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The Black Cat (1965) / The Fat Black Pussycat (1963)

In 1973, long before the full-colour advent of Fangoria or even Monster Mag, the most outrageously gory still in print was in the usually benevolent Denis Gifford's value-for-money oversize book A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. The monochrome image shows a blonde woman whose frozen 60s perm is split by an axe, with black blood clearly gushing from her ruptured skull. A caption identifies the picture as coming from an obscure 1965 film of Edgar Allan Poe's much-adapted short story The Black Cat. Then, it seemed inconceivable that anyone in Britain would ever get to see such a fabulous rarity - and it was hardly well-known even in the States. Thirty years on, thanks to Something Weird Video's DVD release, I've finally managed to track down this cat. That axe moment, brief as it is on screen, is nearly as shocking as it seemed in print, with a primitive but effective effect of black and white gore spurting as the axe sinks in, though the blonde wig the actress (Robyn Baker) has to wear throughout the film is rather an obvious set-up for her death.

A faithful take on the Poe story (though the author's name is misspelled in the credits) updated to the 1960s, the strangest touch of the Texas-shot film is the heavy featuring of surprisingly apt bar band covers (by 'special guest' Scotty McKay) of Bo Diddley, Brown-Eyed Handsome Manand Sinner Man that resonate for the tormented hero as much as the miaows of the walled-up cat. Lantern-jawed Robert Frost stars as 'Lew', Poe's narrator, looking vaguely like a shorter Richard Kiel or a slimmer Schwarzenegger and projecting an interestingly complex set of neuroses. Writer-director Harold Hoffman gives Lew backstory (explicated in dialogue not flashback) vaguely reminiscent of Poe himself – he is the son of 'trash' adopted by a wealthy couple, the father a stern disciplinarian who hated the boy, the mother and indulgent lush who used to slip him champagne. In the present, Lew married to the barbie blonde, who is adoring but often-abused to tears, though the past is present in the form of a servant (Sadie French) who does a reverse Mrs Danvers act, constantly putting the husband down to his wife.

Lew devotes a lot of time to his pets, a big-beaked toucan, a monkey and Pluto the black cat, but as his drinking and mood swings spiral out of control, he takes to abusing them as much as his wife. Not only does he do the Poe bit of cutting out the cat's eye (offscreen but with a gory eyeball-in-hand reveal) but he pours scalding coffee into the monkey's cage. While Maniac, among other versions, make the lead a simple bastard, Hoffman and Frost (like Dario Argento and Harvey Keitel in Two Evil Eyes) recognise that he's supposed to be a weak but decent man ruined by evil impulses (Poe's 'imp of the perverse'). When he wakes up the morning after gouging out the cat's eye, he peers without understanding at his bloody hand. The budget is stretched when Lew hangs the cat with skinned electrical cord, which he plugs in – causing a fire which burns down an obvious cardboard model of the mansion. As a third act, the film hurries through Poe's story – doppelganger cat, murder, walling-up, cops, wailing cat, discovery of the corpse – and winds up with Lew speeding from the scene of his crime in a white sports car, glimpsing the cat in the road, and having a fatal accident that prefigures Fellini's Toby Dammit. It's cheap cheap cheap but the performances have an amateur intensity that matches Poe's fevered prose, making this by no means an unworthy addition to the cinema of Edgar Allan.

The Black Cat has been released on a 'Killer Kitty' double feature DVD with The Fat Black Pussycat, an even stranger and more obscure item, unlisted until now in almost all reference sources. Well after the departure of original writer-director Harold Lea, this beat-themed cop thriller was pulled in (by aptly-named producer Michael A. Ripps) and recut with a shovel, transforming it into a Plan 9-alike exercise in incoherence. The DVD includes all the scenes that were cut, which are notably better lit and directed than the insert stuff and include an atmospheric if weird bit as the killer turns out to be someone we've not met before who freaks out in an unopened Western theme park. The release version junks this and makes a wretched attempt to turn the anthropologist love interest into the surprise schizo / lesbian killer without the actors who played the cop or the heroine being present. The apparent hero (Frank Jamus) is stabbed to death on a rooftop in a brief medium shot that doesn't mask the fact it's another actor and thus doesn't really register as the murder of the lead character, and the heroine (Janet Damon) is revealed as the villainess with a bewigged double in a confrontation that doesn't show her face. In the original version, the title refers to the beat hangout where clues are sought, but the redo brings in an actual black pussycat (referred to as fat but actually quite sleek) who is the pet of one of several elderly police officials who sit behind desks taking phone calls from the old footage and then charge wheezily into action for the wind-up.

There is some attempt at atmos at the hang-out and a beatnik party with the freak-talking weirds (including a young Geoffrey Lewis, unbilled) and the original also has some semi-comic stuff with Damon's equally eccentric academic buddies (including a young Hector Elizondo, billed as Elizonda even in the version he is cut from and already bald), but it's mostly plodding cop stuff. There are new murders, mostly over-the-top stabbings and throat-cuttings, one of which features a bit actress who amazingly delivers the film's best performance (having studied beats, she has concluded that they are 'young phonies') which have to be mentioned in those interminable phone chats and some equally-bluntly cut-in TV commentary in order to shoe-horn the events into the plot. Amazingly obscure in either version, and hardly worth the effort of tracking down – but an interesting support for The Black Cat. In typical SWV style, the disc also includes a striptease short (Margie La Mont in The Cat Girl), a 'gallery of horror drive-in exploitation art', 'horrorama radio-spot rarities' and a pack of 'kitty-cat trailers' for feline themed films (The Cats, Confessions of a Psycho Cat, The Girl From Pussycat, The House of Cats, Puss 'n Boots, Pussycats Paradise, The Tomcat).
KIM NEWMAN

First Published In: Unrated (issue unknown)


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