Monday, 9 April 2012

The Black Cat

1989
Dir. Luigi Cozzi

AKA Demons 6: De Profundis

When a horror film based on the same source material as Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno goes into production, the evil witch the story is based upon manifests herself and not only begins to terrorise the actress set to portray her on screen, but reveals plans to wreck havoc and bloodshed throughout the world.

Luigi Cozzi’s The Black Cat was conceived as an unofficial finale to Dario Argento's then still unfinished Three Mothers Trilogy, which began with Suspiria and Inferno, and was eventually completed in 2007 with Mother of Tears. The Three Mothers’ films chart the exploits of three ancient witches, Mater Suspiriorum (the Mother of Sighs), Mater Tenebrarum (the Mother of Darkness) and Mater Lachrymarum (the Mother of Tears) determined to inflict untold suffering upon the world. The Black Cat focuses on the third mother, Mater Lachrymarum – Levana - as she attempts to return from the dead when a screenplay based on her bloody exploits goes into production. Filmed under the title De Profundis, ("From the Depths") Cozzi was persuaded by American distributors to change the title to The Black Cat with a view to releasing it as part of a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Cozzi’s film bears no resemblance whatsoever to Poe’s short story (though the film within the film is apparently a giallo based on it) and the Poe series never materialised.



As a follow up to Suspiria and Inferno, The Black Cat is a strangely fascinating though ultimately flawed and trashy work. At times it plays out as a loving homage to the work of Argento, and indeed Mario Bava and many of the classic titles of Italian horror cinema, but Cozzi exhibits none of Argento’s directorial panache, and while some of the lighting and music wouldn’t seem out of place in an Argento film, The Black Cat is flat and awkwardly constructed. You must admit though, as cinematic oddities go, the premise is an irresistible one: wrapping up Argento’s supernatural horror trilogy with a film about horror films could have resulted in a delicious deconstruction of not only Argento’s body of work, but of Italian horror cinema in general. Sadly, this is not the case, as The Black Cat takes a fascinating concept and then proceeds to piss all over it with a terrible script, shoddy direction, ropey acting, awful dubbing and laser beams. Yup, this film has laser beams in it. And a character that discovers she can control time and space. Or something.

Kicking off with dire Eighties rock music that’s more Demons than Suspiria, The Black Cat opens as a young woman with a gun ventures into a moodily lit building to confront a killer. These moments are drenched in lurid, Inferno-esque lighting (gawdy yellows and livid reds) and conjure memories of Argento’s work; though it immediately becomes obvious, Cozzi possesses none of Argento’s ingenuity or flair. Expectations are surprisingly confounded however, when this is revealed to be a scene in a giallo movie production, complete with a killer decked out in fedora, black leather gloves and long trench coat. He even sports a blank white mask a la the killer in Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot Italian horror stalwart Michele Soavi as the film director with a keenness for blood, and some interesting dialogue ensues about his preoccupation with gore and violence at the expense of his actors’ performances - gee, I wonder who they could be talking about.

That man is no director, he’s a butcher. All he wants is blood, blood and more blood.”


We’re soon introduced to another director, Marc (Urbano Barberini), who discusses his new Three Mothers project with his wife Anne (Florence Gu√©rin), who is set to play the main part, and he despairs at his reputation as the “king of spaghetti thrillers.” Their dialogue is intercut with shots of an ancient, red-lit tomb as something stirs and emerges from its crypt. Later, when Marc and Anne invite the new project’s writer and wife Nora (Caroline Munro), an actress who wants to play Levana, to dinner, they discuss the work of Argento and how their film will become the closing chapter to his Three Mother’s trilogy. This scene could have been a sly, humorous and insightful discussion about Argento’s impact on horror cinema. It isn’t. While they do discuss the background of Suspiria, its source material (incorrectly accredited to the writing of Baudelaire), the figures of the Three Mothers and what makes them such compelling subjects, it could have been handled better. What should have been a tantalising deconstruction and reflexive critique of Italian horror just comes across as clunky exposition-heavy dialogue. Even so, to hear characters in a film discussing Suspiria and Dario Argento is, on a purely geeky level, really kinda cool.

Much later, when Marc and his writer approach a professor of mysticism and the occult to act as consultant on the film, we get back to Argento/Suspiria territory as she confirms the source material of Argento’s earlier films is actually not based on the work of Baudelaire “the poet of the dammed”, as Marc incorrectly stated; but English writer Thomas De Quincy’s hallucinatory text Suspiria de Profundis (actually part of his Confessions of an English Opium Eater). She claims De Quincy merely translated an earlier text, a chronicle about the most evil witch that ever lived – Levana. As she consults a dusty tome, Goblin’s music from Suspiria plays on the soundtrack and she reveals that Levana can apparently take over the body of anyone who concentrates on her enough. The film is peppered with shots of planets and stars as Cozzi’s camera floats through space and we catch a glimpse of what appears to be an astral foetus (rather akin to Space Odyssey’s Star Child, but on a lower budget), and there’s some talk about Levana needing to possess a woman born under a certain constellation of stars in order to carry out her dark deeds. If she is reincarnated as a man however, she needs to sacrifice a newborn baby in order to carry out her revenge on the ancestors of those who burned her at the stake.

Cozzi's tacky incarnation of the Mother of Tears


The appearance of Levana in Cozzi's film contradicts what we know of her from Argento's films. Described in Suspiria and Inferno as the cruelest, but also the most beautiful of the Three Mothers, she appears in The Black Cat as a hideously deformed old crone with glowing red eyes. The make-up is laughably shoddy and she would have been much more effective and creepy had Cozzi relegated her firmly to the shadows. At times we only see close-up shots of her eyes, and these are more successful in conveying her mystery and otherworldly menace; if only Cozzi had stuck to revealing her in such subtle ways. There are actually a number of fascinating similarities between her various guises in The Black Cat and Argento’s Mother of Tears, particularly the moment when Anne reads her husband's script (as Goblin's theme from Suspiria tinkles ominously in the background) and dons a veil to help her get into character. Anne's appearance is briefly very similar to how Levana looks in Argento’s Mother of Tears where she was introduced very gradually, beginning with mere glimpses; a curled lip here, a glaring eye there, and she wears a dark veil concealing her face. I’m not suggesting that Cozzi’s vision of Mater Lachrymarum had any influence on Argento, but here are a few images to illustrate my point.

Anne dons a 'veil of crepe' in The Black Cat
A teasing glimpse of Mater Lachrymarum in Argento's Mother of Tears
Levana possesses Anne in The Black Cat
Mater Lachrymarum has similar eye make-up in Mother of Tears

On a more unrelated note, there’s also an interesting similarity between Levana’s appearance in Mother of Tears, and certain scenes in The Black Cat, and that of Barbara Steele’s look in the Italian horror movie Nightmare Castle; most of her face sinisterly, yet alluring concealed. 

Steele - resembling Argento's version of Mater Lachrymarum - in Mario Caiano's darkly gothic Nightmare Castle.
Another interesting similarity between The Black Cat and Mother of Tears is the appearance of a spectral girl who reveals to Anne that she has the power to stop Levana but must delve deep within herself to find her latent powers. A similar spectral agent appears in Mother of Tears in the form of Sarah’s mother (Daria Nicolodi) who acts as a guide and mentor. The girl in The Black Cat is called Sybil and is revealed to be a fairy. Her ethereal appearance is usually signalled by pulsating green light, and she reveals herself to Anne through a TV set. Aside from these moments, and Anne’s final utterance of “will we all live happily ever after?”, The Black Cat lacks the allusions to fairytales that were rife throughout Suspiria and Inferno, both of which unfurled as devastatingly violent, dark and feverishly adult fairytale narratives in which characters wandered through imposing spaces seeking crumbs of truth while attempts were made on their lives by evil witches. The only aspect of The Black Cat that feels like a fairytale is the inclusion of an actual fairy to guide Anne through her dark times (and even this is ludicrous).

Sybil, the 'good fairy' in The Black Cat
Sarah's spectral mother in Mother of Tears
A number of scenes, if handled properly, could have been immensely unsettling. The scene where Levana emerges from a mirror to attack Anne for instance, could have been incredibly creepy, and perhaps even formed a reference to Inferno and the scene in that film when the Mother of Darkness bursts through a large mirror. Instead it is crass, lacking in tension and just plain ridiculous. Levana merely throws herself on Anne and screams that they will never show her face on the screen and then pukes green slime over her. Another scene that could have been creepy and atmospheric is the one in which Anne is wandering through her house following an eerily glowing light as she is beckoned by the rasping tones of Levana. The vivid lighting renders her home an otherworldly place where danger lurks in every shadow. Unfortunately, the scene culminates with Anne discovering a strange mist cascading out of her fridge! What's that all about?! Is Levana hiding in the fridge?  

The conversation between Anne and Marc about the broken mirror evokes - albeit very weakly - the scene in Suspiria where Dr Mandel and Suzy chat about connections between the belief in the supernatural and the occult, and mental illness. Anne claims the mirror was broken into a million pieces when Levana burst through it to attack her; while Marc insists that she’s just imagining things as she’s so stressed and tired. Broken mirrors, broken minds. Ahem. A few other mildly interesting moments occur that distort the line between dreams and reality, but far from being used to explore Anne’s increasingly fraught mindset, they just appear as lazy means to further on the ever-convoluted plot. It would have been interesting to apply the same reality/dream distortions to The Black Cat as say, those utilised in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, and to tease out a similar exploration of the effect of horror cinema on its audience, and indeed those involved in the production of horror films. When Marc and his writer meet with their potential producer, wheelchair-bound tycoon, Levin (a reference to Varelli in Inferno?), their conversation boasts a throwaway line that, if explored more thoroughly, could have been quite interesting and maybe opened up a ‘cursed movie’ narrative akin to John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns or David Lynch’s Inland Empire. Levin says he has a feeling that when distributors hear about their Three Mothers project, they’ll be “cutting each other’s throats to get their hands on the film.” What might have also been quite interesting would have been the revelation that the film studio they planned to use was actually built on the site of one of the three cursed dwelling places designed by sinister architect Varelli for the Three Mothers to reside in. Something like this would have helped enhance the link to Suspiria and Inferno, both of which also featured cursed buildings in which an evil witch dwelt.



Throughout the increasingly muddled plot, various characters are either violently bumped off (including one unfortunate victim whose heart explodes in her chest) or revealed to be under the control of Levana, and then violently bumped off. This aspect of the story, with normal people doing despicable things under the manipulation of an evil witch, also evokes memories of Suspiria and Inferno, and Argento himself would revisit this notion in Mother of Tears. Perhaps the most effective of these moments is when Nora is no longer of use to the witch and ordered to slit her own throat. These instances should help ratchet tension, with the increasingly paranoid Anne unsure of who she can trust, but all they do is feel undeveloped and eventually confusing. The pace picks up as Anne desperately attempts to reclaim her kidnapped baby as we rush towards the climax, which rather in keeping with those of Suspiria and Inferno (and indeed Argento’s Mother of Tears), is a rather limp one. After the 'big' showdown between Levana and Anne, which consists of Levana shooting some lasers out of her hands and eyes, and Anne discovering her ability to control time and space, Marc shows up and unceremoniously impales the evil witch on a sharp pole. The final shot, perhaps designed to set up a sequel, is the icing on the trashy cake. 

As mentioned, Cozzi has absolutely none of Argento’s directorial panache – at times he is successful in evoking an Argento-esque atmosphere; the stylised lighting and music consisting of glaring rock and creepy music box lullabies: but The Black Cat more frequently boasts the feel of a tacky Demons movie rather than the eerie and darkly resplendent tones of Suspiria and Inferno. Why it was released as Demons 6, I have no idea. Then again, Michele Soavi’s The Church and The Sect were released as instalments of the Demons movie ‘franchise.’ The Poe connection is tenuously alluded to in the scene where Marc and his writer discuss Anne’s increasing nervousness about her current role in an adaptation of Poe’s short story and her forthcoming role as Levana. The writer quotes from Poe’s tale: “my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise." To hammer this home, and connect it to Argento’s Three Mothers’ Mythos, myriad shots of black cats are inserted throughout the narrative.


Really, Luigi? LASERS??
This is a tragically flawed yet strangely fascinating film (for Argento fans anyway), that could have been an 8 ½ or Wes Craven’s New Nightmare of Italian horror cinema. It’s worth seeking out, though very hard to come by. It was never offfically released on DVD, and it seems the only copies floating around have been ripped from a Japanese VHS (complete with subtitles). You can watch it on YouTube though, and thanks so much to Terence for the link! I for one hope that maybe one day it will find a release through the likes of Shameless or Arrowdrome. While I recognise its obvious flaws and shortcomings (and there are many), I still enjoyed Cozzi’s attempts at a meta-giallo. As an avid fan of Argento’s work, I found much to appreciate here as far as references to and appreciations of his films are concerned. I found the central concept of The Black Cat utterly irresistible, but despaired at the execution and wasted opportunity. Set your expectations to low, and you may find much trashiness to treasure here; it's pretty much a love letter to Argento penned by a filmmaker obviously infatuated with the Maestro's work, but ill-equipped to effectively pay homage to it. It's also a film that I for one shall no doubt enjoy revisiting.

The images included in this post are screengrabs I took from watching the film on YouTube. I tried to tweek them to make them less murky. They're still not great though. My obsessing over editing the images was definitely a labour of love; for while The Black Cat may be the bastard runt of the Three Mothers' litter, I still dig it. 


18 comments:

The Film Connoisseur said...

Intriguing! I wasnt aware of the nature of this film, or of the film itself, thanks for the heads up! I did see Cozzi's Star Crash which I loved to death, and Contagion. I just realized I've seen a lot of Cozzi's films, I also saw his Hercules films when I was a kid!

Erik (Drunketh) said...

Absolutely brilliant post my fiend! Perhaps I'll watch this on youtube (I've always wanted to see it). I like you got really in depth and compared it with MoT (which I have seen in the cinema years back).

I love Demons too. So perhaps the "tacky"ness of this will appeal to me greatly.

James Gracey said...

I think this is the first Cozzi film I've seen! I'm only really aware of him through his work with Argento, so this was probably the best film to start with. I'd been itching to see it for years, so was delighted to find out it was on YouTube. It is not a great film, but one that I actually really enjoyed! Like I said, the concept is (for me anyway) a fascinating one. I couldn't help but notice a few similarities between it and Argento's Mother of Tears - needless to say, I had a lot of fun writing this review. I'm sure they'd make for an awesome double bill!

Hope you guys get the chance to check it out soon! And Erik, if you like Demons, I'm sure you'll love The Black Cat - for better or worse, it has a very similar vibe.

Thanks for stopping by - hope you're both well. :)

Jon T said...

Fantastic post, James. This film sounds like a real mish-mash and you put it bang to rights! I kept away from Cozzi after seeing Contamination. I heard he eventually left directing and was running a shop in Rome selling Argento memorabilia!

Miriam Becker said...

Hi, James
What is your contact email address?

Best regards,

Miriam Becker
mimi.becker@hotmail.com

James Gracey said...

Jon this was my first foray into Cozzi's work. As uber-trashy as it was, I LOVED it. All the stuff about Argento and the Three Mothers made me positively weak at the knees! The Black Cat could have been SO much better though. As it is, it's pretty shoddily executed, but the central concept, as I mentioned in the review, was an irresistible one. And yes, Mr Cozzi now runs the Profondo Rosso store in Rome. I need to make a pilgrimage there someday.

Miriam, I sent you an email from my hotmail address. You can email me there. Cheers. :)

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

An ill conceived and amateurish abomination...rather like Argento's own concluding episode to the 'Three Mother's' Trilogy'

Terence said...

Woohoo! You reviewed it!

It's kind of hilarious how the budget for this film was more than double the budget of The Beyond yet it fails 100x more. After watching this movie repeatedly, I have 3 interpretations:

1. It really is about Levana the Witch who wants Anne to "DIE IN AGONY".

2. An actress who gets so involved in the role that she loses her grip on reality (an idea that would be used in many GREAT films later).

3. An alien from another planet who comes to Earth to "spin visions around [Anne] like a spider spins a web". Levana may just be a red herring.

My favourite scene would be the one when Anne is "possessed". Everything that happens is "just movie tricks" like the costume and the eerie red light.

James Gracey said...

Shaun, Argento-bashing is strictly prohibited on this here blog!
In all seriousness though, yes, Mother of Tears is not without its many flaws. As a follow up to Suspiria and Inferno (one of my most favourite Argento films), it falls flat on its face. I really enjoy it though – it’s a fun and flamboyant romp that attempts to open up and explore the story of the Three Mothers, and is for the most part, competently directed and more interesting than most of the other horror flicks that came out around that time.
The Black Cat on the other hand… Yes, my head tells me (and agrees with your statement) that it is an amateurish abomination. But my heart tells me it’s schlockly goodness with a central concept (and enough nods to Argento) to keep me guiltily enthralled throughout its trashy running time. I had a lot of fun (maybe even too much!) noting the comparisons it has with Argento's own film. I’ve not seen any other Cozzi films, but going by this, I’d say he’s maybe something of a hack. He’s someone who obviously loves horror cinema – particularly Italian horror – and very enthusiastic, but he’s still a hack.
Hope all is well with you, amigo!

James Gracey said...

Terence, thanks again for the YouTube link! It’s not an ideal way to watch a film, but when the film is so rare, I wasn’t left with many alternatives. I’ve been itching to see this since I found out about it while researching my book. I love your interpretations; I’m completely with you on the first two, though sadly the latter was underdeveloped. There were hints that Anne was slowly losing her grip on reality, but like everything else in The Black Cat, it wasn’t explored or developed enough. Had it been, the film could have been really interesting and maybe even provided a sly commentary on the ill effects of violent (Italian) horror films on audiences.
I love your third interpretation too. In a film so trashy and shoddily executed I don’t think I’d have been that surprised if Cozzi’s final twist had revealed everything to be the work of aliens!
Thanks for commenting! Hope you’re well.

Anonymous said...

You can have subtitles for this movie?
My English is unfortunately limited to the text.
I have trouble understanding the words spoken.

James Gracey said...

Hey Anon, the version I watched (which I think is really the only version floating around at the moment) has Japanese subtitles.

Mr. Xploit, Esquire said...

I love these rare-find horror gems. As flawed as it might be, there's no way it's as bad a movie as the real conclusion to the Argento trilogy. We waited all that time for that?! I think I'll seek this one out.

James Gracey said...

You're actually not the first person I've heard saying that, Mr Xploit! Personally, I think Mother of Tears is the better film - sure, it is nowhere near as effective or brilliant as Suspiria and Inferno, but compared to Cozzi's The Black Cat? Come on! Hope you get the chance to check it out though - like you say, it's a pretty rare horror gem; and one that I really quite enjoyed. :)

James Gracey said...

Laser beams and all!

Anonymous said...

Hi there.
the cozzi black cat is currently available on Netflix. decent copy & closed captions included ^^

http://movies.netflix.com/WiPlayer?movieid=70147401

Anonymous said...

Great information on one of the lost gems of Italian horror (In my eyes at least)i shall put a link to this on my facebook page for cult italian cinema http://www.facebook.com/pages/Profondo-Rosso-Cult-Italian-Cinema/196128487129213

James Gracey said...

Thanks anon - this was a fun post to write up. The Black Cat is VERY trashy, but, geek that I am, I enjoyed all the nods to Argento.
Thanks for sharing the link too!