Judge Denise Louis wants to know when they'll dispense with including a feature on DVDs and just include trailers.
"Perversity is the human thirst for self-torture."—Edgar Allan Poe
It's nice when a film can build suspense from the unknown, drawing you in with its masterful storytelling. This is not one of those cases. Masters of Horror: The Black Cat suffers from many things, the least of which is a barely cohesive narrative. For some reason the writers decided that in order to be true to the short story they should completely change it by using Edgar Allan Poe himself as the narrator. They attempt this by adding various events from Poe's real life—and then completely failing to justify them. What follows is a story with dropped plotlines, a contradictory main character, and an overall scenario that fails to amuse.
Facts of the Case
Edgar Allan Poe (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator) has fallen on hard times. His wife, Virginia (Elyse Levesque, Unthinkable), is sick, he's broke, and writer's block is destroying his one source of income. As his wife's condition worsens, his own behavior becomes erratic. He begins to notice his cat Pluto acting similarly and wonders what's happening to his life. It sounds crazy but could the cat be the cause? Or is there some part of him, something far more sinister, at work here?
I have to start by first giving the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. "The Black Cat" isn't the best material in the world to work with. With the success of "The Tell Tale Heart," it seems Edgar Allan Poe was attempting to write another hit short story (the movie includes a fictional account of this period in his life). What Poe ended up with is a parody of his own work, a story without the resonance or creepiness of "The Tell Tale Heart." It would seem silly to expect a spectacular film from it so they deserve credit for trying.
Having said that, let's get into all that went wrong. Firstly there's Poe himself, or rather adding events from his life to the film. It does nothing other than muddle down the already barely cohesive narrative. Establishing Poe's situation, his wife's sickness, and his guilt over not taking care of her properly all take away from the true centerpiece, the black cat. When the focus finally does shift, it seems far too abrupt and awkward—leaving me to think the filmmakers expected those watching to already know the story. It's the only way to explain how they film could ignore the cat for about 20 minutes yet still expect the audience to be clear on the story's progression.
The additions themselves are mostly arbitrary, making the story needlessly convoluted. Poe's wife's sickness in particular has two unfortunate side effects. It adds a layer of guilt to the main character that ends up clouding over the guilt he (may) feel about his cat. It also adds a useless twist towards the end that is glossed over entirely in the rest of the film. Meanwhile, making Poe the lead means they had to tailor the story to a sympathetic main character rather than the originally anonymous narrator. In essence it's the main obstacle of the film. The narrator of the short story is pointedly uncaring in his actions toward his cat and (especially) his wife. The film can only work if you're convinced that certain actions are motivated by an adoring husband instead of an uncaring one. It's a hard thing to pull off, if not an ambitious goal, and they just don't quite make it.
The last criticism, if you can call it that, is the length. The Black Cat is only an hour long, since it is part of the Masters of Horror series. Anchor Bay seems to realize this but instead of putting more than one episode on a disc they add flourish to the packaging, keep extras to a minimum…then include every single trailer for Masters of Horror on DVD. With 23 trailers on the disc, anyone with an itching desire to not see the 23 other episodes will be more than satisfied.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have to say I wasn't expecting to praise production values on what is (essentially) a made-for-TV film. Director Stuart Gordon mentions in the commentary track that he wanted to make the film in black-and-white. When that was rejected he made sure to take as much color out as possible to give the film an old look to it. The cinematographer gives the film a washed-out look that works very well with the setting and time period. The only things left truly colorful are important objects like alcohol bottles or the cat's green eyes. It's Sin City except realistic. And it certainly makes you believe, if for a short while, that the film takes place in a poor neighborhood many, many years ago.
The music and extras (besides the plentiful trailers) are also well done. The commentary praises some of the criticisms made here but is otherwise enjoyable to listen to. Jeffrey Combs and Stuart Gordon go into detail about the process of making the film and how much they needed to bow to their feline overlords/coworkers. The special effects aren't noteworthy—you certainly won't have trouble guessing when they went from real cat to animatronic cat—but they manage to be gratifying, which can't be said for most films with this sort of budget.
You can't fault the filmmaker's for trying but it all falls flat. Including portions of Poe's real life was well-intentioned but detracts from the storytelling. Add to that the uninspired story that it's based on and the movie really didn't have a chance. All you Masters of Horror fans would do best to skip this episode, especially if you already caught it on Showtime. Or maybe you could get it and watch all the trailers then pretend to own them all, whatever works for you.
Guilty of being overly ambitious, Masters of Horror: The Black Cat is sentenced to watch all 23 of its trailers back-to-back. Believe me, it's punishment enough.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• The Tell-Tale Cat: Making of The Black Cat
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