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The Forgotten: Hey, Pluto!

David Cairns
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One searches in vain for a film like Carnival of Souls. Incredible as it is that an oneiric phantasia like Herk Harvey's 1962 fever dream actually exists, the fact that it does engenders a crazed hope that there might be, you know, more like it.

The Black Cat (1966), written and directed by Harold Hoffman, is as fine example as I've seen of a film failing to measure up to the requirements we have of a Carnival of Souls equivalent, and needless to say, even in failure it can't help but be pretty damn interesting. Like Carnival, this movie comes from a place not normally associated with mainstream film production (Kansas in the first instance, Texas in this case), like Carnival it's a genre exercise by people who appear not to have seen many B-horror movies, or not while conscious, anyway. And like Carnival, the director's initials are H.H. and he didn't direct any other dramatic feature films.

Harold Hoffman does have one other feature credit as director, an unappetizing documentary called Sex and the Animals (1969), helmed under a prophylactic pseudonym, which consists essentially of footage of animals fucking. Apart from that, he worked occasionally as a screenwriter, with 1964's The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald his most interesting credit.

Adapting, with moderate faithfulness, the oft-filmed Edgar Allan Poe story, Hoffman's work as director is notable both for deficits and strengths, or at least appealing quirks. Both are immediately apparent: a snazzy opening title sequence in which subliminal cat's-eye images appear interstitially is followed by a somewhat clunky talking bit with am-dram actors, spatial confusion caused by a lack of establishing shot, and boxy, off-mic sound recording. The leads look like Richard Kiel and the woman behind the radiator in Eraserhead. Prettier, I guess, but part of the film's low-budget charm is that nobody and nothing in the film is terribly attractive, apart from Pluto the cat.

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Our Poe anti-hero, Lew (Robert Frost) is an alcoholic writer who feeds champagne to his menagerie of pets (apart from the titular Pluto, we have a monkey, a tucan, a parrot and a raccoon-type-thing) while neglecting his bland blonde wife, Diana (Robyn Baker). And yes, the movie revolves around the props of typewriter, bottle and axe in a way that does seem to prefigure The Shining quite sharply. Haunted by an obsession that his feline friend in some way embodies the soul of his judgmental father, Lew gouges out one of the poor creature's eyes (hereafter, Pluto wears a patch of jam over one eye to make him look mutilated). This, like all the other violence, is startlingly graphic and actually more convincing and intense than the stuff in Night of the Living Dead, released two years later, which gets all the credit for introducing newsreel-quality splatter to the American screen. (It's important that both films are b&w—Herschell Gordon Lewis's gorefests, e.g. 1963's Blood Feast, 1964's Two Thousand Maniacs, with their ugly Eastmancolor grue, fail to convince and make an impact only by sheer nastiness and depressing ineptitude.)

Freaked out by the cyclopean kitty, Lew decides to put an end to it, stringing the animal up by a power cable which he connects to the mains, inadvertently burning down his inherited mansion. On learning that the family home wasn't insured, Lew tries to strangle his lawyer, and Diana brains him with a marble book-end. Lew is hospitalized and we see him writhing in his comfortable, terry-toweling restraints for, like, a really long time.

All this is delivered via a snappy direct-cutting style, influenced either by the nouvelle vague or by lack of access to an optical house: either way, it works. The fact that scenes generally begin in media res and in close-up, adds to the narrative's sense of headlong plummet. Released from the psych ward a new man, Lew is greeted by Diana and a stock music cue of romantic music which seems to be frankly taking the piss. Within instants, Lew is drunk and deranged again, trying to kill a doppelganger kitty (Pluto again, in a dual role) and settling for burying a hatchet in his wife's forehead (in an shot which formed the cover image for the Angry Samoans' first album). Blood, including convincing arterial spurt, is shed.

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From here, the movie follows Poe pretty closely, certainly more so than the Edgar Ulmer, Albert Rogell or Lucio Fulci movies do. Walling up Diana's body in the genuinely, naturalistically creepy cellar of his grim tract home, Lew tries to brazen out a visit from the cops, but Pluto gives the game away by caterwailing from within the walls. The cops' immediate, frenzied pick-axe assault upon the fresh brickwork, apparently instigated by a deep-seated love of our furry friends, is very funny. What they find, isn't.

Car chase! With really exciting rock music! (I didn't mention the music earlier? This may be the only Poe movie with a Chuck Berry song on the soundtrack. The montage of pets with stripper music is another high point. And Lew keeps going to a bar and seeing a live band, and after he blinds the cat, the band all sport piratical eye-patches!) And then, in a twist prefiguring Fellini's Toby Dammit, the sudden appearance of a cat in the road causes Lew to freak out and crash. Bloody corpse with pulped eye socket. "The End" flashes up, along with negative images and stroboscopic dementedness, and the film doesn't so much end as disintegrate.

Editor Charles G. Schelling, who cut some early Russ Meyer, deserves mucho credit for the film's insane pace and jolting rhythm, I feel. The unspecial effects are a joy: the house fire is represented by a convincing model, consumed by an unconvincingly tiny flame, and the car smash-up intercuts spinning POVs with accelerated motion toy-car flips in a way that's far, far better than merely "convincing." The Black Cat is unpleasant, delirious, closer to the spirit of Poe than just about any other adaptation, relatively shrewd about the skewed dynamics of abusive relationships and alcohol abuse, and it moves with a relentless, propulsive pulse. I offer the following as blurb: "It will keep you awake at night, at least while it's on."

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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