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Feature


Edgar Allan Poe is a starving artist with more baggage than most. He can't sell his poetry to fuel his alcoholic addictions, and when his wife Virginia develops the 'white plague' his need for booze and money peaks. Poe's frustration takes him over, and he begins to focus it on his charcoal-coloured house cat.

Masters of Horror: The Black Cat
Stuart Gordon, despite quite a few less-than-loved motion pictures in his collection, has only made one movie I didn't enjoy, and it was his first Masters of Horror entry Dreams in the Witch-House. It was a boring ball-dropper with only strong performances to save it from true awfulness. Considering the director’s recent journey into less fantasy based films, I was thinking that maybe his heart just wasn't into terror tales anymore.

I was wrong, and Gordon is more than forgiven for the artful and dramatic work on his second Masters of Horror outing. The Black Cat features a level of technical elegance not found in any of the director’s other work. On strict visual merit the film may be Gordon's most impressive since From Beyond, and for very different reasons. His finest achievements have been almost exclusively found in the realms of pulp and comic book horror—this picture is more classically crafted. It's nearly black and white nature, doused with occasional flourishes of red, is comparable to Tim Burton's beautiful but empty work on Sleepy Hallow. The budget bursting and lovingly crafter sets certainly don’t hurt the vision either.

With the possible exception of Takashi Miike's Imprint (though Miike managed to fumble his feature's last act), this is the only Masters of Horror episode I've seen thus far with a genuine sense of terror and dread, the kind one only feels in real life. Madness, the loss of a loved one, lying to a loved one, self hatred, and spiralling depression are all much more horrifying than ghouls, ghosts, and all other things that go bump in the night. In light of the more strictly entertaining entry's this season, the darkness of The Black Cat is a breath of fresh air.

Masters of Horror: The Black Cat
The overall class doesn’t just extend from Gordon's sturdy hand, but the cast, headed by Gordon's favourite muse Jeffery Combs. Combs is a ham, pure and simple, but he's my favourite ham in the butcher's case. Here he manages a performance worthy of Vincent Price at his finest—broad and loud, but authentic and dramatic (I always forget that Poe was a Southerner). Gordon's theatre background ensures that he always works well with actors, and he doesn't break the chain. This is easily one of the finest total cast performances in the entire series.

Edgar Allen Poe's original story has been adapted to the screen about a jillion times, including half successful versions by my two favourite Italian maestros Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. It's been a long while since I've read the story, and I haven't seen every adaptation, but this one seems to be the most true to the source of any version yet. The accuracy of the adaptation has more to do with the tone of the piece than the accuracy of the script, though that too is closer than most.

The film's shortcomings have everything to do with the original story, and Gordon's attempts to mix Poe's real life into it. It's a great idea, and it works for almost the entire feature. Things become less then perfect when the viewer stops to think about the plot, which is kind of... absent. Personally I don't feel horror stories require tight plotting or story structure, but some viewers may be disturbed by the sort of random nature of the episode. Truthfully I'm fishing for problems here; this is the best of the second season releases thus far.

Masters of Horror: The Black Cat

Video


I'm so very glad that these Masters of Horror discs have cleaned up their act since the occasionally muddy and dull season one releases. As I mentioned in my feature review, the film is almost black and white, but like Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow there are brightened tints of red, and on occasion yellows and oranges. The transfer itself is very clean, with the exception of film grain in darker moments, which adds some lovely texture. Tracking shots are slightly blurred, and there is some loss of definition, but the overall crispness of each shot is impressive. The bursting reds are clean as well, without excess noise or blooming.

Audio


The class of The Black Cat is greatly indebted to Rich Ragsdale's super slick and super classy score. Here the music is second only to dialogue in audio importance and the Dolby Digital track is high in clear fidelity. The film isn't effects heavy, but scenes of burning houses and off-screen cats meowing will give your 5.1 system a decent workout. The audio level seems to be a little low, however, and to fully experience the track I had to turn my system up louder than normal.

Masters of Horror: The Black Cat

Extras


The meat of the extras is the commentary track with writer/director Stuart Gordon and star Jeffery Combs. Not only do we learn quite a bit about the making of the film, but the track acts as a bit of a Cliff's Notes version of Poe's real life. Combs and Gordon are both intelligent and enthralling speakers, down to earth and wise. The track is a breeze, which means a lot coming from someone flat out sick of commentary tracks in general.

More of the usual her with a fifteen-minute behind the scenes featurette called ‘The Tell Tale Cat’ (get it?). Gordon and Combs are always a joy in interviews, and actress Elyse Levesque is pretty easy on the eyes, so this is one that I could have done with more of. The fact that Gordon and Combs offer up a solid commentary makes everything alright. There's a shorter featurette about the film's special effects, digital and make-up. This is another of the usuals for season two discs, and informative enough for what it is.

The script is available to read (on DVD-ROM), as is a reprinting of Gordon's biography. Master's of Horror fans can also catch a whole bunch of trailers, including ones for three as yet unreleased episodes, The Damned Thing, Valerie on the Stairs, and We All Scream for Ice Cream. More of what we've come to expect from these sets.

Masters of Horror: The Black Cat

Overall


Animal rights advocates may be disturbed by this film, despite the fact that no real cats were harmed during production. If you don't want to see a cat's eye removed by pocket knife, even as a rather flimsy digital effect, you might want to skip this one. Horror fans should be happy by The Black Cat's lush visuals and a standout performance from Combs. I've got to say that I'm still pretty satisfied by the second season of Masters of Horror despite all the neigh-saying I continue to hear. Maybe I just haven't gotten to the bad ones yet.


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