Directed by Stuart Gordon
Airdate: January 19th, 2007
So far in the almost two seasons since Masters of Horror debuted, my relationship with the series has been a lot like a love affair with a really attractive schizophrenic drug addict with bipolar disorder … From week to week, and minute to minute, I’m never sure what to expect. There are a few plateaus where things are decent, a lot of lows that are really low, and make me reconsider the whole relationship; but the highs, when they’re there, make me think again. And you know they really love you, despite all the fucked up shit they do. So how can you leave? I think a lot of viewers have had a similar experience.
This week’s installment, “The Black Cat”, is directed by Stuart Gordon based on a teleplay he wrote with Dennis Paoli. Gordon is responsible for one of those first season lows (in my book) “Dreams in the Witch House”, but he’s also got quite a bit of genre cred under his belt. “The Black Cat” is based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name about a man tormented by the titular pet.
Gordon and Paoli chose, wisely I think, not to do a direct adaptation of the short story. We all know how adaptations usually turn out. Here, they took the story and decided instead to integrate it into the life of the great writer, turning the straight up tale of fright into an exploration of the man, and his inspirations. Poe is played expertly by Jeffrey Combs, who not only looks eerily like the character but manages to make him so relatable that despite the dress and surroundings of his times, he could be someone you know. The depth of the character and all his facets – drunk, loving husband, frustrated writer and madman – is endearing and refreshing, even when he’s in the grip of his darkest fancies.
As Poe struggles to write, his wife Virginia (Levesque) provides both a safe haven of love and an added burden. Virginia is consumptive and has a nasty habit of coughing up blood all over their quaint house at inopportune times. Despite the obvious age difference between the two (in real life, Poe was only 13 years Virginia’s senior while Combs is 31 years older than Levesque) both actors managed to portray a genuine affection and even passion for each other. These two strong leads carry the episode effortlessly, but the secondary and even tertiary characters – like that of the barman at the tavern Poe frequents – all turn in good performances as well.
Poe’s labors to make money selling poems to a literary world more interested in his “fantastic tales”, and his frustration and anger at his inability to write anything new, are depicted incredibly well. In one scene, Poe sits staring with knotted brow at a blank sheet of white paper for a tense moment before whispering “the white plague”. The mood of the moment was conveyed so well I don’t believe you’d have to be a writer to understand the dread he was feeling at that moment – but if you ARE, it’s that much more powerful.
As Virginia becomes sicker, and he still can’t write to earn the money to pay for her doctor, he drowns himself in drink and spirals deeper into despair. And all the time, their cat Pluto does cat-like things like trying to eat their pet goldfish, or twining around Edgar’s legs when he’s drunk. But as he becomes more and more deranged, Poe begins to see the cat’s acts as sinister and dreads its very presence in the house.
That feeling of dread permeates the whole episode from the opening scene of terrifying illustrations. Gordon and director of photography Jon Joffin have concocted a soft, gothic tone and use both lighting and a few interesting camera angles to great effect. Normally, this is not something I would notice, but in this case the look of the piece was lovely and helped to instill a feeling of unease in the viewer at the same time. Another thing I hardly ever notice is sound design but again, this episode used it incredibly well to intensify the anxiety and heighten the mood. Just the look and sound of the episode is enough to set your nerves jumping, proving horror doesn’t have to be a gorefest to get a reaction.
Not that there’s not some gore. Though the blood is limited to only a few scenes, the guys at KNB have once again outdone themselves. I don’t want to give anything away in case you haven’t seen it, because it’s a great scene – but there’s one part involving an axe that is both shocking and creepy at the same time. It was also nice to see our evil cat, who was missing an eye, didn’t get the same terrible CGI treatment the poor feline in Nightmare’s and Dreamscapes‘ “Crouch End” had.
Last week in his review of “We All Scream for Ice Cream”, Scott Johnson said that is seems at times like the masters aren’t really trying. I have to admit that was the case more often than not. Luckily for us, Gordon doesn’t seem to have fallen into that bunch this time around. With deft writing, a great look, and well thought out sound design he loaded the bases and the talented actors helped him knock this one straight out of the park. I dare say this is my favorite episode of either season so far. This week’s installment was a grisly but gorgeous gothic tale of terror. This is one you’re definitely going to want to see.
5 out of 5