Written by: Dennis Paoli & Stuart Gordon (teleplay), Edgar Allan Poe (short story)
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Elyse Levesque, and Aron Tager
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďI have little sense of the world around me. Such is my genius."
For his first Masters of Horror episode, Stuart Gordon tackled his literary obsession in H.P. Lovecraft. In comparison, Gordonís penchant for Poe has been more muted over the years since he only adapted ďThe Pit and the PendulumĒ for Full Moon over twenty years ago. As such, the second season of the anthology series allowed him to kick the cobwebs off, so to speak, and re-team with frequent collaborator Jeffrey Combs to deliver a somewhat unique tale that weaves the authorís life into one of his most famous stories, a tact that actually makes for a fairly faithful adaptation for once, all things considered.
The original short story centered around a narrator whoís driven nuts by a pet cat, and this short film puts Poe (Combs) in the place of that man. Perpetually drunk, broke, contentious, but very much in love with his wife, Virginia (Elyse Levesque), the author is beset with writerís block. Unable to sell convince editors to publish his poetry, he must once again dip into his macabre mind to deliver another horrific short story. Art begins to imitate life when heís tortured by Virginiaís growing illness and her black cat, both of which set him down a path of insanity.
While much of Poeís work wasnít strictly autobiographical--at least we donít think he actually buried people alive or cut out their hearts and such--much of his work was guided by an autobiographical sense of mental anguish and darkness. Few authors have led lives that were so reflective of their own work, so itís not surprising that so many fictional works have looked to capture Poe himself or even intertwine him with his own work. The Raven attempted this last year to middling results, but Gordonís The Black Cat is a much more effective take because it actually seems to give a shit about Poe himself. Whereas The Raven basically plopped Poe into a second-rate Saw knockoff, this is a neat film that attempts to understand the demons that spoke to Poe: his insecurities, his paranoia, his tortured genius, and, most importantly, his undying love for his wife.
Because of this, Poe is presented as a very Poe-like character, and The Black Cat is a nicely measured character piece that prefers psychological drama and calculated shocks to pure schlock--just as the author himself would have liked it. For all the grisliness and ghoulishness found in is work, Poeís output is often remarkably human and incisive. And while The Black Cat is perhaps a little on the dry side at times, itís a fascinating bit of historical fiction that--like many Poe adaptations--acts as a bit of a grab bag. The working frame is definitely ďThe Black Cat,Ē but there are allusions and references to other Poe stories, so thereís an adequate amount of spookiness as Combs battles the spectral cat that continually haunts him during the film. When Poe really begins his descent into madness, The Black Cat becomes a well-wrought little yarn that marries the short film format to the original story in an admirable fashion.
At the center is Combsís Poe, obviously. Largely consigned to B-movies for much of his career, Combs has perhaps been a bit overlooked, but he makes a fine case for his abilities here. He doesnít just portray Poe so much as he completely disappears into the role; in fact, itís hard to even see Combs in there. No stranger to playing misunderstood geniuses, Combs easily nails down the somewhat haughty, arrogant side of Poe, a man who often saw himself superior to those around him. However, Combs also infuses Poe with sympathy, warmth, and even a little humor, which makes the whole thing work because you suddenly realize that the author has become one of is own tragic protagonists without going completely over the psychotic edge into irredeemable lunacy. It helps that the film perhaps cops out a bit, but the eventual rug-pull is foreshadowed by Poeís own ponderings about dreams within dreams.
Combs's performance as Poe is a little odd compared to other turns since he opts for something thatís likely historically accurate when it comes to the authorís voice. Given his forlorn subject matter and appearance, most might expect Poeís voice to be gravelly and somber; in fact, he is considered to have had a melodious voice with a slight hint of an old southern gentlemanís twang, and Combs accurately modulates that. The production is largely attuned to such fine detail, as this is another episode with a fine production design, and Gordon helms it all with a steady hand. And even though his focus is on characters and psychology, he canít resist one staggering instance of gore, as The Black Cat has one of the best face-splitting effects Iíve ever seen in my life. I suspect Poe would have approved of Gordonís insistence on lingering on the gruesome moment without sacrificing the impact of the moment, as Combsís reaction to the horrors he unwittingly (and sometimes wittingly) perpetrates grounds the rather outlandish events.
Add Gordon to the (short) list of directors who went two for two on their Masters of Horror stints. While Dreams in the Witch House provided another solid Lovecraft adaptation from him, Black Cat is a real winner that mixes Poeís macabre biography with his work. Basically, itís the movie The Raven wishes it could have been. Anchor Bayís disc is also suitably outstanding, as it features the usual in-depth behind the scenes material in addition to a commentary with Gordon and Combs. Those two have nailed Lovecraft a bunch of times, so itís nice to see them do the same for Poe, an author whose work is arguably best suited for a short format like Masters of Horror. Buy it!
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