In 2005, Showtime debuted the anthology horror series Masters of Horror. Each hour long episode is an original horror film from an acclaimed or emerging horror director. A few directors came back for a second episode in season two, exploring different areas of their craft and storytelling capabilities.
Jeffrey Combs stars as Edgar Alan Poe in Stuart Gordon’s The Black Cat. It’s a mashup of history and fiction. Poe himself is being tormented by the accursed black cat while his wife is slowly dying of Tuberculosis.
Stuart Gordon’s second episode of Masters of Horror brings him back to his other area of expertise in adapted horror. Yes, he is the master of H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, defining many of the techniques still being used decades later for any vaguely Lovecraftian tale. He also has a great eye for Poe. His strength here is getting his actors to perform in the same world. Gordon’s vision of Poe is an alternate reality where anyone has the potential to snap at any moment and destroy the world.
More exciting, The Black Cat sees Stuart Gordon reunite with Jeffrey Combs. Combs has performed in eight of Gordon’s films, including Re-Animator, the film that turned him into a horror icon. They both thrive with a heightened level of theatricality and aren’t afraid of committing to the weird and strange. The collaboration is more than enough reason to watch this episode for fans of either artist.
That is not downplay the third recurring element of Gordon’s work here. The Black Cat sees him collaborate again with his longtime cowriter Dennis Paoli. Paoli wrote the screenplays for Re-Animator and From Beyond, among others, and is Gordon’s go-to adapter for his work in other mediums. The link between these three artists has resulted in some of the most iconic work in horror and sci-fi cinema.
When I first saw this episode in 2007, I did not like it at all. This is a horror film about the most exaggerated and horrifying version of Poe’s demise ever written. It feels exploitative. The inciting incident of the story is his wife Virginia’s diagnosis. The drunken rage and falling in the streets are narratives defined by Poe’s critics to essentially ruin his legacy, but him suffering from mental wellness problems due to the loss of his wife is historical fact. The combination of both for shock value is unsettling.
Years later, I see more value in Gordon’s approach. There’s a thesis here about the creation of art even in the most appalling circumstances. The bloodshed in this episode is meant to distract you from the far more serious issues being discussed. I think the biggest problem with the episode is not its subject matter but its relevance to the Masters of Horror series. Gordon’s playing a completely different game from any other director on the show.
I do think there are structural issues with the episode. There is no room to breathe in The Black Cat. The screenplay is set to a four act theatrical structure that would work very well in a feature film. We expect certain period elements in a Poe adaptation because Poe is the American author we study from this time period. His writing pulls from elements of theatre and oral storytelling traditions to establish a trust with his narrators before they betray you again and again. There just isn’t enough time in an hour to create that trust, especially if you jump right into, “Did you know Poe was a raging alcoholic hated by all of his peers? Well you’re gonna learn.”
content warning: gore, alcohol abuse, animal abuse, mental wellness, violence against women
Up Next: S2E12 “The Washingtonians” from director Peter Medak.