Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye (1973): or, Who's Dead, Pussycat?

1973's Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye is a lot like the beautiful, Machiavellian co-ed who concocts a plan to coast through her college courses by sleeping with all of her professors and then blackmailing them for grades, only to be exposed when a jilted ex-boyfriend posts a recorded confession on YouTube in which she details her plan, thus warning off the profs and getting her expelled for unethical student conduct.

Fiendish, inventive, and sexy, but in the end just a little too clever for her own good.

There are a lot of things about SDitCE that by themselves are pretty wonderful--that great giallo title, some beautiful Eurobabes, gorgeous and inventive cinematography, and a could-be-supernatural/could-be-psycho killer plot that manages to throw suspicion on just about everybody in the movie, including the titular cat and an escaped orangutang (!). But as the red herrings pile up like some kind of seafood overstock sale, things stop being awesome and start smelling more than a little fishy. Tack on a silly, rectally-extracted ending, and you're left with a whole that is somewhat less than its admittedly interesting parts.

The movie opens with one of those interesting parts, a scream and a spray of blood followed by a slow pan around a creepy, cobweb-covered tableau. A fat, long-haired orange cat looks on impassively while the unseen killer drags a casket to the top of some stone stairs and shoves it down. On impact at the bottom the casket opens and a body falls out, which is immediately set upon by rats. These rodents eat quick, as within seconds they've completely devoured the corpse's face! Strong stuff, with some nice gory effects to get the heart pumping.

Next we see a beautiful young girl arriving in a rural European village, presumably coming home on break from school. This is Corringa, played by waifishly gorgeous Jane Birkin of Je t'aime moi non plus fame. (Her director in that film and erstwhile singing partner, notorious songster Serge Gainsbourg, also appears in this movie as the most French-looking/Scottish-sounding police inspector evar.) As they approach a stately castle on a mountainside--Castle Dragonston, ancestral home of the MacGrieff clan--her coachman drops some dark hints about the place and its owners' mysterious family history. The next shock hits when they're unloading her luggage, and we see someone watching them from one of the castle windows:


Yikes! What kind of animal house are they running around here? It's a cool, nearly surreal WTF moment, and promises great things for the future.

Inside, Corringa's mother is visiting her sister,Lady Mary MacGrieff, the mistress of the manor. Mary is in financial trouble, but her sister refuses to help. She suggests Mary sell the castle, since Mary's son, James, "won't ever get better here." Before we can find out any more about James's troubles, Corringa surprises Mom and Auntie with her arrival, and we're introduced to another ridiculously hawt Eurobabe, Doris Kunstmann (so close!) as James's French teacher, Suzanne. The two girls bond in Corringa's room, where Corringa confesses she's actually been expelled from school while Suzanne leers lustfully at Corringa's lovely legs. Promise upon promise! However, when Corringa dramatically throws all her school books in the fire to demonstrate how little she cares for college, she mistakenly burns her Bible as well, leading to much ominousness and even more promise of spookitude.

At dinner that night we get introduced to more characters and plot points. Dr. Franz, the family physician, is there to look after young Lord James's questionable mental health. Father Robertson, the new village priest, is there to bless everybody with his presence. We learn that family legend holds that if a MacGrieff murders another member of the family, the victim will rise as a vampire for revenge! James comes down for dinner looking very handsome and imperious, insults everyone at the table in the most vicious way he can, and then storms out after driving off half the guests. Then we learn another dark family secret--that when James was a child, apparently, he killed his baby sister, leading to his subsequent mental problems and opening the delicious possibility of a baby vampire crawling through the crypts. Oh, and the ape gives another brief cameo as well.

Garfield is a Playa.

After another brief scene establishes the severe-looking Dr. Franz as Lady MacGrieff's live-in fucktoy, we get the second of the seven deaths promised in the title: a standard-issue giallo pov shot leads up to Corringa's mom getting smothered in her bed, while once again the fat orange cat stares on stoically. This establishes the cat as a harbinger of doom, and director Antonio Margheriti (he of the Cannibal Apocalypse) uses shots of the cat throughout the movie to create tension and signal the advent of Very Bad Things. It's quite effective, actually, and one of the strong visual motifs of the film.

Some more strange happenings occur: Corringa hears the cat yowling from within the walls, then sees James outside her window only to open it upon a sheer 100-foot drop! Following the cat's voice (very Poe-like), she finds a secret passage into the crypt (or the "cat"-acombs...see what I did there?) where she discovers the still-unidentified and by now unidentifiable corpse from the credits, then faints and wakes up later in the kitchen. Strangely she tells no one about the gruesome contents of the cellar, but then I guess she's overwhelmed learning about her mom's death.

Mom's funeral is another great set-piece, as the doom-bringing cat interrupts the solemnities by leaping onto the poor lady's coffin, which those familiar with vampire lore are sure to recognize as one of the indicators of supernatural curse-itude. Lady MacGrieff orders a servant to seal the pesky feline in the crypt with her sister, which her servant reluctantly does. When the soft-hearted chap comes back at night to free the poor beast, he finds the coffin has burst open and now empty before finding himself on the wrong end of a straight razor. The cat, of course, escapes unharmed.

It was becoming harder and harder to ignore Father Flatuus' outbursts.

Meanwhile Corringa is getting to know her disturbed cousin a little better, and the mystery of the ape is solved when we discover that James has a menagerie in his room where he keeps his pet orangutang--also named "James" (?!)--whom he rescued from a travelling circus and who periodically escapes from his cage--echoes of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," the classic Poe tale in which an ape kills a couple of society ladies with (wait for it) a straight razor! We also learn here that the lascivious Dr. Franz is also having it off with the French instructor, who is complicit with him in a scheme to seduce James (the homo sapien) for the family loot. Never mind that we learned in one of the first scenes that the MacGrieffs are nearly bankrupt--I guess the writers forgot that, and you should too.

Moving on--Corringa is having terrifying nightmares about her mother resurrected as a vampire, which if true would not only prove the family legend but would point to one of her relatives as the killer! She rushes to James for comfort, and out of nowhere we get an arousing kissing cousins scene! Though whether this qualifies as incest is up for debate (depends on which state you live in, I think). While they're having sex we also get to see the doctor and Suzanne making ze whoopee and ze suspicious dialog ("Are you excited by all the blood that's been flowing around here?" the dirty doctor asks the stockinged seductress) before being discovered by Lady Mary, who is understandably upset. The doctor threatens to "reveal everything" if she tosses him out, but before he can carry through on his threat an orange cat crosses his path, and you know what THAT means.

Dude, you are SO busted!

Things just get twistier and twistier--someone offs James the Orangutang, the Doctor's body is discovered in Corringa's mother's coffin, and Corringa finds one of James the Human's cufflinks at the scene. The cops--led by the ridiculously dubbed Gainsbourg--surround Castle Dragonston looking for the killer, Suzanne tries her lesbonic charms on Corringa to (sadly) no effect, and Lady Mary is implicated in one of the murders, which I think pushes the suspect list total past that of actual victims.

Then, finally, the real killer is revealed, and--SPOILERS!--he's not part of ANY of the plot threads that have been so meticulously set up and interwoven throughout the ENTIRE PICTURE. It's a real Scooby-Doo ending, completely out of nowhere and thoroughly unsubstantiated, one that pretty much destroys all the cool wild set-up that's been done up until then. In fact, it's so anally-oriented (i.e., pulled out the scriptwriter's ass) that it would be funny, if it were not so completely inferior to any of the other gazillion possible conclusions the picture had available.

I really wish the film had ended better, because there's a lot here to like--as I said, the camera work is great, the film looks gorgeous, and we get some interesting odd-angle shots and Bava-esque color filters during many of the creepier scenes that are really a visual treat. The cat as a symbol is used wonderfully, the gothic sets and Poe hat-tips are fun, and there's enough wild, weird plotting for three or four effective 70s freak-outs.

Sometimes there's just no saving face.

However, in light of that nut-punting ending, some of the film's other problems become less forgivable. The plentiful red herrings (vampire lore, crazy James, orangutang-as-suspect, third-and-fourth-string treacheries) lose their power when thus robbed of their significance; instead of feeling like cool additions to a neat whodunnit, they end up seeming like stray ideas piled on for no good reason. The movie's title--while cool and descriptive--actually starts to work against it as well, since the viewer will inevitably find himself counting down to the final death and reveal and thus loses some of the important suspense (although I actually counted eight deaths, since it was unclear whether James the Ape's death was one of the seven, or another character's offscreen death took its place). And despite some nice perverse elements, we get surprisingly little Euroflesh here, though Doris Kunstmann does her best for us and does look nice in those black stockings. Rowr.

Still, the visuals are great, there's some cool over-the-top acting (particularly from male Eurohottie Hiram Keller as James), and the twists are cool to a point; so I give Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye 2 thumbs, worth seeing at least once, if not a timeless classic. A B-minus for a brilliant underachiever--pretty good, but does not work up to potential.


"C'mon, fight! What are you, some kinda pussy?"

1 comment:

Karswell said...

I've never really been able to make an honest assestment about this film because of the crappy copies I always seem to aquire. Would love to check it out if you think yours honestly looks better than the unwatchable vhs prints that have been floating around for 3 decades.

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