Edgar Allan Poe's Black Cats (The Black Cat/Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key)
Released by: Arrow Films
Released on: October 27, 2015
Directed by: Sergio Martino/Lucio Fulci
Cast: Anita Strindberg, Edwige Fenech, Luigi Pistilli, Daniela Giordano, Enrica Bonaccorti, Riccardo Salvino, Angela La Vorgna, Franco Nebbia, Ivan Rassimov /Patrick Magee, Mimsy Farmer, David Warbeck, Daniela Doria, Geoffrey Copleston, Bruno Corazzari, Dagmar Lassander, Al Cliver
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Edgar Allan Poe's classic short story "The Black Cat," first published in the August 19, 1843 issue of The United States Saturday Post (which later became The Saturday Evening Post) has been adapted to the big screen several times—by Edgar Ulmer, Dario Argento and Roger Corman, among others—with varying degrees of both fidelity and effectiveness. Here Arrow Films gives a spiffy blu-ray release to two of the tale's lesser-known reworkings.
The Lucio Fulci entry opens with a man driving alone through a rural English village. Understandably startled by the sudden appearance of an evil black cat in the back seat, he crashes his car and dies. The cat, none the worse for wear, meanders from the wreckage through the credit sequence to the abode of one Professor Robert Miles (Patrick Magee). As it turns out, the eerie old house in which he lives is the cat's home as well, and professor and feline share a sinister psychic connection. Professor Miles keeps busy by creeping around graveyards trying to tape-record the dead while the cat occupies its time bumping off unsuspecting locals in various nasty ways. It being a small village, the local law enforcers lack a full-time photographer to help document the lengthening string of unsolved murders. Enter Jill (Mimsy Farmer), an American shutterbug who's been hanging around town collecting images of local catacombs. She hooks up with the local authorities after the cat engineers the demise of a young couple doing the nasty in an isolated boathouse. Investigations continue as the bodies piles up, and it doesn't take Jill long to figure out that something's not right with Miles and his pet. Fearing discovery and arrest, Miles drugs the creature and hangs it by its neck from a tree, at which point the catshit really hits the fan.
Fulci (like Martino, whom we'll get to shortly) uses little of Poe's actual story. His replacement narrative is serviceable if not particularly compelling. Visually, however, the film is top-notch, artfully wending its way through village backstreets like a cat stalking its prey. Whatever quibbles one might have about a dubious narrative, The Black Cat reminds us that nobody's ever done "unhinged" quite like Patrick (A Clockwork Orange) Magee. He's a delight to watch, his bug-eyed yet nuanced approach to scenery-chewing alone worth the price of admission. He’s the perfect complement to Fulci’s delirious sense of direction and pacing, and he is, in turn, balanced out by more naturalistic performances from Mimsy Farmer and David Warbeck.
Would that a similar saving grace could be found in Sergio Martino's Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, a dull, rambling mess revolving around an alcoholic burnout of a writer named Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli), his doormat/wife Irina (Anita Strindberg), and his sexy nympho of a niece, Floriana (Edwige Fenech). Oh, and an evil black cat named Satan.
The film's lack of directorial style is made even less enjoyable by a muddled narrative. Olivero's aimless life of hosting parties for local hippies and smacking his wife around is threatened by the violent murders of two local women. Since the writer has made no attempt to hide the fact that he's been screwing them both, suspicion for their deaths falls on him. This creates tension around the household, as does Satan's refusal to leave Irina's chickens alone (a goofy subplot that at least results in a nod to Poe's original story). Irina and Floriana start sleeping together and decide to do away with Oliviero. It’s eventually revealed, however, that Irina has plans of her own, but by the time that happens the viewer is likely not to care.
Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, also known as Gently Before She Dies (the title that appears on the print used for this release) has moments of effectiveness, including a twist on Poe’s original story, but the script is too florid and silly to make much of such moments. Martino was hardly a bad director—among his better works are The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1970) and Torso (1973)—but here he’s done in by a story that is as clichéd as it is ridiculous, and the rare moments in which the direction betrays his hand are undercut by the story, or lack thereof. At least Luigi Pistilli, Anita Strindberg, and Edwige Fenech are on hand to lend some gravitas to the proceedings.
Britain’s Arrow Films have released The Black Cat and Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key in a limited-edition, dual-format box set containing each film on both Blu-ray and DVD, along with a host of extras. (This review is for the BDs only.) The set is limited to 3,000 units and is a pretty astonishing package for fans of Italian horror cinema. Both films have been given 2K restorations from original camera negatives, and each is presented in 1080p high-definition with MPEG-4 AVC encodes. The Black Cat features a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, while Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key features a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, both reflecting their original theatrical releases. Both look extremely good, so it seems fitting to discuss them together. Detail is greatly expanded over previous DVD releases of each film, while colors come through more strongly. The Black Cat features a more naturalistic color tone reflecting Fulci’s nihilistic approach to storytelling (and the period in which the film was shot), while Your Vice is a brightly colored, Bava-esque giallo nightmare. There are a few moments in which The Black Cat suffers from minor print damage and occasional fade, but these are few and far between, and the moments in-between more than make up for them. The same cannot be said of Your Vice, which looks stellar from start to finish. Grain is slightly more prevalent in the latter than in the former, but never is it blown out or overpowering. Rather, the grain levels give each film a beautifully organic look sure to please fans of both titles as well as adherents to the BD format. No matter which side of the grain argument you fall on, this release should please you.
Viewers can opt between English- or Italian-language versions, with newly translated English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired on the Italian-language versions. The tracks are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio Mono, which should placate purists. They are clear and free of defect, with no hiss or buzz. Dialogue is clear, and the scores sound good without being mixed too low or too high. For the record, Bruno Nicolai’s score for Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is fantastic; too bad Arrow didn’t place it on a music-only track (a small complaint in an otherwise gorgeous, perfectly produced package).
The Black Cat features an audio commentary by Chris Alexander, former editor of “legendary” magazine Fangoria. Alexander kicks the commentary off by discussing his own career before launching into a discussion of director Lucio Fulci. The commentary isn’t limited to Fulci’s work on The Black Cat, however; while it does discuss the film’s background and its various participants, Alexander also includes relevant information about the director’s past. Unlike some historians, Alexander isn’t reading his commentary from written notes (he admits that he isn’t an academic); instead, he’s watching the film and making observations as he does so.
Arrow has loaded this special-edition release with a large number of extras. Beginning the list of featurettes for The Black Cat is “Poe into Fulci: The Spirit of Perverseness,” which begins with a spoiler warning, so be sure to watch it after the film (if you’ve never seen the film before). The featurette is pretty lengthy, clocking in at 25:37, and focuses on film and Fulci historian Stephen Thrower. Poe himself said that his story was about the “spirit of perverseness,” and it is this aspect of Fulci’s film toward which Thrower gravitates. It’s a fascinating short documentary with a knowledgeable host. Best of all, Thrower explains where some of the film’s more bizarre elements come from, revealing Fulci’s opposition to some of them.
“In the Paw-Prints of the Black Cat” runs 8:28 and takes viewers on a tour of the film’s British locations, including the original Hellfire Club caves. Thrower again proves to be an amiable host as he walks us through each location one by one with intercuts from the movie.
“Frightened Dagmar” is an interview with actress Dagmar Lassander (who also worked with the maestro himself, Mario Bava). The interview spans the length of her career and is conducted by Uwe Huber in both English and German, with the German parts (which predominate) provided English subtitles. It runs a little over 20 minutes.
“At Home with David Warbeck” is an archival interview with the star, conducted at his home in Highgate, London, in 1995, two years before his death. Shot on low-grade home video, it is nonetheless a mesmerizing glimpse into the life and career of the noted British actor who found fame in European cinema. The interview is divided into 12 chapters, with each section given its own title. For example, chapter 4 is titled “Filming The Black Cat,” chapter 10 “Memories of Fulci.” The interview was conducted by Stephen Thrower.
Also included is the film’s original theatrical trailer, which runs approximately three minutes.
Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is also given a number of beguiling supplements. First up is “Through the Keyhole: An Interview with Sergio Martino,” which runs 34:42 and is conducted in Italian with English subtitles. While the famous director touches on his career overall, there is, understandably, a focus on his gialli and Your Vice in particular.
“Unveiling the Vice” is a making-of documentary that features interviews with director Martino, actress Edwige Fenech, and scenarist Ernesto Gastaldi. It runs a little over 23 minutes. “Dolls of Flesh and Blood” is a “visual essay” by Michael Mackenzie and runs 29 minutes. It focuses on Martino’s gialli and contains a spoiler warning for people who have not seen most of these films. The program is narrated by Mackenzie atop a series of photographs, movie poster imagery, and clips from individual films.
For “The Strange Vices of Ms. Fenech,” film historian Justin Harries covers the career of actress Edwige Fenech, providing a historical backdrop to her rise to fame. The documentary runs approximately half an hour and is, to be frank, excellent. Harries covers Fenech’s television career as well as her film career. Fans of the talented star will not want to pass this one up.
Finally, concluding the list of extras is “Eli Roth on Your Vice” (9:17). As the title suggests, the featurette has modern horror movie director Eli Roth discussing his love for the film, as well as his love for gialli in general.
The Final Word:
As far as Edgar Allan Poe adaptations go, Arrow couldn’t have found two more suitable examples to release together. Freely adapted from Poe’s short story, Fulci’s The Black Cat and Sergio Martino’s Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key are mixed bags—one is a great deal of fun, the other dour. Regardless, Arrow has treated them both as masterpieces, offering superb visual and aural transfers. Neither film has ever looked better, and each is loaded with extras. There’s no way fans of Italian horror cinema, Fulci, or Martino should pass this collection up. It’s a must-own.
Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Volume 2 of that series (covering the 1930s) is currently available from Midnight Marquee Press, Inc.
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angela la vorgna,
edgar allan poe's black cats,
your vice is a locked room and only i have the key
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