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October 31st, 2011


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10:10 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: Masters of Horror: The Black Cat
Madness is the perhaps the quintessential element of horror fiction, or at least, of American horror fiction. It lurks at the heart of every story by Edgar Allan Poe, and of his literary descendants, from Lovecraft to Kuttner to King, even to Phillip Roth. On the other side of the pond, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, and Vladimir Nabokov all acknowledged having borrowed the element of insanity from Poe.

On this most auspicious of nights (auspicious namely because I was hoping to watch something good at the end of this project), it took me awhile to select a film. Burnt Offerings was a serious contender, but I got bored with it because I knew where it was going. I turned it off, brought up Netflix, and looked at my streaming options. And there it was: Stuart Gordon's "The Black Cat."

"The Black Cat" was made as an episode of Masters of Horror, a Showtime series which ran for two seasons between 2005 and 2007. It's an anthology-style show where each episode is a short film directed by someone famous in the world of horror films. Each director was allowed free reign to make an hour long film without studio meddling. The results are uneven, but they're all worth watching.

Stuart Gordon (discussed earlier in my write-up of Re-Animator) directs one episode in each season. His contribution to the first season is the Lovecraft adaptation "Dreams in the Witch-House," which contains more traditional occultism and less hard math than Lovecraft's original, but it's not bad. His second season entry, "The Black Cat," is based on the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same title.

The film follows Poe himself (Jeffrey Combs) as he descends further into his famous alcoholism. He's suffering a particularly nasty bout of writer's block, running out of money, and his wife, Virginia (Elyse Levesque), is dying of consumption. Poe begins to see their cat, Pluto, as a demon which is killing his wife and breaking his concentration. It's not long before Poe files off the handle and kills Pluto-- wait, no, Pluto's all right. It was a daydream. As the plot proceeds, Poe descends into madness, and we're unclear about what's real and what's not until the very end.

I read the original story when I was in middle school, and as I recall it, this is a reasonably faithful adaptation. Poe isn't the narrator of the original, and he wasn't (this particular type of) insane. Virginia isn't part of that story either, but the main points are all here. More importantly, the increasing feeling of insanity is incredibly well executed. That's really what impressed me about this one; the slow encroachment of madness is not unusual fare for a horror movie, but it often comes off as unrealistic, and at worst, inane. Stuart Gordon likes to revel in gore, so it's easy for people involved in Serious Cinema to ignore him, but "The Black Cat" may have changed a few minds.

Jeffrey Combs is especially good as Edgar Allan Poe. I'm not sure what, exactly, they've done to his face (other than the prosthetic proboscis), but it's hard to tell that Mr. Combs is lurking under there. It's such a good performance that Gordon and Combs followed it up by launching a very successful one-man stage show about Poe called Nevermore in Las Vegas.

All in all, I think The Black Cat was a fine end to my October. Of the films I've seen this month, it's one of the ones I'd recommend most highly.

Here's the trailer.

Maybe we can do this again next year.

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31 Days of Halloween: Masters of Horror: The Black Cat - Garmonbozia for the soul.

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