Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Cats Take Orders From No One (Capsule Review)

Year: 1981
Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Patrick Magee, Mimsy Farmer, David Warbeck
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Plot: Freely adapted from the Edgar Allen Poe short story of the same name, The Black Cat follows the medium Robert Miles (Patrick Magee), whose murderous instincts are channeled through a hypnotic black cat who is simultaneously his tool and his nemesis. As people around town begin to die one by one, Scotland Yard Inspector Gorley (David Warbeck of Formula for a Murder) enlists the help of visiting American photographer Jill Trevers (Mimsy Farmer of Body Count) to help him get to the bottom of this strange web of mystical intrigue. 

Analysis: When you're approaching a Lucio Fulci movie that came out in the same era as The Beyond and The New York Ripper, you make sure you're strapped in. Unfortunately for you, if you have chosen The Black Cat, you're more in danger of choking yourself on your seatbelt than garnering any excitement from the film itself. It's definitely an "off" moment for Fulci, whose directorial style is sleepy and dreamlike in his best films, but becomes tedious as hell in his worst.

I will say that his methodical pacing really hammers home the death sequences in this film, which are usually accidents that happen around or because of the titular feline. Watching someone, say, asphyxiate on gas while their mouth begins to foam or have the flesh melt off their body in a house fire is one thing. Watching it happen in languorous stretches of film that make you feel trapped in the frame and forced to reckon with their prolonged suffering is another thing. Unfortunately, the deaths are few and far between. They also aren't redeemed by the presence of a satisfying villain, because there is no real "slasher" figure causing all the mayhem we see here.

That slow pace fails to elevate any other part of the movie, unfortunately. That's not to say it's not all very well-mounted and pretty. The lighting and cinematography are perfectly bucolic and dreamlike. And in one case, a piece of set design is even breathtaking, when a potential villain escapes into an attic with a wall decorated in a swirling curlicue pattern. And Fulci continues to prove he has an obsession with eyes even when he's not jamming huge pieces of wood into them, with evocative closeups of humans and cats staring into the camera. 

However, the overbooked nonsense of the plot and the vacant acting of British people dubbing Italian actors require a lot more energy than they're given. It's a deathly dull slog through anything that isn't a kill, and because of the "was it an accident?" nature of the kills themselves, they don't offer enough variety to spice up their rare appearances in the first place. There isn't a lot in this film to justify its existence, less so because Italian horror has already received the most perfect adaptation of "The Black Cat" it was ever going to get, in Sergio Martine's 1972 film Your Vice is a Locked Room, and Only I Have the Key. If you're considering a double bill of that and The Black Cat, you'd frankly be much better served by just watching Your Vice twice.

Killer: Prof. Robert Miles (Patrick Magee)
Final Girl: Jill Trevers (Mimsy Farmer)
Best Kill: None of these kills really deliver in the way that only Fulci knows how to, so I'll nominate a non-kill gore moment when the cat attacks Miles and slashes stigmata onto the palms of his hands.
Sign of the Times: Jill's bleached blonde Junie B. Jones haircut.
Scariest Moment: Miles starts babbling in panic as he uses one of Maureen's possessions to channel her last moments.
Weirdest Moment: The film briefly goes full Exorcist when Miles tries to kill the cat, and Jill's bed starts shaking around and floating.
Champion Dialogue: "Could've been worse. Could've been a case of chicken wrestling."
Body Count: 5
    1. Ferguson dies in a car crash.
    2. Maureen and 
    3. Stan asphyxiate from a gas leak in an airtight room.
    4. Drunk falls from a great height and is impaled on a spike.
    5. Mrs. Grayson falls out of a window while burning to death.
TL;DR: The Black Cat is gorgeous, but the story doesn't have enough oomph to wake up Fulci's sleepy direction.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 726

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