Quoth the Kitty, "Nevermeow"

by Arthur B

Arrow Video offers up two kittywitty-themed Italian horror movies with a faint whiff of Poe about them.
Italian horror is a deep well, and several different companies have done well dredging it. Leading the pack in the UK market is Arrow Video, whose blu-ray releases of various classics of the field are generally excellent restorations of movies who sometimes haven’t been preserved all that well.

One of their oddest concepts for a bundle release of late is Edgar Allen Poe’s Black Cats, bringing together two movies - 1972’s Your Vice Is a Locked Door and Only I Have the Key and 1981’s The Black Cat - whose only common feature is that they purported to be riffs on the Poe story, despite not really being that similar at all. Having reviewed a decidedy smoochypaws-relevant giallo yesterday, now’s the perfect time to take a look at these.

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

Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) is a wealthy novelist who lives in a big villa. He likes to relax by inviting over the libertine biker hippies who live in a nearby commune for drunken parties which degenerate into him waffling about his dead mother, sexually and racially abusing his maid Brenda (Angela La Vorgna), humiliating and bullying his wife Irina (Anita Strindberg), and then watching as the hippies get their ritualistic freak on.

In short, he is a deeply unpleasant human being who dishes out violence and rape on the women in his home whenever he has a mind to. Things only get more unpleasant and tense when Oliviero and Irina find themselves caught up in a series of murders; first Fausta (Dianiela Giordano), a former student and current lover of Oliviero’s, is murdered at a time she was supposedly keeping an appointment with him, and when the police come asking questions Irina covers for Oliviero by saying he was home even when he wasn’t (he insists he was just delayed due to a flat tire). Then Brenda ends up killed inside the home itself - Oliviero swears to Irina that he didn’t do it, but also insists that they can’t take the matter to the police because they won’t believe he’s innocent, and forces her to help him bury Brenda in the cellar.

Matters become more complex when Floriana (Edwige Fenech), Oliviero niece who he Oliviero hasn’t seen for years, comes by for a surprise visit. Soon enough Floriana realises just how badly Oliviero is treating Irina, and prior to the two banging (because what would B-grade giallo be without some sexual titillation for the audience, after all) Irina tells Floriana about her suspicions. Floriana’s sleuthing instincts kick in, and she decides to help Irina protect herself and get to the bottom of the mystery - though some of her interventions seem to be more in the way of provocation and shit-stirring than investigation.

Is Oliviero the serial killer, and given that he talks about maybe killing Irina for the thrill of it would it make much difference if he weren’t? To borrow a line from Blue Velvet, is Floriana a detective or a pervert? And are director Sergio Martino and the scriptwriting team of Adriano Bolzoni, Ernesto Gastaldi, and Sauro Scavolini going to justify their claim that the film is based on Poe’s The Black Cat in any single respect aside from throwing in the cuddly, soft form of Satan, the spooky-faced dangermog that used to belong to Oliviero’s mum and spends most of the film padding about the house reacting to stuff?

This was director Sergio Martino’s fourth giallo movie, and finds him experimenting and interrogating the conventions of the subgenre a little more. Even the title suggests a certain reflective, self-critical approach, since it’s a line from his first giallo, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh - and come to think of it, Edwige Fenech played the lead role in that too, which makes her casting here again suggest that this is a bit of a spiritual sequel to its predecessor. (Giallos tend not to have many direct sequels due to the lack of survivors.)

Giallo isn’t a genre which insists on its major characters being models of propriety - indeed, deeply flawed protagonists and investigators seem to be the norm. However, Oliviero truly sets the bar here when it comes to truly repulsive figures, Pistilli’s performance absolutely refusing to flinch from the abusive nature of the character as well as communicating his various hangups and vicious sexual aggression. Particular moments of creepiness include the incestuous vibe that manifests whenever Oliviero contemplates his mother, particularly whenever the fine Renaissance-style dress she wore for his favourite portrait of her is concerned, and the way he tends to leer at Floriana, his own niece. (Floriana actually initiates sex both with him and Irina, though not both at the same time, but this doesn’t do much to make his interest in her seem less disturbing - not least because we have already seen how he behaves towards women who come into his gravity well.)

A common trope of the giallo genre - and one of the reasons the subgenre embraces not-so-nice protagonists - is having a character inadvertently become a suspect in the killings, often because of some character flaw of theirs, and this typically becomes a motivation for them to reluctantly investigate the killings. The character of Oliviero is interesting because he kind of blows up that trope - on the one hand, he is a clear and obvious suspect to the point where you’re convinced that if he hasn’t murdered anyone it’s only because he hasn’t decided to yet, not because he’s in any sense a good or a safe person to be around. On the other hand, he has absolutely no intention of properly investigating the killings and simply wants to be left alone to continue abusing people. There’s an interesting twist where the killer - or at least, one of them - gets caught halfway through the movie, which would seem to resolve the tension but soon has the opposite effect when Oliviero, now exonerated, steps up his abuse and violence towards Irina and uses her prior suspicion of him as a pretext for doing so.

Even as in some respects the movie interrogates and undermines some of the conventions of the subgenre, in other respects it follows the classic giallo formula. The killer is wearing the standard giallo murderer getup of black gloves, fedora, and black coat. The conclusion involves lots of twists and revelations - in fact, you end up with an overkill of plot twists which rather hurts any investment you had in the characters. Once everyone’s revealed their secret motives they all turn out to be ruthless and unflinching killers each out for their own gain.

Of course, the big draw here is Satan - not the devil, the sniffy-whiskered snuggleboo. Satan’s reactions to what’s going on in the movie keep coming up; it’s as though Martino knew that forty years down the line the ugly combination of abuse and racism and misogyny and cheap sexual titillation of the movie would make it hard going for audiences, and incorporated some cute kitty reaction .gifs into proceedings to help matters. I think the intention is to make Satan seem like he’s always watching what’s going on from the sidelines, but the furry-wurry ticklepoop they use doesn’t really do much emoting other than “pet me plz” and “fuck off plz”. Luckily, those are the only two emotions that sharpfanged snazzlebritches have, so that’s fine.

I suspect the idea of riffing on The Black Cat came extremely late in the shoot, because we only actually get features of the actual Poe story some two-thirds of the way in when Irina stabs out eye of the poor wuzzy floof-angel like in the story. (The special effect involved is gruesome but blatantly unrealistic, so it ends up looking like she’s stabbing up a stuffed toy, the occasional subsequent shots of the one-eyed snoofmonger looking like a botched taxidermy case like that famous goofy Swedish lion.) It serves little purpose beyond making the conclusion much more predictable, since the filmmakers throw their hands in the air and resort to the Poe ending in order to extricate themselves from the intricate mess they had made.

At the end of the day Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key has, like so many giallos, a very strong beginning but a rather weak resolution, though in this case it isn’t weak enough to overcome the movie’s strengths, chief of which is its refusal to endorse its characters’ abusive behaviour and the way it ponders just how awful a giallo cast of characters can get before we stop wanting any of them to survive.

Also there’s a moment here which I am 99% sure Stanley Kubrick borrowed for The Shining.

The Black Cat

Robert Miles (Patrick Magee) is a grumpy psychic researcher who lives in a manor house on the outskirts of a pretty English village. He is conducting research into electronic voice phenomena - specifically, he’s trying to capture the voices of the dead on tape, and to even have conversations with them in that fashion, though the dead just want to be left alone. His only company in his home is a sweet, snuggly, cutesy-poos black kitty - who hates him and wants to kill him, and has been murdering people in the village in addition to that (possibly at his behest, or at least as a side effect of his misanthropy).

Crack Scotland Yard detective Inspector Gorley (David Warbeck) is called up to help the police find the cat’s disappeared victims; Jill Travers (Mimsy Farmer), an American photographer visiting the area to photograph picturesque local ruins, stumbles across evidence of Robert’s tampering with tombs, and when visiting him witnesses the cat’s mean streak. Gorley and Travers end up crossing paths when one of the victims’ bodies is discovered and Gorley and colleagues need a photographer to record the scene; Travers notices that the back of the victim’s hand includes deep scratches. Travers and Gorley each in their own way come to the same bizarre theory - but will they share what they know in time to do anything about it? And just why does Robert declare that he and the cat need each other, despite their mutual hatred?

The Black Cat is a rather overlooked Fulci effort, made in 1981 whilst he was in the middle of turning out the more famous Gates of Hell trilogy (City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and The House By the Cemetery). Compared to those, it’s bit of a stylistic throwback; its more subtle thrills and folk-prog soundtrack are much more reminiscent of the sort of classic 1970s horror which was already a bit out of fashion at the time. (Given the combination of the soundtrack and the English rural village setting, in fact, I’m almost tempted to tag this as Fulci’s entry into the folk horror cycle that included works like Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man.) That said, it does hang together in terms of the plot much better than any of Fulci’s other works from this period, which tended to operate on the principle of “Have a bunch of stuff happen onscreen and let the viewer use dream logic to work out the connections.”

That said, the movie isn’t wholly divorced from Fulci’s style at the time - as with much of his early 1980 works, there’s a bunch of subtle features that can be missed on a first viewing - for instance, the dead voices on Robert’s tapes are not very clear, but once you work out what they are saying it’s clear that they’re imploring him to let them go, as though by the mere act of recording them he has entangled and trapped them in a world they have left behind and no longer belong to. This resonates with themes that crop up in other Fulci works; the endings of movies like The Beyond, The House By the Cemetery or Ænigma all have this poignant sense that the horrifying thing isn’t death as such, but the dead being attached to the world unnaturally, left unable to move to whatever is next.

Compared to Your Vice Is a Locked Room, this is an even looser adaptation of The Black Cat - only commonalities are a) there’s a cheeky-whiskered fluffpuff, b) there is an act of cruelty towards the wee wuffy paw-padder, and c) the meowserbowser goes meow and reveals something hidden behind a wall. That said, Fulci has a rare knack for getting the sparkleyed fussybritches to actually act, accomplishing shots of the sort we are more used to seeing with more easily-trained animals like dogs. Out of the two movies in the set, this is by far the more original one, and it holds up better over its running time, though compared to the interesting unravelling of giallo that Your Vice attempts is perhaps a bit more deep than the simple spook story that Fulci delivers here.

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at 15:31 on 2019-02-22
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