Edgar Allan Poe’s nickname should be Mr. Halloween. An infamous author who made a living writing some of the most beautiful but intimidating horrific poems and short stories perhaps in history has become intimately associated with that last day of October. The content of his prose certainly lends itself to the day we’re here celebrating, but – like so many other things – we don’t really know why. Perhaps his infamous short story, “The Black Cat,” was all he needed to become permanently married to Halloween. His infamous visage has even become adopted by the Halloween decoration world; you’ll find him on greeting cards and t-shirts with terrible super-imposed costumes.
“Masters of Horror,” a good-intentioned experiment created by not-that-good-a-filmmaker Mick Garris, was a two-season anthology show produced by Showtime. Though horror fans were immensely excited at this idea behind giving our most infamous horror directors one hour to go as balls to the wall as they wanted, sadly the show resulted with more bad episodes than good ones. “The Black Cat” was brought to us by the three-man team who also gave us Re-Animator; written by Dennis Paoli, directed by Stuart Gordon, and with Jeffrey Combs having the hardest gig of them all – bringing to life one of the most influential yet still mysterious authors of all time – “The Black Cat” is probably the best episode of “Masters of Horror.” It is a beautifully directed piece of Goth that honors the original story and brings to visual life the more gruesome aspects of the story you may not have realized were present. (A recent re-reading of some Poe stuff, this time with more mature eyes, resulted in a discovery of his ability for both surprisingly graphic depictions of violence as well as his knack for black comedy.)
For those unfamiliar with the original incarnation of “The Black Cat,” it is about a man confined by authorities for something we don’t yet know, and he goes on to explain the circumstances that have led to his current condemnation. He explains that he and his wife were avid animal lovers and would periodically bring home any creature upon which they stumbled while out and about. The man admits to his captors that, over time, he began to suffer from alcoholism. One night, while in a drunken stupor, he purposely injures one of his pets – a black cat named Pluto. The man then kills the cat by hanging it from a tree.
And then the man’s house burns down, and he and his wife barely escape. Upon returning to the ruins, the man sees a very haunting indication that Pluto is still alive. Or is he?
The man in “The Black Cat” shares more than one similarity with Poe, so it was a rather inspired move to take the real Poe (upon whom he likely based his character) and implant him in his own story, taking over for “the man” and giving him a name. With this metaphysical approach, our filmmakers have fun with the merging of these two worlds, and it is very clever to see Poe stumbling through the nightmarish world he has created – both artistically and literally.
As for the performances, well, the recent big-budget film The Raven should be embarrassed that it exists in the same posthumous Poe world as Jeffrey Combs. One of the many horror actors relegated to trashy direct-to-video nonsense, Combs is staggeringly good in his performance as Poe. There is a reason that, following the airing of this episode, our three-man team began touring with an independent show entitled Nevermore: An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe (soon to become a feature film). Combs has received some of the highest accolades of his career with his one-man show/performance as the haunted writer. And it all began with “The Black Cat,” essentially a one-off television episode that soon blossomed into a one-night only live show event, which then matriculated into a cross-country tour. Here he plays Poe as a man we all assumed him to be: a talented writer with both a God complex and no confidence whatsoever; a man addicted to the bottle and madly in love with his wife; a man haunted by his own demons, which led him to his still unexplained death. Fake honker of a nose aside, he looks, sounds, and nails the part.
I love to watch this every October, as for me it nails what I think of when I think "Halloween." For me, in a sad kind of way, the most quintessential Halloween period is long behind us. Likely most realized by Washington Irving in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the idea of Halloween seemed most appreciated and pure during the time when people had stables next to their houses, not garages, and when towns had only a hundred citizens - all of them huddled around bonfires as the children played in their simple costumes that honored mythical creatures, not television personalities; when street lights were candles, and people kept warm with fireplaces; when belief systems were still so rudimentary that actual evil seemed like a real possibility, and therefore made the importance of the holiday's origins that much more awing.
There’s not much more I can say about “The Black Cat” other than it deserves to be celebrated just like any other 90-minute horror classic. Perhaps lost in the underwhelming haze that was “Masters of Horror,” “The Black Cat” is somber and gruesome and darkly funny; the real Poe would have been more than satisfied.