Hideous Beast Whose Craft Had Seduced Me Into Murder: The Black Cat (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Last year, Arrow released a big, fancy box set of two Italian horror films: Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and The Black Cat, two very loose adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe's famous short story. Fancy but also pricey; and while Your Vice... is an interesting movie and definitely worth a watch, I only really wanted the Fulci film. So I waited, and happily, this Spring, Arrow has released The Black Cat as a stand alone blu in both the US and UK, and it's not even missing any of the features from the set!
So, how out of whack with Lucio's film from Poe's story? Well, a good deal, naturally, but maybe not as much as you'd expect. All the barebones and iconic images are basically in here. Guy has a weird relationship with his cat, hangs it in a little noose, there's a fire and the cat's shadow is burnt into the wall, guy kills a lady and walls her up, and the cats here the cat mewing behind the wall and the guy is found out. All that follows through. But for a full-length film, you've gotta flesh things out, so there are a couple more characters who get killed, a more convoluted story and there's a little more mystery. Now horror icon Patrick Magee is the cat owner, and a medium who talks to the dead. He still goes after his (now ex)wife, but also her kids, and whoever in the village who he feels has wronged him. Mimsey Farmer (Four Flies On Grey Velvet) is an American photographer who stumbles into his spree and Fulci icons David Warbeck and Al Cliver are the cops on the case. Oh, and this time the cat isn't just the victim of its owner's cruelty, it goes around hypnotizing people and murdering them on his behalf. That's a big change.
It's also a big part of the fun, though. If there was one reason to go to the theaters and see this movie, it was to watch a cat kill people. My favorite scene has always been when the cat manages to open a heavy, gated door in pursuit of a local villager. So what if literary purists might get mad, Fulci's a people pleaser, and he's gonna give us what we want. There's a lot of great atmosphere to this film. It may not be as bonkers as House By the Cemetery or City of the Living Dead, but it's got a great style to it. The locations are spot on and the soundtrack, particularly the main theme - this time by Pino Donaggio rather than Fulci regular Fabio Frizzi - is evocative, even if it isn't very Fulciesque. Magee is a perfect Poe villain right out of the box, even if our hero characters are a little dull. It doesn't have the great, outrageous moments of his best work, but it's a stylish and entertaining little horror film, and you can recognize a lot of the maestro's signature touches. It's a good time just so long as you don't tie it down with too many Fulci-specific expectations.
I was after Arrow's blu-ray because my old 1990s DVD from EC was in serious need of an upgrade. Most fans would've already replaced it with the 2001 anamorphic DVD from Anchor Bay, or the 2007 reissue from Blue Underground, but their being completely barebones left me too apathetic to bite. So when Arrow announced their special edition, I was ready. So I've got my old EC disc and now the new 2016 Arrow blu, plus I even borrowed a copy of the Blue Underground DVD, so we can see just how this film's come along.
EC DVD top; Blue Underground DVD mid; Arrow blu-ray bottom.
Oh boy, look what an upgrade I got, jumping from EC to Arrow! Others got some decent mid-ground in the middle with their AB/BU DVDs, but there's still no question Arrow's is the new king by a large margin. I mean, let's look at this. EC's is non-anamorphic, interlaced, and almost looks like a widescreen videotape that's been digitally compressed on disc. It also has less picture on all four sides than the BU DVD, clocking in at about 2.08:1 instead of the film's proper 2.35. The BU DVD is anamorphic, non-interlaced and a lot clearer, but it's still not as detailed or clear as Arrow's blu, and Arrow has managed to uncover even more picture on all four sides than BU, particularly horizontally. You could actually make a case for BU having a nicer array of colors than Arrow (both of course trumping EC's, which look downright muddy), but it's no match for the clarity of image which really brings this picture to life, replacing digital noise with authentic film grain.

Audio-wise, Arrow's DTS-HD track is of course the best for being lossless, but they have another major advantage in this department: they provide both the English and Italian versions. The previous editions only featured the English dub and no subtitles. But Arrow has both and two subtitle options: English and English HoH, so fans should be happy about that.
Another reason to be happy is the extras. Anchor Bay and Blue Underground came with nothing but the trailer, which was pretty disappointing. Even EC had done better - they included the trailer, as well as a 46 minute Q&A with Fulci and Warbeck from 1994's Eurofest. Plus, it had a photo gallery and a nice fold-insert with alternate artwork and Fulci's filmography. But don't go our of your way to dig up a copy of the EC disc now, that same Q&A - all 46 minutes of it - was later included on Grindhouse's blu-ray of The Beyond. So get that instead.  8)

Now, Arrow really delivers a nice special edition. First up is an interview with film critic Stephen Thrower, who really hits it out of the park. This is one of the best talks of this nature I've seen on a disc outside of The Criterion Collection. He is very informed, with all kinds of details not only of this film, but Poe's original story and other film adaptations of The Black Cat, and he brings it all together into a really fascinating listen.
...There is one little point I'd disagree with him on, though. He points out that in the film version, a lot of the kills are somewhat random, just people on Magee's hit list because they're villagers, and he seems to resent everyone around him. But I think the film takes more time to establish motives than he noticed. He kills his ex (similar to the original story), and the kids in the boathouse are her children that she had with the man she left him for. And the guy who falls onto the spikes was the guy who always talked about him in the pub, disparaging Magee and warning people away from him. Then Farmer and Warbeck, of course, are getting too close to uncovering his guilt. The only victim not fully explained is the one in the opening credits, but even there we know there's something going on there, because Magee goes to his grave to talk to him later in the film. But that's a nitpick of a great discussion. I only bring it up because I was so engaged. When I read the list of extras for this, I thought, "eh, okay, an expert chat's better than nothing," but I was really pleasantly surprised.

Then Thrower takes us into the next featurette, one I was looking forward to more, and which turns out to be equally enjoyable: he takes us on a tour of the film's locations. It turns out the real life village is just as interesting as it appears in the film. Next is an on-camera interview with actress Dagmar Lassander, which is a little dry as it covers her whole career. But she's interesting, and they do splice in an extra phone interview to include her comments on her death scene in this film. And for the last of Thrower's pieces, there's a very long (70+ minutes!) interview with David Warbeck. He of course passed away in the 90s, so this is a nice vintage discovery. Filmed at his home, it does get a little excessive at the end when they start pontificating about censorship, but most of it's really interesting, and Warbeck is a very charming raconteur. So definitely check it out, but if you start getting antsy, you could turn it off before the last fifteen minutes or so without missing out on much.
Besides all of that, the trailer's here, too, plus reversible artwork and an all new audio commentary by Chris Alexander of Fangoria. This one I would just characterize as "better than nothing." On his commentary for Contamination, he seemed really enthusiastic, an informed champion of the film. But now on Nightmare City and Black Cat, he doesn't have much to say. He's informed enough to give us the basics, but admits he hasn't seen the film in a long time, and so he's just watching it with us, unprepared, almost treating it like it's his personal podcast. Yeah, he lets us know at the top that he's never going to get "too fussy with this stuff" on his commentaries, and I appreciate that it's not one of those 'awkward scholar reading a 90-minute essay' tracks; but instead we wind up learning more about him than the film. He goes on about things like how much he prefers his friend's new film to the recent horror film The Editor, and how he can get movie stars on the phone any time he wants.

On Contamination, he knew lots of obscure facts and had talked to the filmmakers, and yeah it was still pretty casual and drifted into a few indulgent tangents, but you got a lot out of it and wanted to follow his lines of thought. Here we get TMI about why he doesn't find Mimsey Farmer sexually attractive and a complete history of his career that you just want to walk out of the room during. I don't want to over-sell its faults; it's not terrible. He does talk more about The Black Cat than anything else, makes some good observations and it's worth listening to if you already own the disc. But maybe in future, Arrow should just bring him in for films he's particularly interested in.
I'm very pleased with this disc and really recommend it. If I already owned one of the anamorphic DVDs, I might not have bothered with this, since it's not one of Fulci's wildest. But I'm glad I have it now, because many of the extras were better than expected, and seeing this film presented so well, including the Italian language option, actually got me to appreciate the film more. And it's one I already enjoyed. This is the kind special edition this film has always deserved and we're just finally getting in 2016. Next stop: Blue Underground's Manhattan Baby!

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