While Stuart Gordon has adapted the works of H. P. Lovecraft more than a few times with films like Dagon, From Beyond and Re-Animator his work in the world of Edgar Allan Poe isn't quite as recognized (though The Pit And The Pendulum has its fans and for good reason). That should all change with this latest entry, The Black Cat, done for Showtime's Masters Of Horror series as it's not only the best episode of the second season but it's one of the best episodes of the entire series so far.
When we meet Poe (played by Dr. Herbert West himself, Jeffrey Combs), he's not in the best of shape. He's battling a drinking problem, suffering from writer's block, and having difficulty caring for his cousin, Virginia (Elyse Levesque), who also happens to be his wife and who suffers from a serious case of tuberculosis. When Virginia starts to cough up blood, Poe calls the doctor in who tells him in no uncertain terms that he'll no longer treat poor Virginia if he cannot pay the bills. In need of money and refusing to sell Virginia's piano, Poe sets out to write another one of his 'fantastic tales' in hopes of earning more money than he currently gets for his poetry.
As Poe sets out to write something commercial enough to earn a paycheck, he starts to have difficulties with Pluto, Virginia's black cat. At first Pluto just seems to be acting a little cranky but soon enough the fish is gone and the bird is found lying bloody on the floor. Poe's anger at the cat turns to rage and before you know it the cat has managed to send the writer into a frenzy wherein we are no longer sure what is happening in his booze addled mind and what is happening in the real world.
While kitty lovers the world over may cringe during a couple of realistically simulated scenes of animal violence, The Black Cat turns out to be a very well-paced and extremely well-acted piece of gothic horror. Gordon lays the atmosphere on thick using shadows and fog to play with the lighting and by ensuring that the scenes which play out in the basement remain claustrophobic and eerie. The cat, cute at first, becomes quite menacing as the picture moves on thanks to some expert use of sound and a few strong special effects sequences. While it would be unfair to call this a gore film, it should also be noted that a couple of scenes are definitely quite strong in terms of carnage and bloodshed but not to the point where they feel particularly gratuitous - instead they accent the more horrific and emotional aspects of the story, just as they should.
The script, from regular Gordon collaborator Dennis Paoli, blends Poe's real life with one of his more famous stories and it works well here, allowing Combs (who really looks the part with his hair done up and in the right clothes) to show a wide range of emotions and to prove he's more than just 'the guy from Re-Animator. Quite simply, Combs nails this part - he's perfectly sympathetic in some scenes and frighteningly angry in others and he does a fantastic job of bringing the morbid pathos of the author's work to life.
The end result is a creepy and very entertaining movie that will reward horror buffs regardless of their familiarity with Poe's life and work. That said, if one is at least marginally familiar with his biography there's a lot to enjoy here but either way, Combs is so good, the movie so well-shot and photographed and the story so interesting that it would hard not to appreciate what Gordon and company have crafted here.
The Black Cat is, like every episode in the series so far, presented in an anamorphic 1.78.1 widescreen transfer. For the most part, things look pretty good on this disc. There are some mild compression artifacts present here and there in the darker scenes (and they really are very mild), but aside from that the image is decent if just a little bit soft (which for whatever reason seems to be the case with the second season releases in the series). Color reproduction looks accurate and flesh tones look lifelike, and there's a pretty solid level of both foreground and background detail present through the majority of the movie. Like the rest of the second season discs, this is not a flawless transfer, but it is a very good one.
Audio options are available in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound or in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, both in the movie's native English language. As expected, the 5.1 track beats the 2.0 track with superior atmosphere and more interesting directional effects particularly during the scenes in the basement. Either way, even if you opt for the scaled down 2.0 mix, you'll likely be quite pleased. Dialogue is clean and clear, the instrumental score sounds great, and there are no problems with hiss or distortion. Levels all appear to be in check and there's really very little to complain about here.
The best of the supplements on this disc is a commentary track featuring Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs. These two have worked together before and obviously they get along really well which you can immediately tell from the tone of this conversation which plays out quite casually, almost like two old friends talking about their day at the job. They cover the effects work, casting, locations and some of the challenges that arose while bringing this project from the printed page to the screen. Combs talks about his take on playing Poe while Gordon discusses his admiration for the way certain parts of the film played out. It's a humorous and interesting track that anyone who enjoyed the feature should give a listen to. The pair obviously really got into this project and have plenty of respect for the author whose work the movie was based on and this enthusiasm becomes somewhat infectious while listening to them discussing their work here as it not only does a fine job of explaining the production's history but also in covering interesting aspects of Poe's life.
From there, take the time to check out the first featurette on the disc, The Tell-Tale Cat: The Making Of The Black Cat. Featuring interviews with the principal cast members as well as the editor this is an interesting and often times quite humorous look at how the production was assembled. It covers some of the effects, sets, post production image manipulation and on set experiences and everyone seems to have really enjoyed working together on this, one of the better episodes of the second season.
A second featurette, Bringing Down The Ax explains how KNB Effects used a blend of CGI and actual latex and make up effects to create the ghoulishly gory set pieces that punctuate the later half of the production. It's interesting to see how this was accomplished and a fair amount of on set footage and interview clips does a good job of letting us in on how it all went down.
Rounding out the extra features is a brief biography of Stuart Gordon, a still gallery of behind the scenes photographs, trailers for other episodes of Masters Of Horror, the movie's script in PDF format for those who happen to be DVD-Rom equipped, animated menus and chapter stops. There's an insert inside the case which features the cover art on one side and the chapter listing on the other, and the keepcase fits inside a slick cardboard slipcase that features identical cover art.
Definitely one of the best episodes of the entire series so far in its two season run, Masters Of Horror: The Black Cat is a solid slice of gothic atmosphere with a great performance from Combs and some fantastic direction from Gordon. Anchor Bay's presentation throws in some solid extras and an excellent commentary track, making this one highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.