THE BLACK CAT
In Alan Jones' indispensible tome Profondo Argento, Daria Nicolodi talks about a treatment she had written for the third installment of Dario Argento's Three Mothers trilogy. Without Argento's blessing or input, Nicolodi wrote a tale called "Out of the Depths" which detailed "a neurotic film director, the break-up of a long relationship with his lover, and their monstrous daughter who turns out to be the third mother reborn". Some of that ended up in this film, THE BLACK CAT, directed by Luigi Cozzi, a frequent Argento collaborator. This is an incredibly strange film, part spoof, part meta-deconstruction. It has as many titles as it does sub-plots. The first time I saw the film it was on a bootleg tape and carried the title DEMONS 6 on the packaging. It certainly has nothing to do with the DEMONS franchise but neither does it have anything to do with Poe's short story, though producer mandated insert shots of black cats abound in an attempt to cash in on the mini explosion of Poe adaptations at the time.
The story (if one could call it that) concerns Marc Ravenna, a famous Italian horror film director, and his actress wife, Anne. Marc and his co-writer Dan have decided to write a story based on Suspiria de Profundis, the book by Thomas de Quincey, and in particular about Levana, the Mother of Tears. Marc wants Anne to play the Levana in the film, a choice that doesn't sit well with Nora, Dan's aging wife who has eyes on both the part and Marc. A very prestigious producer named Leonard Levin takes an interest in the production and Marc and Dan begin writing. That's when all the bizarre things begin to happen. Levana appears to Anne, warning her to not play the part. Anne begins having hallucinations more and more frequently. She begins to fear for her sanity and the life of her newborn daughter. While the forces of evil bear down on her, Anne is visited by a fairy named Sybil who encourages her to harness the magical powers inside her to defeat Levana before the she can be reborn on Earth.
Sounds almost interesting, doesn't it? Well as a kind of farce, I suppose it is, but the whole thing is so woefully inept that I doubt anyone could take it any other way. Cozzi was never a top tier director (though he has definitely created some fun, entertaining films) and it doesn't help matters here that he seems to be trying to imitate the feel of an Argento film, especially (and obviously) SUSPIRIA. Scenes are awash in heavily gelled lighting, the camera whirls around for no reason whatsoever and sudden juxtapositions of random objects are thrown into the editing. But Cozzi simply lacks Argento's inimitable skill. The film feels leaden and graceless, completely devoid of the kind of slippery movement and nimbleness of Argento's touch. It is undeniable that THE BLACK CAT is meant to be both homage and continuation of Argento's great work. In clumsy meta fashion, Marc is set up as an Argento surrogate (Marc both loathes and loves being called, in his own words, "the king of spaghetti thrillers", a title often bestowed upon Argento) but the film never really carries that idea to fruition. Anne, possibly reflecting a hint of Nicolodi's attitude towards Argento, is set-up as Marc's muse, a good woman who during the course of the film is screwed over by her husband. Unfortunately Cozzi drops the ball with the handling of whatever kind of meta message he wanted to convey. In clumsy scenes like the one where Marc and Dan tell their wives about the story, not only do they name drop SUSPIRIA but Argento as well, all while Goblin's SUSPIRIA theme plays on the soundtrack. It seems like a missed opportunity to mix together the "real" reality of our world with the plastic reality of the film. All Cozzi does is drop the bit of information and then move on.
The execution of the straight horror scenes fare no better. The special effects are quite simply terrible, consisting of some truly amateurish video effects and some of the worst practical make-up effects seen outside of a late 80s made for television Fulci film. Levana, the all important Mother of Tears, is laughable at best. Decked out in what appears to be cheap plastic werewolf gloves and wearing a mask that looks like a mound of hardened pustules, she hardly inspires fear. Much in the same way that Argento himself could not find a single interesting thing for his big bad wolf to do in his awful MOTHER OF TEARS, Cozzi doesn't give his villain a single thing to do. Levana breaks a few mirrors, vomits goo all over Anne, keeps waking her up in the middle of the night and then uses her oogie boogie magic to short circuit Anne's refrigerator. That's hardly the kind of nerve rattling terror the ultimate figure of evil should inspire. The figure of Sybil is a direct visual reference to the vengeful spirit of the little girl in Bava's exceptional KILL, BABY... KILL! and seems to promise an interesting climax when she tells Anne that she has unimaginable magic powers. This thread of story is replicated almost entirely in Argento's MOTHER OF TEARS (except, interestingly enough, the spirit girl in that film is the heroine's dead mother, played by none other than Daria Nicolodi herself). But just like Argento's film, it never quite pans out. In a hilariously cheap bit of filmmaking, Levana throws electric beams at Anne in an Emperor Palpatine fit of histronics and then causes her to explode. Anne returns moments later claiming to have mastered the feat of traversing time, and then simply stands and watches while Marc runs her through (Argento's film sets up the main character as a powerful white witch but refuses to let her do any real kind of magic; instead the heroine tears off the Third Mother's magic tunic with a rod and burns it, causing the entire building to collapse, killing the Third Mother in the process). Both films feel like cop outs but Cozzi's handling of the finale is so poor that it comes off as perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious final battle since the hospital laser shoot-out in THE MANITOU. The film then concludes with a shot of Anne's baby staring off into space with glowing red eyes, promising us that the evil is far from vanquished.
I'm not sure what the extent of Nicolodi's involvement with the writing of THE BLACK CAT was (IMDB lists her as an uncredited writer), but I can't imagine this is the kind of film she would have had in mind. THE BLACK CAT really presented her with a chance to avenge the past troubles she had with Argento. She and Argento worked on SUSPIRIA and INFERNO together but she never got a credit on either film, something which drove the already bickering couple further apart. This would have allowed her to craft some kind of story that would have wrapped up her ex-lover's unfinished (at the time) trilogy of films. She could have beaten him to the punch in a satisfying manner and Cozzi, a man who has benefitted so much from Argento, could have done his friend right by treating the material seriously, crafting a film that deserved to be tied (even if it were only just thematically) with masterworks like SUSPIRIA and INFERNO. It is unfortunate then that THE BLACK CAT turned out to be just as much of a monstrosity as Argento's own MOTHER OF TEARS. It's lazy and full of disconnected elements (such as the unexplained special effects shots of planets, stars and galaxies, repeated shots of a rotting fetus and the never ending inclusion of random cat footage) and works in fits and starts, never finding anything close to a discernable rhythm. The performances are dreadful and, in keeping with the times, the musical score vacillates between loud prog-rock inflected noise and poorly placed hair metal ("she's walking down the stairs, folks, cue the White Lion").
What Cozzi really needed to do here was choose what kind of a film he wanted to make before he started shooting. So much of what happens during the running time seems to lean towards the broadly comedic, but those scenes are usually paired with scenes that lean towards the horrific. There's a definite tonal disconnect going on and the film feels bipolar because of it. I was never sure whether or not I was supposed to be taking the film seriously or if I was supposed to be laughing. Without a clear line to follow, I was forced to simply take the film purely on a surface level. And what I was seeing didn't inspire a single emotion except slack-jawed disbelief at how absurd everything was, how cheap everything looked and how poorly even the simplest scene was executed. There really is no reason to see this film unless you are an Argento fanboy or someone whose taste leans more towards the "so bad, it's good" variety of horror film. This is fan fiction masquerading as a finished film and it's not even good fan fiction at that.