TV Review: Masters of Horror – The Black Cat

In the hall of horror literature, no one has impressed audiences and critics for so long as Edgar Allan Poe.  While Nathaniel Hawthorne dabbled during the same period, and H. P. Lovecraft won belated respect, Poe remains the king of American horror fiction.  His stories range in form and genre, but the most well-known are dark, Gothic nightmares where the ghosts of the dead rack the living with guilt.

Poe himself wasn�t as confident as his writing.  Accurately portrayed in The Black Cat, he was a feeble alcoholic, who courted popular success only toward the end of his life.  All writers know the resentment one can feel for an empty piece of paper, and Poe knows it, as he struggles to find inspiration.  He needs another success, because his wife lies dying in her bed, a victim of consumption.

From here, the story of Poe dovetails into the narrative of The Black Cat.  While his wife suffers the ill disease, Poe finds nothing but anger for Pluto, the feline in question.  The cat mocks him, leaping onto his suffering wife, swatting at the goldfish on the table, and even harming the canary in the gilded cage.  Poe means to write, but, first, he must do something about that infernal cat.

The Black Cat
The Black Cat

The Black Cat was written by Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon, and they do a commendable job of fusing the short story with the poet�s actual life.  Poe aficionados will love the accuracy behind little details, like Poe�s Southern accent.  Additionally, once the story moves definitively into the fictional tale, the adaptation is entirely accurate.

This is not to say that things are a complete success.  There is a moment of violence that occurs in Poe�s basement that is so morbid and visual that it nearly ruins the Gothic mood.  I dislike sidling around what happens, especially considering the popularity of Poe, but it is the peak moment, and revealing more might ruin whatever suspense the story can conjure.  Suffice to say, a single line from the story is drawn out to maximum gory impact, and its effect is compromised by such a blunt visualization.

Even then, it might be difficult for some to get any suspense out of the story.  Edgar Allan Poe has been in the public domain for a century, and many of his Gothic tales are a variation on the theme of premature burial.  Thankfully, Stuart Gordon and the production designers do a magnificent job of creating Poe�s world.  Even if you don�t watch for the story, the episode is rewarding on a purely visual level.

Most of the color has been sapped out of Poe�s world, except for two key colors.  The maroon red of blood, and the luminescent sheen of the cat�s green eyes.  Everything else is muted, one shade above black and white.  The monochrome visuals help the sense of antiquity, as the settings and props all mesh perfectly with the world of 1843.  This is the most beautiful Masters of Horror episode yet, and should help cement Gordon in genre critics� minds as a true stylist.

Reflecting off the authenticity is Jeffrey Combs, who plays Poe with fidelity, and love.  He has been struggling for years to find a project that would give him this chance, and he takes it to the limit.  There isn�t a single performance in the entire series that can match his flawless portrayal.  He projects the character of Poe as someone whose own failings find their way into the stories he wrote, a man graceful only when he put pen to paper.

What I took away from the episode was mostly visual, and tonal.  The storyline closes in a way that might disappoint in its lack of imagination, but the episode itself is a beauty, a marvel of acting and cinematography.  Imagine how amazing this series could be, if every episode was made with this much passion.

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