It was a match made in hell and a dream realized for many horror fans. 1990’s Two Evil Eyes brought together Dario Argento and George A. Romero for the first time since Dawn of the Dead. Edgar Allen Poe was their source material. While Romero imagined “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdenar” as a poor man’s episode of “Tales From the Crypt,” Argento’s “The Black Cat” stands out as one of the giallo director’s more notable achievements. Argento imagines Poe’s protagonist with a name and a job. Roderick Usher (Harvey Keitel) is a photographer with easy access to crime scenes. If Roderick’s surname is Argento’s shout-out to “The Fall of the House of Usher,” then the film’s opening tableaux mort deliriously literalizes the title of “The Pit and the Pendulum”. He’s proactive, turning on the pendulum from the opening crime scene in order to get a more “in the moment” view of the action. In the end, Usher’s downfall is directly proportional to his occupational success. His critics scoff at the banality of his genuinely frightening police photographs, which provokes him to abuse the film’s black cat for variety’s sake. The resulting photographs lead to the publication of his book “Metropolitan Horrors.”
In the opening paragraph of “The Black Cat,” Poe’s protagonist declares: “Yet, mad am I not—and very surely do I not dream. But tomorrow I die, and today I would unburden my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events.” Argento stunningly evokes the man’s burgeoning madness. Similar to Nabokav’s Lolita, “The Black Cat” is a first-person testimonial. Though seemingly convinced of his humanity, Poe’s nameless protagonist still seeks to justify his behavior. Usher shares his spacious two-family home with his pet-loving girlfriend, Annabel (Madeleine Potter). The titular feline is called Pluto, after the one-eyed Greek god. In a fit of rage, Poe’s anti-hero cuts out one of the animal’s eyes (sadly, the scene is never visualized in the Argento film). While the existential cat-versus-man dynamic is considerably more terrifying in the Poe story, Argento is more concerned with the residual damage of this relationship. In the film, the cat gives Usher a serious case of the heebie-jeebies and, therefore, must be punished for its gaze.
“Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?” says Poe’s protagonist in “The Black Cat,” consumed by a spirit of perverseness (he calls it a “final and irrevocable overthrow”). Both Poe and Argento’s felines develop metaphorical white markings on their necks—in the shape of the hangman’s gallows—that foreshadow the deaths of their masters. The cats, in both versions of the tale, are brutalized, killed by hanging and subsequently return from the dead. Perhaps the greatest element of Poe’s story is the main character’s incapability to dream (for him, there is no escape from reality). In the film, Usher not only creates his own version of truth through photographs but his dreams are seemingly invoked by the cat’s markings. Black Cat’s weakest moment finds Usher making his way through an elaborate, guilt-induced nightmare where a horde of Middle Age brutes punish him for killing of the black cat.
Argento’s use of point of view is remarkable. Not only does the cat’s sneaky ins and out frequently shock Usher but Argento heightens the element of surprise by shooting parts of the film from the cat’s eyeline. Annabel could easily be a relative of Polanski’s pre-natal Rosemary—she runs through the streets desperate to get away from her husband’s growing madness, makes a phone call to a friend and discovers at a shop window that her husband used her cat as inspiration for his book. Before leaving Usher, though, Annabel decides to leave behind a farewell letter but the reappearance of the cat (now on its second or third life) ironically seals her fate. Working to Usher’s favor is Annabel’s note, which provides him with his alibi. Poe’s story isn’t quite as detailed—this is typically rock-solid detective work on Argento’s part. The details of Annabel’s murder, though, remain the same. When Usher chases the black cat out of a kitchen window, Annabel’s hand gets in the way of his meat cleaver. In this incredible sequence, Argento horrifyingly evokes the runaway nature of violence that, when set into motion, is unstoppable.