Today sees the release of the DVD for MASTERS OF HORROR – THE BLACK CAT. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story has inspired numerous adaptations, but director Stuart Gordon’s version is a rare exception that tries to stay true to the source material. Adapted by Gordon and Dennis Paoli, the teleplay’s most obvious conceit is to place Poe himself in the lead role; otherwise, the story plays out much as the author wrote it, with some additions to fill the required one-hour running time.
Poe (Jeffrey Combs, who also faced a fearsome cat in Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR) is driven to drink by poverty and his consequent inability to care for his ailing wife, Virginia (Elyse Levesque, middle left). His attempt to earn money by writing a new horror story is interrupted by his wife’s cat, Pluto, who has a penchant for attacking the other family pets, including a goldfish. Enraged with frustration, Poe plucks out Pluto’s eye, then later hangs the cat. Later, on his way home, he is shadowed by another cat (top) that looks exactly like Pluto, down to the missing eye and a mark around its neck that looks like the trace of a noose. Poe’s attempt to ax the interloper is interrupted by his wife, who receives the fatal blow instead. Poe bricks her body into the cellar, but a strange wailing alerts police to the hiding place – Poe had accidentally walled in the cat as well. There is a twist ending that I won’t give away, except to say that it is well set up by preceding events and makes sense out of placing Poe as the lead in his own story.
Overall, THE BLACK CAT is very impressive, thanks largely to a tour-de-force performance by Combs, who (thanks to acting skill, makeup, costume, and hairstyling) truly does seem to become the famous writer-poet before our eyes.
Unfortunately, the episode is marred by the usual problems that seem endemic to the MASTERS OF HORROR series: length and gore. The one-hour running time is not enough to develop the complexity of a full-length feature, but it is too long for a short story adaptation. Consequently, THE BLACK CAT (like other episodes) feels padded. When a fade-out comes at the halfway point like a curtain for an act break, you realize you have just say through a half-hour of set-up, and only now are we getting to the meat of the story.
Likewise, the series de rigeur gore undermines the emotional effects that Gordon is trying to achieve. Poe’s story is about a man who follows a path of self-destruction and tries to rationalize it away by saying he was seized by a “spirit of perverseness” that drove him to actions beyond his control; in other words, the true horror of the story is moral in nature, following the first-person account of the narrator as he descends into criminality and homicide before receiving his ironic and well-deserved come-uppance.
Gordon realizes this to some extent in his adaptation, but he over-emphsizes the brutal moments from the story (a cat’s eye plucked out, a woman axed to death in the head) and adds one or two of his own: Poe’s wife vomiting geysers of blood, which the titular cat licks up as if it were warm milk.
When you show that kind of stuff in slow-motion (over and over again), the story ceases to be about Poe’s desparate love for his ailing wife – it’s no longer about a man descending into his own personal hell – in fact, it almost ceases to be a story at all. It’s just a special effects show that stops the narrative dead in its tracks.
That’s not enough to ruin THE BLACK CAT, but it does stop it from achieving the masterpiece status for which it strives.