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Home / Film / Feature Articles / Much of Madness, More of Sin: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” on Screen

Much of Madness, More of Sin: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” on Screen

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Aubrey Beardsley’s “The Black Cat” (1894)

Though he might lack the cinematic attention given to British Gothic writers like Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley, Boston’s beloved son, Edgar Allan Poe (though Richmond, Philadelphia, and Baltimore also consider him theirs), has had a profound influence on both the horror and mystery film genres. There are dozens of titles based on, or even inspired by, his writings, and while stories like “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” have all proven popular source material, perhaps his most adapted story is 1843’s “The Black Cat.” Possessing a number of Poe’s common themes — such as an unreliable, possibly insane, and thoroughly unlikable narrator who shuns human society, commits an impulsive and violent act, and is driven to madness by guilt — the story follows the relationship between an unnamed man and his black cat, Pluto.

While he initially regards Pluto as his best friend, the protagonist is undone by his alcoholism. One night, in a drunken rage, he frightens Pluto and then takes revenge upon the cat’s perceived rejection of him by gouging out one of its eyes out with a pen knife. Though initially repentant, he becomes cruel and provokes the injured cat, eventually hanging it in the garden, where it dies — though coincidentally, his house catches on fire that same night and its body goes missing. Later, he begins to miss Pluto and adopts a new, similar-looking cat, though he becomes increasingly paranoid and afraid of it. Believing that the cat has tried to kill him, he attempts to return the favor, but kills his wife instead when she tries to intervene. He hides her body by bricking it up inside a wall of their home and when the police investigate her disappearance, they are convinced of his innocence… at least until the cat, who has been bricked up with her, screams so loudly that they break down the wall, discovering his crime.

Dwain Esper’s early horror-exploitation film Maniac (1934), one of the first to use “The Black Cat” as an influence, sets the tone for future adaptations in the sense that it includes certain elements of Poe’s story but in no way could be described as a faithful adaptation. Maniac borrows a few plot details, namely a body is bricked up behind a wall and the police later discover it thanks to the yowling of a cat. As far as I could find, Maniac was also the first film to rename the cat “Satan,” something that would crop up again in later films and makes the animal more explicitly a figure or moral, even divine, retribution and also symbolic of eternal damnation. Though Pluto was of course also an underworld deity, there is something a bit more final about invoking the name of the lord of hell.

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The Black Cat (1934)

In his non-fiction essay “Instinct vs Reason — A Black Cat,” Poe himself wrote, “The writer of this article is the owner of one of the most remarkable black cats in the world—and this is saying much; for it will be remembered that black cats are all of them witches” (66). Of cats in general, he wrote, “The boundary between instinct and reason is of a very shadowy nature. The black cat… must have made use of all the perceptive and reflective faculties which we are in the habit of supposing the prescriptive qualities of reason alone” (66). Following this logic —  and perhaps linking back to some ancient superstition — cats are depicted in horror films, more often than any other non-human species, as somehow aware, reasoning, and, quite often, consciously evil. Most subsequent adaptations include this theme and make use of three major conceits found in “The Black Cat”: a protagonist of dubious mental health, a cat that terrorizes him (or her), and a murder that is concealed by hiding a body behind a wall.

The first film to use the actual title of his story came with Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 film The Black Cat. It’s not a faithful adaptation of Poe’s story by any means, but boasts sinister and unexpected delights including torture, necrophilia, sexual obsession, war crimes, and the surprise reveal of a Satanic cult. This is one of the most unique, controversial films of the ‘30s and represents the heights Universal was able to reach before the Hays Code was locked into place. This was one of Universal’s biggest successes of the early ‘30s and also marked the first collaboration of the studio’s most important genre stars, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, who would go on to team up for eight films in total.

A newly wed American couple, Peter (David Manners of Dracula and The Mummy) and Joan (Julie Bishop), are honeymooning in Hungary when they get stuck sharing transportation with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). When their car breaks down in the countryside, the doctor suggests that they go to the near-by home of an old friend, so that he can treat Joan’s injuries. His friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), an architect who has spent the last fifteen years in a prisoner of war camp, now lives in a mansion built on top of an old fortress they fought in together during World War I. It comes to light that Poelzig stole Werdegast’s wife and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Hungarians during the war. Werdegast suffers from a paralyzing fear of cats, and Poelzig’s feline begins to drive him mad. Poelzig, meanwhile, plans to sacrifice Joan during a meetings of his secret Satanic cult.

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The Black Cat (1934)

After the success of Lugosi-vehicle and Poe adaptation Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), Universal encouraged Ulmer to continue in the same vein and the director manages to capture both Lugosi and Karloff at the height of their powers. Lugosi is loosely given the role of protagonist, though, like Poe’s unnamed narrator, he’s much more of an anti-hero. Lugosi is more charismatic than ever, but his character here is far more disturbing than Dracula or the slew of mad scientists he played during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Werdegast slaughters a cat simply because it frightens him, slips Joan a hallucinogen when supposedly treating her injuries, and grows more unhinged and more obsessed with her through the course of the film, leading to an implied assault.

Karloff, though, essentially steals the film out from under him with his depiction of Poelzig, whose every moment on screen exudes evil and perversion. Statue-like, his angular shadow looms large over much of a the film. A war criminal, his betrayal resulted in the deaths of thousands of Hungarians. And it is revealed that his manipulation of Werdegast has taken a tragic, incestuous turn: he married the man’s wife and then murdered her in order to marry Werdegast’s daughter (Lucille Lund). He keeps women suspended in glass coffins around the fortress and the specter of necrophilia (and rape) looms large. Werdegast’s daughter is only briefly seen in the film and seems to spend most of her time in a drug induced haze. She wakes long enough for Poelzig to murder her.

The Satanism of The Black Cat is relatively subdued compared to later films, but is the most powerful depiction of a Satanic cult on screen in the ‘30s, not to really challenged until Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943) — quite a departure from Poe’s “The Black Cat,” though with shades of his story “Masque of the Red Death.” Poelzig reads a book called The Rites of Lucifer and gathers a group of black robed Satanists for a sacrificial ritual where Joan is the intended victim. The intense, almost blank expressions of devotion from most of the cult disturbingly foreshadow the rise of Nazism, which was in full swing in Germany by 1934. In addition to the events unfolding at Poelzig’s mansion, the architecture is a claustrophobic, hellish wasteland of dark angles, threatening shadows, and dizzying geometry.

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The Black Cat (1934)

One of the most frustrating things about The Black Cat is the effect of censorship on the film. Some of the action is difficult to follow because certain scenes were cut by Universal. There was supposedly a supernatural subplot about Joan Alison transforming into a black cat, which was removed but can loosely be followed for the second half of the film. In many of the scenes where she appears, a black cat is glimpsed on screen seconds before. There was also allegedly a scene where Werdegast rapes her. Though there is little evidence of this in the remaining print, it is not difficult to image due to the constant, oppressive subtext of sexual covetousness and an impending sense of violence. Though the plot is often a confusing mess full of unexplained actions and unanswered questions, this disorienting aspect gives the film a surreal, nightmarish feel. Thanks to these elements, along with its themes of Satanism, sacrifice, murder, rape, necrophilia, torture, incest, and revenge, it’s difficult to find a contemporary parallel.

Unfortunately quite the opposite is Universal’s bafflingly named The Black Cat (1941), which is more of a spooky murder mystery with comedic undertones than an outright horror film and follows in the tradition of something like The Cat and the Canary (1927) or The Old Dark House (1932). A rich old cat lady (Cecilia Loftus) on her deathbed is surrounded by relatives anxious to learn the contents of her will. When her health suddenly takes a turn for the better, someone takes matters into their own hands. Unfortunately her will stipulates that while her housekeeper lives and remains to care for the cats, none of the money will go to her greedy family.

This relatively dull affair is yet another frustrating example of Lugosi being relegated to side roles by Universal later in his career, a fate he shares here with the great Basil Rathbone and Alan Ladd, much to the film’s detriment. To make matters worse, there is some ineffective comedy that foreshadows the similarly disappointing The Cat Creeps (1946) — a mystery-comedy where a murdered woman’s spirit is believed to possess a black cat. The screenwriters of The Black Cat, Robert Lees and Frederic Rinaldo, would go on to write the much funnier Hold That Ghost (1941) and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Admittedly, there are a few genuinely spooky moments, wonderful set pieces, and some very atmospheric cinematography courtesy of Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons, Night of the Hunter), replete with cats, secret passageways, stormy nights, and the shadowy mansion.

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Cat auditions for Tales of Terror (1962)

Hollywood ignored “The Black Cat” for a few decades, essentially until director Roger Corman struck genre gold with a series of eight films for American International Pictures primarily based on Poe’s work and starring Vincent Price (with one or two exceptions). An anthology film in the series, The Tales of Terror (1962), followed hot on the heels of House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and eschewed the serious, almost tragic tone of the first two films. The three stories — “Morella,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Vandemar” — contain more than a dash of comedy and quite a lot of campiness thanks to the rapport between Price and co-star Peter Lorre.

“The Black Cat” is actually the centerpiece of the anthology, though it does have a sprinkling of details from Poe’s arguably more famous tale, “The Casque of Amontillado.” M. Herringbone (the wonderful Lorre) loves alcohol, but hates his wife (Joyce Jameson) and her cat. He begins a competitive friendship with wine aficionado Fortunado (Price), who becomes smitten with Herringbone’s wife. They begin a secret affair, which doesn’t sit well with Herringbone, who walls them up in his wine cellar. Suspicion falls on Herringbone when a strange screaming emerges from the cellar and he realizes that his wife’s cat has also gone missing…

Price and Lorre are obviously having a great time here — the film is worth watching for their drinking contest alone — though be prepared for some very mean spirited moments. Poe frequently wrote about the sheer vileness of humanity and it is certainly on display in this film. His fiction is full of nasty, unsympathetic characters whose selfish actions have tragic consequences in this world and the next. If you enjoy this kind of moral blackness, you will be more than entertained, as Corman manages to keep things light and entertaining, which provides a nice contrast. The themes of alcoholism and infidelity would carry over to both The Raven (1963) and Comedy of Terrors (1964), which were also loosely Poe themed, directed by Corman, and starring Price and Lorre.

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Tales of Terror (1962)

Worth a brief mention is Corman and Price’s follow up riff on “The Black Cat,” The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). At the funeral of his wife, Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd), Verden Fell notices that her eyes flutter open, but assumes it is just a final death spasm. He isolates himself in their abbey home and sees no one, except a servant and Ligeia’s vicious black cat. Soon after he meets Rowena (also Shepherd), a young woman who comes across Ligeia’s tomb while she is out fox hunting with her father and is thrown from her horse. She is strangely attracted to Verden and soon after they marry. But their relationship is haunted, either literally or figuratively, by Ligeia and her malicious cat. They try to sell the mansion, but come to find it is in Ligeia’s name and no death certificate can be found. While under a hypnotic trance, Rowena is briefly possessed by Ligeia and has horrible dreams. It becomes clear that Verden must confront Ligeia’s spirit or he and Rowena will live a life of torment… or worse.

This is the final film in Corman’s series of Edgar Allen Poe-themed films and is surprisingly faithful to Poe’s “Ligeia,” though it does have the continuing theme of a malicious cat. It is also notably visually different than the other films in the Poe series, with numerous daytime shots and less of the vibrant, staged sets full of rich colors and Gothic visuals. As with Masque of the Red Death, this was shot in England for financial reasons, though unlike that film, which was shot on a soundstage, much of Tomb of Ligeia takes place in the ruins at Swaffham Priory in East Anglia. Many of these Corman-Poe films deal with the fear of being buried alive or of a person who is supposed to be dead returned to life to torment the protagonist (it is a major theme of House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum, as well as Corman’s only Poe film without Price, The Premature Burial) and the thoughtful script from Robert Towne (Chinatown) carries the same melancholic themes of repressed sexuality and madness as the best of the other films in Corman’s Poe series. There is also some implied necrophilia and a general air of death and decay, and like many of Corman’s other Poe films, the issue of a difficult or miserable marriage is at the center of the narrative. The real horror is not being buried alive, but that not even death can separate or end an unhappy marriage — a notion similar to Poe’s “The Black Cat.”

A complete departure from Corman’s interpretations of “The Black Cat” can be found in Italian director Sergio Martino’s dazzlingly titled 1972 giallo film Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave aka Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. It follows Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli), an alcoholic writer who lives in a mansion with his abused wife, Irina (Anita Strindberg), and his deceased mother’s black cat, Satan. He regularly humiliates Irina and holds debaucherous parties, until a young woman and he’s the main suspect. Other bodies soon turn up, as does Floriana (Edwige Fenech), Oliverio’s alluring niece. She begins an affair with both Oliviero and Irina, attempting to turn the couple against each other so that she can take advantage of Oliviero’s inheritance.

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Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)

This Gothic-themed, Poe-influenced giallo film from Sergio Martino is his fourth in a series of collaborations with screenwriter, Ernesto Gastaldi, also contributed his own touches to the script, which uses one of his signature themes — the persecuted woman going insane — combined with elements from “The Black Cat.” The cumbersome (yet absolutely delightful) title is a reference to Martino’s previous film, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), where the protagonist receives that strangely poetic sentence on as a romantic note from someone who is part stalker and part admirer.

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key continues The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh’s themes of perversion and sexual obsession, but kicks things up a few notches with levels of seediness unseen in Martino’s earlier films. The cat itself is symbolic of Oliverio’s unwholesome obsession with his mother. In addition to bragging about his mother’s productive sex life, he keeps a menacing portrait of her in the mansion and makes his own romantic conquests wear one of her famous ball gowns during sex (!).

His pronounced alcoholism is probably the most accurate depiction of Poe’s own unreliable narrator (another device used to great effect in many giallo films, but especially here). In “The Black Cat” he wrote, “I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her personal violence. My pets, of course, were made to feel the change in my disposition. I not only neglected, but ill-used them. For Pluto, however, I still retained sufficient regard to restrain me from maltreating him, as I made no scruple of maltreating the rabbits, the monkey, or even the dog, when by accident, or through affection, they came in my way. But my disease grew upon me—for what disease is like Alcohol!”

Oliviero holds orgy-like parties with questionable hippies he dug up from somewhere around town. These fetes are mostly a reason to drink himself into oblivion, torment and publicly humiliate his wife, and assault their maid. Thanks to the partying and Oliviero’s drinking habits, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is certainly in the running for giallo film with the most amount of J&B bottles — and if you haven’t seen many films in this genre, that’s really saying something. And while the fall back explanation for many giallo films is that the murderer is motivated by greed and is in search of an inheritance, this seems a flimsy excuse meant to cover up the fact that at least two of the protagonists — Oliviero and his niece — really enjoy sadistic games and perverse sex acts and the latter two are their real motivators. Though that’s not to discount the number of shocking reveals, twists, and red herrings Gastaldi crams into the script that likely would have made Poe himself dizzy.

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The Black Cat (1981)

Another Gothic-theme Italian horror film from slightly later — which was recently released with Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key in a beautiful Blu-ray box set from Arrow Films, certainly a contender for release of the year — is Lucio Fulci’s Gatto nero aka The Black Cat (1981). Quite similar to Fulci’s slightly earlier Gothic giallo, The Psychic (1977), which also involves a murder investigation and a body being concealed behind a wall, The Black Cat is a completely bonkers interpretation of Poe’s story, really only using it as a jumping off point.

In a picturesque English village, a demonic black cat seems to be responsible for an increasing number of deaths. It resides at the strange manor house of Robert Miles (Patrick Magee), a paranormal investigator who makes audio recordings of the dead with his free time (like you do). A tourist and photographer, Jill (the incredibly unsettling Mimsy Farmer), finds herself involved in a murder investigation when two teens are found murdered and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Gorley (David Warbeck) needs a photographer to assist at the crime scene. The evidence leads her back to Miles and she soon believes that the old man is committing the murders… by means of the psychic control she thinks he holds over his cat.

One of Fulci’s more neglected films — likely because it doesn’t have the same gore quotient as Zombie (1979), The Beyond (1981), or New York Ripper (1982) — The Black Cat is a far better film than it has any right to be and is one of the director’s finest uses of Gothic style. Not only does it give The Psychic a run for its money, but it improves upon the time of house-bound, atmospheric horror found in something like The House by the Cemetery (1981). Fulci’s use of Poe is admittedly tenuous, but he fleshed out the story’s brief plot about a man who is obsessed with and terrified by his pet cat, giving it the kind of strange treatment only Fulci could really manage (aided by screenwriter Biagio Proietti).

The film has the kind of strange supernatural undertones and morbid quality of an equally ignored Italian film like Autopsy (1974). Like that film, it only loosely embraces the giallo formula and is its own beast. While Fulci does stick to the conventions of an unlikely investigator (one who is generally a tourist) who finds themselves on the trail of a murder, a string of unconventional, violent deaths, and a conclusion filled with twists and red herrings, The Black Cat is so unapologetically weird that I think even Poe would find it strangely compelling despite its occasional plot issues and obvious lack of concern about always making logical sense. Granted, I am an unapologetic Fulci devotee, so my opinion is perhaps a little biased, but I think this deserves a reassessment and should be considered alongside his other gore classics — much like the similarly subdued and wonderful The Psychic, which is less weird but makes similar use of the supernatural.

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Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973)

Though these titles represent the major horror films to adapt “The Black Cat” — not counting Dario Argento’s contribution to Two Evil Eyes (1990), because the less said about that the better — but it’s impossible not to see Poe’s influence throughout genre films over the years. If you’re looking to gorge yourself on evil cat films, there are plenty of titles to choose from: in early Hammer suspense film The Shadow of the Cat (1961), a rich old lady’s cat terrorizes those who are trying to steal her fortune; in Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973), Jane Birkin stars in an implausibly Scottish-set giallo that follows a sinister-looking cat who may be involved in a series of murders in a castle; in René Cardona Jr.’s absolutely fucking nuts Night of a Thousand Cats (1977), a serial killer brings women back to his castle full of man-eating cats; British anthology film The Uncanny (1977) features Peter Cushing as a demented writer who believes cats are the evil masters of the universe (you haven’t lived till you’ve seen Donald Pleasence face off against a maniacal cat); and so on. And people wonder why I don’t like cats.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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