THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS (1971)
Dir. Dario Argento, 112 mins
Dario Argento followed the unexpected success of The Bird With the Crystal Plumage with another giallo — The Cat O’ Nine Tails. The titular animal this time is metaphorical, referring —rather convolutedly, it must be said — to nine clues that our heroes have to follow. The title is crudely inserted into the dialogue, which I’m always a big fan of.
This time, we have two American actors taking the lead roles. Karl Malden and James Franciscus make for an endearing odd couple, a blind crossword puzzle creator and a hardboiled reporter teaming up to investigate what initially appears to be a simple case of industrial espionage. Thankfully, it turns out that’s not the case, and soon the bodies start piling up, leading to a fantastically over-the-top denouement.
The film opens with a break-in at the Terzi Institute, a genetic research building. The break-in is almost entirely filmed in POV style, which Argento had used before in Bird, but is taken to its logical extension here. Shooting scenes from the killer’s POV enables Argento to put the audience in the shoes of the murderer, creating the uncomfortable sensation of being privy to the gruesome goings-on, while also helping to mask their identity. It must be said, the mystery is not as strong in Cat, and on first viewing I remember the killer’s reveal being met with a shrug and a cry of, ‘Who’s that character?’ Hey, maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention, but it doesn’t have the same level of surprise that Bird had.
In fact, the film as a whole is lacking that special…something. It’s a more mainstream thriller, lacking the brazen violence and overt eroticism, and replacing it with conventional strangulations and the most static, lifeless sex scene in cinema history, in which Franciscus lies motionless atop Catherine Spaak as if afraid to wake her up. I suppose you could say it’s more refined, but I miss the wild style of Bird, as well as its sense of pace. The Cat O’ Nine Tails runs a full twenty minutes longer than the earlier film, and the extra length is really felt, particularly during the last act, which meanders when Argento should really be tightening the screws. A late-film grave robbing sequence is the low point, dragging on for what feels like forever, and the supporting characters aren’t as memorable as those of Bird.
That said, there is plenty to like. The humour this time is better integrated. For example, a brutal slaying in broad daylight at a train station is followed immediately by a beautiful actress stepping off the train, the photographers abandoning the dead body and snapping away as the starlet poses.
A couple of my personal favourite giallo tropes pop up too — an exciting rooftop chase, and the old chestnut of the blackmail plot. There’s nearly always a character in gialli who knows the killer’s identity, but rather than tell anyone, decides to blackmail them instead. As you can probably guess, it never ends well. When I wrote my own giallo novel, Dead Girl Blues, I made sure to include a blackmail sequence, because I just love it.
For the second film in a row — and not the last time — Argento includes an LGBTQ character, and unlike many gialli, they’re treated with some respect. LGBTQ characters crop up with surprising frequency in the genre, but usually as titillating lesbian characters or as outrageously camp caricatures of gay men (see The Case of the Bloody Iris or Strip Nude For Your Killer for examples). Bird skirted the latter category with its flirtatious antique dealer, though here one of the suspects is a closeted gay doctor who is treated much like any other member of the cast, which is a welcome change for 1970s Eurohorror, which isn’t exactly well-known for its progressiveness.
Ennio Morricone provides the soundtrack again, and this one is even better than his work on Bird. The discordant suspense themes in particular are worth singling out, though the lovely, flute-led title music is very beautiful indeed.
Argento himself has frequently referred to The Cat O’ Nine Tails as his least favourite of his works (though I’m not sure anyone has asked him post-Dracula 3D), and it’s hard to disagree. As a standard giallo procedural, it’s a very good film. It’s a well-acted, compelling story, with a couple of creative kills and very attractive cinematography and production design. Argento, as usual, makes great use of location and architecture to convey an uneasy mood (check out the wallpaper that looks like blood splatters!), and there’s a terrifically bleak ending, if that’s how you care to read it.
On the other hand, the pace is slack, the third act sometimes ponderous, and it lacks the visual elan and stylistic flourishes of Argento’s other films. But fear not, for all that will be back with a vengeance — for better or worse — in Argento’s next film, and the final part of the ‘Animal Trilogy’ — Four Flies on Grey Velvet.
David Sodergren lives in Scotland with his wife Heather and his best friend, Boris the Pug.
Growing up, he was the kind of kid who collected rubber skeletons and lived for horror movies.
Not much has changed since then.
His first novel, The Forgotten Island, was published on October 1st 2018. This was followed by Night Shoot, a brutal throwback to the early 80s slasher movie cycle, in May 2019.
2020 will be Sodergren’s biggest year yet, with two new horror novels being published. Dead Girl Blues is a slasher-noir mystery, and it will be followed by a return to full-blown supernatural horror before the end of the year.
You can follow David on Twitter @paperbacksnpugs
To find out more about David please visit his official website www.paperbacksandpugs.wordpress.com
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The small Scottish town of Auchenmullan is dead, and has been for years. It sits in the shadow of a mountain, forgotten and atrophying in the perpetual gloom.
Forty-seven residents are all that remain.
There’s nothing to do there, nothing to see, except for a solitary grave near the top of the mountain.
MAGGIE WALL BURIED HERE AS A WITCH reads the faded inscription.
But sometimes the dead don’t stay buried. Especially when they have unfinished business.
A relentless folk-horror nightmare from the author of The Forgotten Island, Maggie’s Grave will disturb and shock in equal measure.
Dead Girl Blues
When a young woman dies in Willow Zulawski’s arms, it sets in motion a chain of events that will push her to the brink of madness.
A mysterious video is the only clue, but as Willow digs deeper into the murky world of snuff movies, those closest to her start turning up dead. Someone out there will stop at nothing to silence her.
After all, when killing is business, what’s one more dead body?
Part noir mystery, part violent slasher, Dead Girl Blues is the latest twisted shocker from David Sodergren, author of The Forgotten Island and Night Shoot.
The Forgotten Island
When Ana Logan agrees to go on holiday to Thailand with her estranged sister Rachel, she hopes it will be a way for them to reconnect after years of drifting apart.
But now, stranded on a seemingly deserted island paradise with no radio and no food, reconciliation becomes a desperate fight for survival.
For when night falls on The Forgotten Island, the dark secrets of the jungle reveal themselves.
Something is watching them from the trees.
Combining the cosmic horrors of HP Lovecraft with the grimy sensibilities of the Video Nasties, The Forgotten Island is an outrageous old-school horror novel packed with mayhem and violence.