Lucio Fulci is most well-known for the supernatural horror films he made, namely the Gates of Hell trilogy and Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombi 2), which was adapted from a script originally intended to be a sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. These films were so popular that they earned Fulci the title “Godfather of Gore,” but there are a whole host of films made by the director that were much less interested in gore than character psychology. For The Psychic (Sette note in nero) and The Black Cat (Gatto nero), the starting point is the work of Edgar Allan Poe. A kind of live burial links the two films, as characters are trapped inside a basement wall, a common trope in Poe’s work.
Interestingly, both films take the apparatus of the Giallo genre — slasher-type murders, a detective subplot, a focus on grand houses — and apply to them the supernatural elements of an occult horror film. There are evil cats and clairvoyants, and these play a big part in both The Psychic and The Black Cat.
The difference between these films and Gialli is that they include some rendition of the Final Girl, a trope more common in the slasher film. However, they do differ from the traditional rendition of the Final Girl, and to understand what Fulci does with it in his films, it’s important to understand what the archetypal Final Girl is. The most concise and accurate definition of the phenomenon is from Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws: “It is no surprise, in light of these developments, that the Final Girl should show signs of boyishness. Her symbolic phallicization, in the last scenes, may or may not proceed at root from the horror of lack on the part of audience and maker. But it certainly proceeds from the need to bring her in line with the epic laws of Western narrative tradition — the very unanimity of which bears witness to the historical importance, in popular culture, of the literal representation in male form — and it proceeds no less from the need to render the reallocated gaze intelligible to an audience conditioned by the dominant cinematic apparatus.”
Both The Psychic and The Black Cat pertain to that somewhat; after all, the two women are saved by men, but the concept of the male hero is undermined by earlier events. In that respect, the former is an archetype for the latter, which diverges from Poe’s short story quite significantly. The premise of both The Psychic and The Black Cat is that the female protagonist does in fact know who the killer is, or at least knows something of the killer (in The Psychic, the female protagonist receives clues about his identity). In neither of the films is the woman believed because the (all-male) police force finds it too difficult to believe them due to the supernatural nature of the woman’s claims. This differs from the traditional slasher film narrative with which the Giallo genre shares some similarities; in both, the focus is on a series of murders, along with the discovery and subsequent defeat of the murderer). In those films, the killer is known to the audience, but not the Final Girl, even if she is aware the murders are happening, as in Wes Craven’s Scream.
In The Psychic and The Black Cat, it’s hard to believe that Fulci wasn’t conscious of these things. After all, in the Poe source text, the women are barely characters at all, but in these two films, they’re front and centre, and act as the key to solving the mysteries at their respective hearts. They’re both responses to the Final Girl concept that had already been invented. The Psychic came out two years after Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film credited with showing the first rendition of the Final Girl, and was reinforced again in The Black Cat, released four years after John Carpenter’s Halloween. Fulci made his own version of the Final Girl which existed to provide a different function to Hooper’s own.
It’s impossible to dismiss the notion that The Black Cat and The Psychic allowed Fulci to reconcile with, and explore the reasoning behind, the specifically gendered films he’d made in the past (and was still making at the time). The perfect examples of these are the woman in City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981); in the former, the death of a woman who gets buried alive is telling, and so is the man who gets attacked by a bat in the latter. There are echoes of this in The Black Cat, too, specifically in a scene in which a young couple suffocates in an airtight room. And so it’s interesting how the Final Girls in both The Psychic and The Black Cat both handle their deaths with comparative rationality — with heavy breathing and nothing more. They are still filmed through the male gaze like the films to which they’re a response, but the actual substance of the films complicate things.
There are two signifiers which the highlight the importance of femininity in these films: the first is in The Psychic, in which a female friend gives Virginia, the main character, a watch that emits a distinctive sound as an alarm; in The Black Cat, the cat itself aligns itself with Jill. In the end, these are two things which save the women, and the men are nothing more than outside forces, spurred into action by those signifiers. On top of that, clairvoyance and the Black Cat are traditionally feminine phenomenons — this can be seen in everything from Tangina Barrons in Poltergeist to Virna Nightbourne in The Clairvoyant to the popular cultural figure Mystic Meg.
Even though The Psychic and The Black Cat don’t exist as prominently in the cultural consciousness as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, there is a sense that the Final Girls do exist in the wider world of horror, and some of those renditions are fairly modern. The most telling examples of this are Ready or Not’s Grace Le Domas, and Riley Stone in Sophia Takal’s remake of Black Christmas. The constant which connects the two characters is that their existence is directly opposed to the precedents set by ones in previous slasher films. The thing that has changed from Fulci’s heyday is that the sentiments these characters represent are much more present in the cultural consciousness, which is why the ideas in the Italian filmmaker’s work have garnered some popularity.
Frazer MacDonald (@frazermac44) is a freelance film critic. He’s mostly interested in the horror genre, but also has a pretty keen interest in animated films, particularly the works of Studio Ghibli.