil become sickeningly entangled. Dario Argento’s “The Black Cat,” the second half of a split effort with George Romero titled Two Evil Eyes, doesn’t completely gel either, with Harvey Keitel’s gruff, haughty photographer failing to strike an effective mix of paranoia and guilt as the walls close in around him. But the Italian director’s explication of the 1843 short story remains compelling, particularly in the line it draws between Poe and Argento’s similar fixations, with the subconscious literalized through a grim welter of byzantine traps, psychic torments and very tight spaces.
Romero’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Waldemar” isn’t bad either, managing to work in a depiction of the lurching undead that jibes well with Poe’s own style of horror, although the aesthetic choices are truly dire, resulting in something visually indistinguishable from the drab pabulum that dominated the Sci-Fi Channel in the mid ‘90s. The two extended shorts form a condensed double feature, topping out around two hours, assembled from rhyming halves, each telling a morbid tale of murder leading to unexpected manifestations of guilt. As with many Poe stories, they strand their deceased victims in a state of distressed limbo, capable of casting back toxic reverberations to torment their killers, a reminder of the author’s prevailing fascination with bodies immured in walls or underneath floors.
Taking its lead from Romero, both halves were shot and set in Pittsburgh, sharing much of the same crew and personnel beyond their different directors. This does lead to the somewhat confusing spectacle of Keitel, portraying an amoral crime scene photographer with a penchant for cruelty, traipsing about a Rust Belt city that seems to be covering for the Big Apple, all while wearing an outlandish beret that somehow fits better than any of these other choices.
A long way from Edgar G. Ulmer’s comparatively understated 1934 adaptation, Argento’s take on the story opens with a crime scene of a woman cut in two, the first of many winking nods to Poe’s other work, in this case The Pit and the Pendulum. Rod Usher (Keitel) snaps some lurid front-page photos, then returns to the cavernous mansion he shares with his girlfriend Annabel (Madeleine Potter), who’s just taken in a stray off the street. Immediately irritated with the animal, the sadistic Usher tortures the cat to snap some ghastly photos as padding for a book of his own work, then denies his actions after the poor creature runs off. His lie is uncovered when one of the photos, emblazoned on the cover of his book, somehow appears in a shop window within mere weeks, leading to carnage as Annabel tries to flee her hot-tempered beau, who hacks her to death and entombs the remains inside a walk-in closet.
Argento’s take on the story represents it’s second Italian adaptation, following 1972’s Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, a strong contender for best giallo title of all time. This version outdoes that one in overall presentation and style, including the notable return of the “flurry of flung cats” stunt seen previously in 1980’s Inferno (the end credits significantly note that no animals were harmed in the filming of this production). Still The Black Cat never approaches the grand scope and inventiveness of Argento’s best work. While it’s interesting to see Keitel embodying one of his doomed protagonists, it’s also hard to feel much sympathy for or investment in his character, who deals with the mounting onslaught of uncanny occurrences as if they were everyday irritations, maintaining a flat, surly disposition throughout. Serviceable but not quite sublime, “The Black Cat” stands as a middling effort in the master’s oeuvre, an atmospheric schlock-fest supported by a few standout set-pieces and an eerie overall ambience.