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The Forgotten: Hey, Pluto!

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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.

Ahh, the Angry Samoans. There aren’t enough movie reviews that reference their work. This does sound, um, great. I am not sure that I will be seeking it out immediately, though, my mind being already infested with a great deal of grimy b/w cheapjack weirdness. However, your notion that there are ‘other’ Carnival of Soulses out there intrigues me. I would put forward the extraordinary Death Bed The Bed That Eats as one claimant to the title (in everything except the monochrome sense). Once seen, never expunged from the unwary mind’s misfortunate eye.
That sounds enticing! I searched for it and immediately found a shot of a leg brace and some foaming yellow sick lying at the end of a bed.
I second DEATH BED. Here’s my take: http://ttltrash.wordpress.com/2010/01/22/death-bed-the-bed-that-eats/
I would also have to add Leslie Stevens’ Incubus to the list of Herkian horror films, although really, it’s more like a Herk Bergman film in it’s strange mix than all Harvery. Somewhat noted for the dialogue being entirely in Esperanto, and starring William Shatner, one would think Incubus would just be a simple hootfest, but it’s surprisingly serious in tone and features some fine camera work by Conrad Hall. Stevens directed quite a few television episodes of shows like the Outer Limits and something called Stoney Burke,and produced and wrote for television throughout most of his career, but he did manage to put out three other feature films each of them described as being odd by those on IMDb who’ve viewed them. One can see the Outer Limits influence in Incubus, but clearly, Stevens had the urge to do something more serious here although still dealing with the demonic. The plot is that Shatner is a brave and goodhearted soldier returning from the war who runs across a succubus who is tired of stealing the souls of bad men because they are such easy prey, so she seeks to test her mettle against Shatner. It soon becomes a spiritual battle that hearkens more to the fifties films of Ingmar Bergman in the tone and matter of the story, but in a more literal way since Satan is summoned and an incubus goes after Shatner’s sister. When the succubus falls in love with Shatner, her sister succubi become determined to break him in order to make him sin and send him to hell lest they lose their love struck sister to the other side. Shatner does a good job with the Esperanto since its short syllables lend themselves to his normal, rather staccato, way of speaking, and the language also lends an air of otherworldiness to the affair. Quite enjoyable if one is in the right frame of mind and isn’t looking for campy giggles. As an aside David, I love these pieces you’ve been writing in The Forgotten, but I also really hate reading them since it means there are more films I find to see that I won’t be able to find! Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s mean to tease people?
Thanks for that. Have been meaning to catch Incubus for years. I’d be quite willing to provide all interested parties with copies of the films I review, but that would be illegal… The Black Cat IS available, on a double-feature disc with The Fat Black Pussycat, from Something Weird Video.

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