Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Movies: Lordie be-Gordie.

Alright, Screamers and Screamettes, the lovely and talented Heather Santrous, the long-time ANTSS fave (see sidebar) and insanely prolific horror blogger behind Mermaid Heather, has posted another in her on-going series of tributes to modern horror icons. Today's fright-meister: director Stuart Gordon.

And, this time, there's a twist. Heather's made this a joint effort. That's right! Mighty Marvel Team-Up style, this tribute brings together the relentless awesomeness that is Heather Santrous with the completely unobjectionable acceptability of CRwM in one outstanding tribute.

Below, I'll include my complete review of The Black Cat, written for Heather's latest tribute. When you're done, click on over to find more biographical details on Gordon, commentary from both Heather and I on his style and career, and links to five other reviews we've done of Gordon films.

Without overselling it, I think it is safe to say that this is the single greatest team-up since hydrogen and oxygen got together for that whole water thing. Enjoy.

When Mermaid Heather dropped the idea that I should cobble together a guest review of Stuart Gordon’s The Black Cat, his 2007 contribution to the second season of Showtime’s Masters Of Horror series, I actually got pretty excited. First, I’m a sucker for Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptions. Even his minor works in that limited field are, for my money, solidly built entertainment. I have a theory (well more like an intellectual prejudice, based on limited personal experience) that Gordon is at his best, when he starts from a firm foundation in strong source material. If Lovecraft can serve as this foundation, certainly Poe can as well.

Second, "The Black Cat" remains the only Poe story that genuinely unnerves me. It isn’t merely gothic or classically spooky, it actually creeps me out. The first time I read it, I panicked, and was overcome with the need to call my then girlfriend and ask if she was okay. Even now, re-reading it, I get a sinking sensation in my stomach. Previous adaptations of the story (and there have been more than ten, including the classic 1934 Edgar G. Ulmer flick starring both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff) can be charitably described as loose. Most of them are completely new and unrelated stories, with the hopefully crowd-drawing Poe title tacked on. A majority of them at least include a nod to the title and feature a black cat that gets a bit of screen time in some capacity, though not all of them bother with such a minor detail. From what I’d heard and read of Gordon’s adaptation, it clearly took liberties with the source material, but it is widely considered to be the closest anybody has come to a straight up adaptation.

For those unfamiliar with the Poe story, "The Black Cat" is a story related by a nameless narrator on the eve of his execution. He tells the reader that, from childhood, he’s always been "noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition." He’s also always had a soft spot for animals. He and his wife, a similarly soft-hearted soul, turn their house into a veritable zoo. "We had birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat." The cat is named Pluto and it is the narrator’s favorite. More the shame then when the narrator, in the grips of one of his increasingly common alcoholic rages, comes across Pluto one night. "One night, returning home, much intoxicated, from one of my haunts about town, I fancied that the cat avoided my presence. I seized him; when, in his fright at my violence, he inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with his teeth. The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fiber of my frame. I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket!" Ouch.

The cat recovers, but never trusts the narrator again. The guilt over his violent act encourages the narrator to drink even more. Eventually, the narrator grows contemptuous of the wounded beast, and in a spasm of perversity, hangs the cat from a tree near his home. What happens next isn’t fully explained: somehow the narrator’s home burns down. Strangely, the image of the cat, still hanging in the noose, is burned like a shadow into the plaster of a wall, otherwise spared by the flames.

The narrator and his wife move into a new home and, as Poe does love his doubles, the couple adopts a stray cat that looks almost exactly like Pluto. It is even missing one eye. In fact, the only visual difference between Pluto and this new cat is a curious patch of white fur that resembles a gallows. The narrator’s fear, guilt, and anger regarding this new Pluto builds, until one day, he attempts to take an axe to it. His wife intervenes, and still blind with rage, the narrator takes an axe to her. In order to hide the evidence of his crime, he bricks his wife into the wall in their basement. After he’s done, he turns his attention to killing the cat, but he can no longer find it.

Four days after the murder, some police officers come calling on the narrator, looking for his wife. They search the house, and finding no evidence, are about to leave. In an ill-timed spasm of perverse bravado, the narrator begins to remark on the sturdy construction of the basement walls, and to emphasize his point, smacks the hiding place of his wife’s corpse with his hand. From behind the wall comes an inhuman wailing. "Of my own thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall. For one instant the party upon the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe. In the next, a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb!"

The end.

Of all of Poe’s stories, this remains my favorite. It lacks the distancing exoticism of his typically pseudo-European settings (think the fantasy kingdom of "Red Death" or the Inquisition Era setting "Pit and the Pendulum"); or the isolated "closed set" feel of things like "Tell-Tale Heart" (with its unexplained relationship between the narrator and his victim); or the crumbling, otherworldy mansion of the Ushers. The horror unfolds in a normal domestic unit, with a fairly standard dysfunction: the hubby is a boozer. In a way some of Poe’s more famous and gothic creations don’t, "The Black Cat" hits home, literally.

Poe also plays around with the less naturalistic elements of the story. Whether the second cat is some inexplicable avenging spirit, or whether it is just a normal cat transformed to monstrous significance by the guilt of the narrator, is a question that is never definitively settled. We get attempts at "rational" explanations for the cat-shadow image, but they don’t satisfy. And why does the wife not notice or find it odd that a second one-eyed cat has come into their lives, but this one has a patch of hair resembling a gallows on it (an oversight that’s especially odd since the narrator mentioned his wife was prone to occasional flights of superstition)? Horror fans still debate the role of supernatural/naturalistic elements in horror, and the brilliance of "The Black Cat" is that it can comfortably walk in both camps, while giving itself fully over to neither.

So how does Gordon’s adaptation stack up to the original? Gordon’s produced a very odd film, in that it is fairly true to the details and plot of the original (certainly more so than most adaptations), while at the same time quite overt about not being a strict adaptation in any real sense. Instead, Gordon’s taken the plot of "The Black Cat" and used it as an opportunity to create a great big mash note to the man who probably best deserves the title "Master of Horror."

The key change Gordon makes is casting Edgar A. Poe (Poe’s preferred rendering of his name, he kept the "Allan" – the last name of his adoptive parents – notably abridged) as the nameless narrator of his own story. He surrounds the tale with a loose framework of details from Poe’s own biography: making the setting Philadelphia, where the Poes lived for a portion of their tragically shortened married lives, and casting Virginia Poe in the role of the unnamed wife. In Gordon’s telling, Poe is in dire economic straits. He takes on a writing assignment to produce a lurid and thrilling tale, in the vein of "The Tell-Tale Heart." Unfortunately for Poe, pressure drives him to the bottle, and when Poe drinks, he can’t write. To make things worse, while playing the family piano for a man interested in purchasing it, a blood vessel in Virginia Poe’s neck ruptures, which is a gory sign of her worsening consumption.

After that set up, Gordon begins to weave in the plot of the Poe story. Under the tri-part burden of alcoholism, domestic illness, and poverty, Poe eventually snaps and attacks Pluto, the family cat. He graphically removes the cat’s eye and is discovered by his ailing wife. The gruesome discovery is too much of a shock for her and she faints to her death.

After the funeral (held, as was the custom of the time, at the home), Poe goes mad with remorse and rage. He hangs Pluto from the rafters of the home, and then sets fire to the house, with the intention of burning up along with his wife’s corpse. Miraculously, his wife suddenly gasps for air! She is not dead! Honestly, as far as twists go, this is quite the stretch. It is only forgivable here because the concept of being mistaken for dead was such a prominent theme in Poe’s own work, that it feels like an homage or an in-joke, rather than a narrative cop-out. Poe, stunned, manages to escape the home with his revived Virginia.

Installed in their new home, Poe promises Virginia that he’ll avoid the demon rum, and things look like they just might turn around. But, as anybody who ever went to summer camp can tell you, the cat always comes back. A one-eyed black cat enters the Poe residence through the window of the bedroom. Virginia swears it is Pluto, not knowing that Pluto couldn’t have escaped the fire, because Poe killed him before starting the fire. Poe swears it can’t be the old black cat. The mysterious new(?) cat has a white mark around its neck, Gordon’s equivalent of the mysterious noose-shaped patch.

Poe’s promises of sobriety aren’t worth much, and before you know it, he’s at the bottle again. In a booze-fueled fit, Poe decides that he’s had enough of cats, and goes after Pluto 2.0. He goes to axe it and his wife intervenes. Furious, Poe buries the axe in Virginia’s head. They rest you know. He stashes the corpse behind the wall, almost fools the cops, and is given away by the wailing of the cat that was walled in with his wife.

Here Gordon closes out the biographical frame, by essentially pulling an "it was all a dream" stunt. Poe concocted the whole thing as part of the writing assignment he took at the beginning of the film, and the episode closes on Poe finishing "The Black Cat."

Visually, The Black Cat might be the most accomplished episode of the series. It has the high-gloss look of a classic horror film. The film is shot in muted near-grays, that occasionally give way to shocking splashes of red, yellow, and green. This is used most spectacularly in the scenes of gore, which you will find either clash distractingly with the surrounding tone or reverent classicism, or you’ll welcome as signature Gordanisms (violence in Gordon’s films always verges on the absurd, even when it isn’t meant to be comical), depending on how you roll with your fandom.

The screen time is dominated by two characters, Poe and Virginia, both of whom are handled ably. Jeffrey Combs, a native Southerner himself, unleashes his drawl and eats up scenery with an almost operatic zest. His enjoyable bombastic performance is greatly enhanced by an excellent make-up job, including a tremendous fake nose, that makes him look remarkably like Poe. In contrast, Elyse Levesque does an admirable job with a fairly thankless role. Built to contrast Poe’s dramatic gloom, Virginia comes off as a lovely, placid, and mostly uninteresting, angel. Levesque gamely makes do with what she’s got, but she’s not given a lot to work with.

With a full measure of on-screen and behind the camera talent, and a well-rehearsed and cleverly meta script, The Black Cat succeeds in communicating Gordon’s love of Poe and his tale. What it isn’t though, is scary. By using Poe as the main character, we know from the get go that the murder plot is going to be undone and rectified. The tension is undercut by our knowledge that Poe didn’t axe his wife or get executed for murder. Ironically, by weaving historical facts into his narrative, he distances us from the story, going against the terrifyingly mundane setting of Poe’s original. And, to be honest, I’m not sure that Gordon was all that concerned with creating a horror film that recreated the terror of the original. I think Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations show that he understands that such work demands a sort of loving betrayal of the original. Instead, I suspect he wanted to make a cinematic monument to his hero. What we have here is less a scary story than a worshipful love letter from one artist to a giant in their field. As such, it’s a well made film that is, curiously, more about horror than it is horrifying.

In the tradition of Mermaid Heather’s rating system, I’m going to give The Black Cat three PETA complaints out of five.


Kitty LeClaw said...

Excellent post! Felinicus Maximus!

You totally beat me to the punch, as well. I've been drafting a piece on the same derned movie.

Just a sprinkle more procrastination, and hopefully, nobody will notice my shrieking redundancy.

CRwM said...

Ms. LeClaw,

Thanks for stopping by.

As this is possibly Poe's genre-defining "killer kitten from beyond the grave" story, I know for sure anything you have to say on the flick will be the definitive word on it. I wait with bated breath.