Arrow Heads Vol. 3: EDGAR ALLEN POE’S BLACK CATS Box Set: Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci

 

Arrow Heads
Arrow Video, a subsidiary of Arrow Films, humbly describe themselves as merely a “Distributor of classic, world, cult and horror cinema on DVD & Blu-ray”. But we film geeks know them as the Britain-based bastion of the brutal and bizarre, boasting gorgeous Blu-ray releases with high quality artwork and packaging and bursting with extras (often their own productions). Their collector-friendly releases had traditionally not been available in the U.S, but now Arrow has come across the pond and this column is devoted to discussing their weird and wonderful output.

What do Sergio Martino and Lucio Fulci have in common, besides amazing names, incredible films, and impact on horror fans everywhere? Well, the new Edgar Allen Poe’s Black Cat box set combines two films these men made which were influenced by the classic author’s short story. Arrow has really hit on something with this box set, combining Italian classics Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and the much more sensibly titled The Black Cat. It is perhaps a bit meta to discuss the box set idea itself, prior to discussing the films, but I am in many ways entranced by the very existence on this combo, and so I have to point it out. It’s not just that these two men have both made major impacts in Italian cinema and horror in general; Fulci should be familiar to any horror obsessed film fan, as well as to casual observers. Martino is less known in the United States, but his films like Torso and All the Colors of the Dark had quite an impact in Italy and internationally. This combination fascinates not only because it strikes me as strange that two Italian directors, similar and yet very different, would be inspired by such an American author. They are not alone: I recently rediscovered Two Evil Eyes and in that film Argento also borrows liberally from The Black Cat, though his work is also not entirely an adaptation, or at least, is uninterested in fidelity to the source material. What I find interesting is how each of these directors takes this tale and infuses it with his own vision and aesthetic. In a real way, this box set is an interesting point from which to understand the work of each of these maestros.

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have The Key

Sergio Martino directed a series of Gialli that were incredibly influential on the genre. Each can be seen as a step leading toward his most well known effort in the US, Torso. Torso is perhaps better understood as a proto-slasher, though such a term seems ahistorical to say the least. Still, the film contains a number of important thematic and stylistic choices that would become classic hallmarks of the burgeoning slasher subgenre, while distinguishing itself significantly from other Gialli as well as the director’s prior efforts. It is also one of my favorite horror films of all time. Imagine my embarrassment when, upon receiving this box set for review, I realized how little I knew of Martino’s other films. Martino directed four Gialli prior to Torso, and I had only seen two prior to this. I had never even heard of Your Vice before seeking out The Black Cat, the Fulci end of this box set, for another project. Your Vice is a complicated film, full of twists, turns, and surprising character reveals. The betrayal runs thick, and its sudden shifts, while still borrowing in many ways from the original Black Cat story, might leave some confused. The quality of the directing, though, and the truly memorable performances not only kept me involved but really helped me fall in love with this film.

Your Vice begins with Luigi Pistilli as the classic failed artist, impotent and useless, resorting to abuse and decadence as a distraction from his inabilities. Oliviero is our focus, both his frustrations with his wife, and his becoming the suspect in the murder of his assistant. Things become that much more complicated when his niece Floriana shows up, and begins a plot of her own, manipulating both him and his wife Irina. Your Vice has some classic Gialli red herrings, as well as some stranger twists and turns. Edwidge Fenech plays Floriana in an out of type performance and she is wonderful. She is beautiful and enchanting and, when she needs to be, just a touch menacing. In fact she, Pistilli, and Anita Strindberg as Irina are all just awesome. The script is predictably crazy, and sure, the voice work could be anyone. However, something about their performances added just the right mixture of drama and ridiculousness.

Much like other adaptations, the film borrows from more than adapts the original Edgar Allen Poe story. Poe, with his intricate tale of psychological and supernatural terror, never imagined quite the number of actors and complicated motivations that Martino delivers here. Interestingly though, it is at the climax that Martino brings in some of the strongest references to the original story, and in a way that I found unexpected and very enjoyable. Gialli are not the same as horror films. There are scholars more learned than I who can better elucidate the various phases and types of Gialli, from the female focused, anxiety laden films to the male focused urban tales of survival. Martino hits on a variety of Gialli tropes, while expanding to include some gothic elements as well. Your Vice tells a tawdry and complicated tale, and delivers on all of its illicit promises.

Special Features:

Each film in this set comes with its own special features, so I will review them separately. This disc includes:
Through the Keyhole – a brand new interview with director Sergio Martino
Unveiling the Vice – Making of retrospective featuring interviews with Martino, star Edwige Fenech and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi
Dolls of Flesh and Blood: The Gialli of Sergio Martino – a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie exploring the director’s unique contributions to the giallo genre
The Strange Vices of Ms. Fenech – film historian Justin Harries on the Your Vice actress’ prolific career
Eli Roth on Your Vice and the genius of Martino

This is a veritable treasure trove of features, especially if you are a curious Martino fan. The Martino interview as well as the Making Of are both interesting and informative. Dolls of Flesh and Blood is perhaps a bit academic for some, but I found it very informative, not only about Martino’s work but also about Gialli as a film genre. The only feature, in fact, which I did not enjoy was the Eli Roth section. To be honest, I strongly dislike Roth, even when he has some informative stuff to say. If he was the only thing on the disc, then perhaps I would suffer him just to get some more info, but with such an explosion of great stuff, he feels superfluous as well as annoying.

The Black Cat

Recently I had the opportunity to cover this film with Nick Spacek for our horror marathon of Fulci films. We didn’t get too deeply into the material, so I am glad to get a chance to return to it here, though I find much of what I said then relevant on second watch. Fulci is a complicated character in the history of horror in that his work has a few shining gems which are revered by fans of the genre, while also having a mass of output which is not universally praised in the same way. His unsanctioned follow up to Dawn of the Dead, Zombi 2, is perhaps one of his most widely seen films, but many would lift up films like The Beyond or New York Ripper as truly emblematic of the director’s unique style. Of course, I am sure many folks reading this are familiar with the Maestro’s work, but perhaps you found yourself as entirely unaware of this Poe adaptation as I was. In fact, even after watching the film, I found myself thinking of it as part of his later body of work. This was mostly because I had not only never seen the film, but I had barely heard of it. However, The Black Cat is well within what is considered the high end of Fulci’s career. The Black Cat is perhaps missing some of the more extreme gore elements that Fulci’s work is known for, but it is still a classic example of the director’s unique vision.

The Black Cat does have some issues. Like Your Vice, it is at best a loose adaptation even though it has many familiar elements of the original story. However, it is in possessing similar aspects, murder and intrigue with a cat at the center, that we most see the difference. This film misses entirely the thematic aspects of the original story. Of course, this really only matters if one is particularly tied to the original tale, but it did create an interesting confusion of motivations. What is powerful about the film, though, is that, despite some serious confusion as to how and why some of the things in it are happening, it still works. The narrative is compelling, even when the kills are ridiculous. Granted, the black cat as a character or threat is not particularly frightening. Despite that, Fulci infuses the film with enough of his unique ideas for it to menace just enough.

Like many Fulci films, The Black Cat is an interesting balance of stylistic elements which are so strange as to border on the surreal, yet connected by a purposeful and coherent narrative. The film has a through line, and, despite some of the strange relationships or the dynamic between the cat and the psychic, it still makes enough sense to work. Yet, though this film nowhere near approaches the overwhelming strangeness of The Beyond or The City of the Living Dead, it injects into what could be a simple supernatural thriller many elements of strangeness. The film also, predictably, looks beautiful. The performances work, though only Patrick Magee as the psychic is really going for it hard here. Like many Fulci films The Black Cat features an international cast who likely did not all speak English or Italian so the dubbing is difficult at times. It never distracts, though, and while I did not find myself falling in love with The Black Cat as I did Your Vice, the film still works more than it doesn’t. It is an odd one for Fulci, but perhaps adds a little nuance to a creator who can be caricatured by his own work.

Special Features:

Brand new audio commentary by filmmaker and Fangoria editor Chris Alexander
Poe into Fulci: The Spirit of Perverseness – film historian Stephen Thrower on Fulci’s Poe-tinged classic
In the Paw-Prints of the Black Cat – a look at the original Black Cat locations
Frightened Dagmar – a brand new career interview with actress Dagmar Lassander
At Home with David Warbeck – an archive interview with the Black Cat star
Original Theatrical Trailer

The special features on this disc, although as extensive as the other, were slightly less engaging for me. I really enjoyed the short with film historian Stephen Thrower, but the location segment was not that interesting to me, and I was not as engaged with the Dagmar Lassander interview. Still, if you are a fan of this movie the features are well worth the effort.

I can’t name that many box sets organized by theme more than by creator or actor. Still, this combination is surprisingly rich. Both films give insight into these unique voices in Italian cinema. Both films show contemporaries responding to an American classic horror author, but doing very different things from that inspiration. More importantly, with the combined special features on these two discs, Arrow has given us an unique opportunity to learn something new about two men whose output has greatly influenced genre cinema to this day.

 

Get it at Amazon:
Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats (4-Disc Limited Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

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the author

Liam O'Donnell is a born and raised Philadelphian who loves showing off his city and hopes it will become a larger film-loving community someday. Liam began reading Stephen King in elementary school which of course lead to a deep appreciation for the horror film genre, especially 70s and 80s films but he is open minded. Liam is a deep thinker, creative writer, show promoter, public speaker, and connector between the worlds of hardcore music, food, religion, society, film, and pop culture. He likes coffee, records, comics, his cat, and working on his podcast (Cinepunx.com, get into it!) with the incomparable Joshua Alvarez. @liamrulz @cinepunx http://cinepunx.com