Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Based on fan appreciation, Dario Argento is probably the most popular EuroHorror director. Atypically for the genre,
his films had wide, quality theatrical releases in America, even
if they were sometimes censored first. Argento fully developed the 'killing machine' wing of giallo
horror begun by Mario Bava, and his '70s films are the slickest of the bunch. The Cat 'O Nine Tails
is his second feature, more straight murder mystery than horror film, a more intricately plotted
pot-boiler than his The Bird With the Crystal
A string of grisly murders around a research institute gets reporter Carlo Giordani
(James Franciscus) jugular-deep in trouble. Who is masterminding the killings, and why? Puzzle
composer Franco Arno (Karl Malden) is blind now, but was a detective when he had his sight. Are
the clues he provides too good to be true? The daughter of the head of the institute (Catherine Spaak) soon becomes involved with Carlo. Could
either be playing a role in the slayings?
Euro Horror is about style, and Dario Argento certainly has one of his own. Unlike many of his
contemporaries, Argento wasn't forced to create on a shoestring. The Cat O' Nine Tails is
beautifully photographed, lushly produced, and has a fine Morricone score. Two name American stars
topline the cast. Argento would later earn the accolades of film critics by dropping the mechanical
murder-mystery trappings of
his 'animal' trio (Bird, Cat and Four Flies on Grey Velvet) and going for pure macabre,
without the constrictures of a formal plotline. This made them appropriately dreamlike and 'delirious',
even as they made less and less sense. 1
Cat has the structure of an ordinary murder mystery. Puzzling murders, predictable events
(like the photographer with the mystery negative being killed just before he can turn over crucial
negatives), and a cast made exclusively of red herrings doesn't offer much to Agatha Christie fans.
What there are is is style, and the novelty of the Roman locations Argento shows off in,
for instance, an expert car chase scene. His suspense style withholds information rather than
provides it, making Argento another so-called 'Hitchcock imitator' whose style has little in common
with the master. Frequent scenes of corridors being stalked by Argento's subjective camera show
off some very polished camerawork, but function only as a convenient plot-sustaining device, providing
'tense' padding while concealing the identity of the killer. There is no subjective-objective tension,
as with classic Hitchcock subjective camera shots, and we certainly don't identify with the killer by
this technique alone. That is, not unless the actual thrill of the movie is to ignore everything else and
simply function as the killer, cruising in the dark for his next victim. Cool and sleek in tone,
the 'feel' of this Argento is that of an Italian fashion magazine, with the lights turned down, and
Ennio Morricone playing on the radio.
Cat isn't the string of violent setpieces one would expect. A slaying on a train
platform has some visceral shock cuts of the body tumbling along the track, but from then on
the killings become secondary to the assembly of a complex puzzle. They can get brutal, but there
are no 'clever' gimmicks like giant jagged statuaries falling on people, or witnesses trapped in
glass cages. Argento downplays the gore in this feature, but it shows him at his least affected.
Even an unpleasant subplot with a small girl threatened by a killer shows restraint. No wonder the
Hardy Encyclopedia of Horror doesn't even list this title.
The cast plays the story straight and serious. Can't-get-arrested-in-Hollywood James Franciscus, a
reasonable actor who almost never got a respectable part, carries the film well and is definitely not
slumming. The surprise is Oscar winner Karl Malden, also at a career low. Between classy Kazans and
television security, he either took this job for the vacation in Italy, or perhaps because he was
attracted to this quirky blind character. The rest of cast provide character turns in colorful
parts (what seems to pass for narrative interest with screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti). You can get
big names for tiny roles if they're strange enough, as with Mario Adorf's brief turn in The Bird with
the Crystal Plumage.
Savant can't disguise his limited response to Argento. This may seem unfair on the
outside - why champion Bava, when Argento's films are bigger, slicker, and far more popular?
Is there some crime in being the son of an already successful Italian producer? With Mario Bava movies,
it's clear in most every picture that he's deeply in love with the images themselves and
is communicating to us on a very personal level.
He certainly strayed in different directions (I really can't get through Twitch of the Death
Nerve) but always returned to his craftsman-artisan roots. And he does this at the expense of
success, avoiding big productions and powerful producers like the plague. Why I value that higher
than Argento's glossy mayhem machines must be purely personal.
All this is to say, if you enjoy the Argento brand of terror, you'll likely find The Cat 'O Nine
Tails a real thrill ride. I don't know what was cut in the 1971 American release, but I believe it
was even rated PG .... and since this widescreen presentation is uncut and unrated, it's
probably catnip time for Argentinites.
Anchor Bay's DVD of The Cat 'O Nine Tails is another of their well-mounted special
edition discs of arcane EuroHorror. 2
Previous tape copies can't begin to compare with the 16:9 detail and crisp color found here,
and of course the widescreen compositions transform the film into something entirely different.
Having the choice of language tracks and subtitles is icing on the cake. Although Franciscus and
Malden speak for themselves in English, their Italian counterparts aren't bad. English subtitles
didn't appear, but that function's been acting up on my machine, so I can't be certain they're
there or not. (Gee, very helpful, Glenn.)
A nice video interview is provided with Argento, his screenwriter Sacchetti, and a welcome Ennio
Morricone. Depending on who you talk to, Argento may or may not have contributed much to Once
Upon a Time in the West but this supplement asserts that he and Bernardo Bertolucci were
responsible for the whole script. For rarity alone, hearing from the screenwriter
of a EuroHorror is a new experience. Anchor Bay does a nice job with these no-fuss interview extras.
Some DVD docus are becoming overlong pieces of fluff, and AB doesn't make you sit through a lot of
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Cat '0 Nine Tails rates:
Sound: Excellent Dolby Digital 2.0 English, French, Italian
Supplements: Interviews with Dario Argento, Ennio Morricone, and screenwriter
Dardano Sacchetti; trailers, tv and radio spots, radio interviews Karl Malden and James
Fransicsus, poster and still gallery
Packaging: Alpha Pak
Reviewed: June 30, 2001
1. It's amusing to read letters to Tim Lucas in Video Watchdog asking him
to explain plot inconsistencies, illogical events, and unexplainable characters - only to have Lucas
respond with, 'What, you wanted it to make sense?' In movies like Inferno, Suspiria and
Phenomena, the actual story is barely more than a pretense.
2. AB has gotten some really unfair discussion board press lately
from the less forgiving zealots, who bludgeon the label for errors, usually the omission of short
scenes and details here and there. These movies were cut and recut for different countries and
territories within countries, and then reissued and recut again. Who can say for sure, when Anchor Bay
gets good elements, which elements are original and which are the 'incomplete' versions? Should
the AB boxes say, "Not uncut because we can't be absolutely sure because we haven't examined every
known ntsc and pal release including greymarket versions."?
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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