With Opera, Dario Argento hit the height of his powers – it was impossible to imagine him crystallising or apotheosising the giallo genre in a more complete way. Accordingly, his next project was an effort to cross over into the American mainstream horror market. To some extent, Argento had already attempted this, in Phenomena, which paired classic giallo cues with a more mainstream 80s horror sensibility. But The Black Cat was the first of his films to feature an all-American cast, rather than his more typical American-Italian hybrid dubfest, as well as the first of his films to be shot entirely on location in America. Moreover, at only an hour in length, it was originally designed to form a quarter of a horror anthology compendium that would also include John Carpenter, George A. Romero and Stephen King, thereby cementing Argento as a legitimate heir of the American tradition. In the end, Carpenter and King pulled out, meaning that The Black Cat was packaged with Romero’s offering, The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar, for a two hour cinematic double feature entitled Two Evil Eyes.
As the title suggests, The Black Cat is an inspired mashup of the work of Edgar Allen Poe, featuring nods in the direction of the titular tale along with “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Harvey Keitel plays Rod Usher, a crime scene photographer who is peculiarly unfazed by the atrocities he witnesses on a daily basis but immediately haunted by the black cat that belongs to his girlfriend Annabel, played by Madeleine Potter. While it may be unusual to see Argento operating within this more mainstream milieu, he picks up right where he left off in both Phenomena and Opera. In his serial killer thrillers of the 70s and early 80s, Argento became increasingly fascinated with abstracted gazes and voices that became continuous with the camera apparatus itself. In fact, beyond a certain point, his killers were often little more than these disembodied eyes and mouths that evoked a new image regime in late capitalist culture. By the time Argento arrived at the mid-80s, he was searching for ever more extravagant ways to evoke this alien sight and sound. One of his solutions was animal perception – and this is where the link to Phenomena and Opera comes in. Where Phenomena was inflected through the compound eyes of insects and Opera was mediated through the mobile gaze of birds, The Black Cat turns to the feline world to capture this uneasy sense of a gaze that has transcended human coordinates to observe us from afar.
As a result, Usher becomes fixated, above all, with the gaze of the Black Cat, and with how it might impinge upon or compromise his own sight. The first time he sees it watching him from the foot of the bed he develops a sudden and chronic fear that it is “going to claw his eyes out,” partly because the cat is so deeply black that is often looks more like a pair of eyes surrounded by darkness than a recognisable animal. The blackness of its fur replaces the black gloves of Argento’s perennial serial killer, producing a velvety, morbid tactility that infuses all the smaller textures of the film. In response, Usher tries to contain the cat within his own gaze, by photographing it, and so fixing it forever in his own compositions. He first gets this idea when chasing the cat around the house, and using two fingers to mimic a camera, becoming more intently aggressive as the cat seems to take a particular dislike to being subordinated to his own eye. Accordingly, at this very moment, Argento provides us with the cat’s first POV, a hyper-fluid sequence shot that immediately exceeds even Usher’s most manic movements, as the cat’s gaze absorbs, or is absorbed into, that of the camera – present everywhere but visible nowhere, an all-seeing eye just beyond Usher’s diegetic apprehension. Beyond this point in the film there are no real establishing-shots any more, since this hyper-kinetic quality perpetually precedes our orientation to space and mise-en-scene, forcing us to continually catch up with a camera that doesn’t seems to stop between cuts or transitions.
This leads to Usher’s second and more drastic effort to subsume the cat into his own gaze – using it to jumpstart the next part of his photographic career. In one of the crime scene interludes, Usher is advised, by a colleague, to expand his repertoire beyond pictures of corpses, weapons and evidence. While Usher is sceptical at this point, the sheer alterity of the cat’s gaze functions as a kind of incentive to artistry, and so he plants the cat on top of a bright white backdrop in order to transform it into art. Set against that brilliant white canvas, however, the blackness of the cat becomes synonymous with that of black-and-white photography, giving the impression that the feline has already insinuated itself into the very camera that Usher is using to try and contain it. It is as if Usher is only more beholden to the cat for the effort of trying to photograph it, explaining why he uses the camera as a form of punishment, manhandling, squeezing and torturing the cat into one contorted pose after another, most of which occlude its gaze or force its eyes closed. So dramatic is this scene that the first very title in the closing credit sequence is a reassurance no cats were injured on set.
This photography book sets the scene for the core narrative, which begins when the cat goes missing, and Annabel catches a glimpse of Usher’s new photographic monograph (of the cat) in a storefront window. Putting two and two together, she realises that Usher has killed the cat, or at least disposed of it in some temporary way, and this brings the couple’s crisis to a head in the form of one of Argento’s perennial tropes – the face of a murdered woman hanging out of a window. In Argento’s earlier films, this fusion of face and window felt like a way of gesturing towards the interfaces that gradually proliferated throughout his mise-en-scenes – surfaces becoming screens – but here it takes on a slightly different inflection. Now, the cat jumps out the window, Usher tries to stab it, and instead gets into an altercation with Annabel, which ends with him stabbing her to death, next to the window. It seems that the window is no longer apt anymore even as a metaphor for the new virtual hypermediated sphere that lingers at the fringes of Argento’s tableaux, and that is embodied (or disembodied) by his serial killers. Accordingly, Argento adapts Poe’s story as a parable for the era of mass media, as Usher conceals Annabel’s corpse behind a false wall that he lines with his collection of VHS cassettes – many of the same cassettes that were used to announce the killer’s presence in Opera, most notably a copy of Amadeus that is placed front and centre.
Yet where Opera aims to match the extravagant scale of Miloš Forman’s film and subject matter, The Black Cat is considerably more modest – or perhaps just ambitious in a different way in its determination to broker Argento’s vision for a mainstream American audience. From this point onwards, Argento opts for a series of frustrated interfaces, culminating with the awkward and almost comic ending in which Usher tries to hoist a policeman’s body out another window, only to accidentally hang himself in the process, with an inelegance that Argento encapsulates in the tortured final freeze-frame of the film. As part of that aesthetic of frustration, The Black Cat also presents us with the ultra-gore of Opera, Phenomena and Tenebrae, but stillborn in the crime scene tableaux that form the first part of Usher’s repertoire. All of these scenes evoke manic and hyper-kinetic movements whose import has passed, from the enormous pendulum that swings over the body of the first victim Usher photographs, to the gruesome collection of teeth that have been drawn from the mouth of the second. If these represent the interfaces of Argento’s earlier films congealed into the ambit of Usher’s camera, then the cat represents everything about this new hyperreal world that refuses to be frozen in this way, much as it never accepts the poses into which Usher attempts to twist and contort it in an effort to broker the next part of his photographic career.
Perhaps that why it feels as if The Black Cat occupies the precise moment, on the cusp of the 90s, when Argento’s futuristic vision of abstracted sight and sound started to actually correspond with material reality. As in Opera there is a sudden proliferation here of portable media, all of which serves to somewhat dilute the extravagantly baroque ways in which Argento previously imagined interfaces and screens. Instead, the cat becomes an embodiment of all these energies even as it domesticates them, returning to haunt the house first in the hyper-kinetic movements of Argento’s own camera, then in a resurrected form, and finally in the kittens that it lays behind the wall, who feed on Usher’s Annabel’s body before emerging through the video cassettes in the final scene. In this moment, Usher’s attempt to contain the cat as a static image, comparative to those in his crime scene photographs, ends up reaching its impotent limit, as his girlfriend’s body becomes just another one of these strangely stillborn tableau, in vivid contrast to the undead kittens who spawn out over the entire house, along with the scattered tapes they traverse on their way.
By the end, then, Argento’s perennial vision of the interface – faces propelled through windows and sheets of glass – has almost been reimagined as farce here, paving the way for his more bathetic (but in some ways even more surreal) work of the 90s. It’s hard not to feel that Argento came to Hollywood just a little too late – that even Phenomena was a belated crossover effort that might have arrived more effectively after the double impact of Deep Red and Suspiria. Yet that’s just to say that the incredible extravagance of his late 70s and 80s would never have been possible in Hollywood and to some extent pre-emptively closed down any real possibility of American assimilation, as much as The Black Cat might half-heartedly strive for it. Even then, there’s only enough here for an hour long film, while Argento’s next work, Trauma, would mark the decisive end of the American experiment. And so The Black Cat ultimately stands for everything that was profoundly unassimilable about Argento at this point in his career, along with the single-mindedness that would make his filmography even more obscurantist in its distinctive obsessions over the three decades of late work to come.