Monday, August 10, 2015

Books: The Black Cat

The 2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

The IMDB page for Edgar Allan Poe is much bigger than one would think. The 19th-century writer's work has never gone out of style when it comes to the movies, it seems, both foreign and domestic - whether it's direct adaptations of his stories or films "inspired by" him and his legend.

Edgar Allan Poe
One of his more popular tales which have been filmed time and again is The Black Cat. I have it in a collection of Poe material called The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings, published by Bantam. I bought it a long time ago, possibly back in college during my "must read as many classics as possible" phase. In the summer of 1995, I was a camp counselor, and I remember wanting to bring it with me, as they would make for some great scary stories to tell around the campfire late at night, but it wasn't allowed. A missed opportunity, if you ask me.

The Black Cat runs a grand total of ten pages in my Poe collection. It's about an alcoholic animal lover dude who takes his frustrations out on his pet cat - an act that comes back to haunt him, Twilight Zone-style. Victorian-era literature in general was very flowery and verbose, but in Poe's hands, it's wedded with a Hitchcockian level of dread and paranoia that even today, over 150 years after his death, still has the power to shock and unsettle:
... And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart - one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. 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? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow.
Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in Black Cat '34
There are at least four different films inspired by The Black Cat. In keeping with the classic film mandate of this blogathon, I'm gonna talk about three.

Perhaps the best known version is the one from 1934, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and starring the Lennon and McCartney of horror, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, in the first of their eight films together. It's absolutely nothing like the original story at all, with characters that don't appear in the book and an entirely different plot that just happens to have in it a black cat - one which doesn't figure that heavily into the story at all. That said, the movie itself, which I watched for this post, isn't bad, though I thought it dragged in places. It doesn't get really good until the final fifteen minutes.

Basil Rathbone, Gale Sondergaard and
Broderick Crawford from Black Cat '41
Seven years later, Hollywood went back to the well for another "interpretation" of Poe's short story that has nothing to do with the actual story, only this time it was for laughs! The ensemble cast was led by none other than Basil Rathbone, caught up in a very different kind of mystery than what he was used to as Sherlock Holmes, and also included Lugosi in a bit part as an Italian groundskeeper. Stop me if you've heard this one before: a family gathers in an old dark house to hear the will reading by their cat-loving matriarch, but she dies prematurely and suddenly everyone's a suspect. While it's not very well regarded overall, here's a somewhat favorable review.

So didn't anybody make a film based on the actual Poe story? Well, yes, someone did: in 1966, a guy named Harold Hoffman adapted and directed a Black Cat film that, based on this trailer, looks like a contemporary, 20th-century version of Poe's tale. Unfortunately, it didn't exactly set the world on fire. Too bad. The Black Cat is a good psychological horror story. Hopefully somebody, someday, will give it the film adaptation it deserves.

Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise
Five Came Back


  1. Poe scares me. He scares me in that I feel like I understand him and that is very much at odds with the sunny side of life I strive to cultivate.

    Of the films I have only seen the Ulmer flick. I live for days when the phone is out of order so I can tell everyone "The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead."

  2. Wow. I guess I'll have to take your word for that.


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