2. The Cat O’ Nine Tails
Il gatto a nove code
“The Cat o’Nine Tails” is definitely an Argento thriller at its most restrained. There’s neither a lot of gore in the movie nor an abundance of stylistic flourishes. It does, however, have a rather convoluted mystery and quite a bit of sleuthing from its main characters.
There’s not a lot of Argento here, it seems. There are a number of point-of-view shots from the killer’s perspective, including some flashes of the murderer’s glaring eyeball. A small child does play into the story, rather importantly. There’s even a whispery voiced threat spoken over the phone. Once again, as the killer’s falls to their death at the end, we do get another rather impressive POV shot of the fall.
There are only four murders in the movie and none of them are particularly intense. A man pushed in front of an on-coming train features some slight gore and a creative shot of a spinning, mangled body. The other two kills focus more on the stalking, building suspense. A photographer garroted in his dark room or a close-up on a wife’s face as she’s pushed to the floor and strangled are as close as the movie comes to the kind of carnage you might expect. As noted before, the Animal Trilogy is the director’s style and abilities evolving right before your eyes.
The movie is very story-heavy. It involves an old blind man teaming up with a hot shot journalist to investigate the murders that crop up in the wake of a break-in to a genetic research facility. While I’m somewhat reluctant to say it, it works against the enjoyable of the film. The title comes not from a literal cat or whip, but instead refers to the number of leads the investigators find in the murder case. As you’d imagine, all those different story threads bouncing off of each other doesn’t make for the smoothest narrative. There’s the millionaire owner of the research facility and his hot adopted daughter, who starts up a romantic relationship with the journalist. There’s a tabloid photographer, there’s the wife of a murder victim, there’s a homosexual couple, and I think one or two others I’m forgetting. At one point in the story, there are four different people investigating the murders. It’s a bit difficult to keep track of it all. While some of these investigators end up adding to the body count, more then a few of the leads don’t amount to much. Ultimately, more then a few of the sequence involving one of the many supporting characters do little but lengthen the run-time, such as the scene of the journalist taking a car trip with the lead-heavy daughter.
What the movie does have working in its favor is a game cast. Karl Malden plays the blind man and it’s a very good role. First off, Malden pulls off blind believably. Secondly, his character has a wonderful relationship with his young niece. She functions as his eyes, frequently, and the two have a loving back-and-forth. They feel like a real family. The movie also reveals some darker sides to him before it’s over too. James Francisco plays Carlo, the journalist. He’s not bad in the part but, more then once, he comes off as kind of a doofus. He’s more clueless then Tony Musante in “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” but far more likable then Michael Brandon in “Four Flies on Grey Velvet.” Francisco is best when playing off of Malden. The two work together nicely. As for the supporting cast, I liked both Catherine Spaak as Anna Terzi, the love interest, and Rada Rassimov as Bianca, the grieving wife.
There are more then a few memorable sequences here, even if few of them are directly related to horror. After the man is crushed by the train, the paparazzi swarm around a celebrity starlet as if nothing happen. In maybe the movie’s most famous moment, the killer poisons some milk in Carlo’s apartment. (In weird, triangle-shaped cartons. Must be an Italian thing.) There’s a lot of build-up before the characters are aware of the tapering. Near the end, one of our detectives are trapped in a mausoleum, in a nice, claustrophobic sequence. The killer’s final location is revealed by blood dripping on a shirt collar. My favorite part of the movie involves the sudden introduction of Gigi the Loser, a lock-pick and a recently released criminal. Gigi is introduced midway through an insult throwing contest, in one of the film’s funniest moments. More experimental then the camera movements is the editing, which cuts between scenes by flashing the first frame of the next sequence a few times.
Overall, I found “The Cat o’Nine Tails” to be a bit middling. There’s some likable elements. However, the movie isn’t horror at all. It’s instead a straight-up mystery and thriller. It’s not a bad film by any means but I feel this is transitional Argento at his most transitional. [Grade: B-]
3. Four Flies on Grey Velvet
4 mosche di velluto grigio
Argento’s stylistic evolution is most evident here. The opening sequences shows a rock band recording sessions intercut with footage of our protagonist, the drummer, being followed by a strange man in a trench coat. Playful shots from the inside of a guitar or of drumsticks spinning in space are intercut with stark, silent images of a beating heart, the rowdy rock score giving way to total silence. It’s creepy stuff and successfully sets the tone. Though employed some in “Cat o’ Nine Tails,” this is the film where Argento started to make full-use of the first-person perspective.
We witness each murder from the unseen killer’s perspective. There are numerous other stylistic flourishes. The camera is tight on a woman’s face as her body tumbles down a flight of stairs. We follow the blade’s edge as it swings towards a body. Slow motion is used successfully throughout, especially during the extended, fiery conclusion. Argento might have even invented bullet time here, as we get a single shot of a slow motion bullet striking a body.
This film also shows the slide away from murder-mystery thrillers straight into the horror genre. The murder sequences are more showpieces then ever before. The first is a long chase sequence through a park, the female victim squeezing between two walls, fleeing into a very cramped alleyway. Despite her frantic attempts at escape, the killer silently stalks her. Horrifyingly, we don’t actually see her die, instead only hearing her desperate cries for help and final, gargling breaths. A second murder features an unexpected, startling crash zoom, as a club smashes into a head. It’s also the film’s bloodiest moment, as the dying victim spits blood onto the camera lens. The third death occurs in a bathroom stall, accompanied by lingering close-ups of a syringe breaking the skin. This is prefaced by a brief scene of the killer preparing the needle and poison. The final stalk and slash sequence doesn’t reach the intensity of the earlier park scene, but at least attempts to match that level of drawn-out suspense.
Aside from the more obvious focus on violent death, there are other horror elements here. Argento’s fear of dolls first appears here, in the form of the killer’s spooky grinning dummy mask. We also get extended flashbacks to the killer’s past, such as long tracking shots of padded rooms or an angry man screaming over mysterious childhood pictures. This tendency to get inside the madman’s brain and foreshadow their eventual confessional breakdown would show up over and over again later. Early on, our protagonist hears an anecdote about Arabian execution practices, involving jabbing the condemned in the next with a stiletto and then decapitating them with a big ass sword. Soon afterwards, our lead is haunted by ominous, sun-drenched reoccurring nightmares of such an event. With each nightmare, we see more and more of the execution, so it’s only at the very end of the film before the actual beheading comes. While these dream sequence don’t add much on a narrative level besides some light foreshadowing of the eventual end, they are fabulously creepy.
Maybe this focus on style and violence was because of a growing boredom with the giallo formula. Indeed, the story plays with many of the expected conventions of the genre. Instead of simply witnessing a murder, our hero accidentally commits the murder himself. He’s soon blackmailed, stalked, and tormented by the real psycho. There’s no goal behind the blackmail and threats beyond sadistically destroying the lead’s peace of mind.
As in “Bird with the Crystal Plumage,” in order to unravel the mystery, the main character seeks out the help of an increasingly quirky supporting cast. Among them is a conveniently wise slummer nick-named God, a Grouch-Marx looking security expert who quotes scripture, a comic relief mail man who gets very paranoid before the movie’s over, and a flamboyantly gay private detective. While these characters serve little purpose beyond dropping exposition or padding out the body count, they are entertaining, welcomed additions to the movie. The title-lending plot device near the end of the movie is a nice touch, even if it’s a bit far-fetched.
Especially since the lead character is kind of an ass. Played by Michael Bradon after everyone from Michael York to Ringo Starr passed on the part, Roberto Tobias comes off as a rather selfish character. The initial murder and blackmail are egged on solely by his belligerent nature. After his increasingly frazzled wife is scared off by all the, you know, murders and stuff, he sleeps with her sister, for reasons that are never well explained. It’s definitely the clumsiest of any of Argento’s romantic subplot. Eventually, it’s revealed that Roberto was chosen as the killer’s target because he acts a lot like the killer’s abusive, asshole father. Another weak aspect to the film is that the killer’s identity is pretty easy to figure out. We’re only ever really presented with one possible suspect.
The drum-driven score, from the legendary Ennio Morricone, is used nicely throughout. The frantic drum beats frequently drive up the tension. Almost as effective though is when the music suddenly drops out. In the park chase scene, the female victim tries to hide, screaming, the loud, intense score pounding away. We then cut to the killer’s perspective, silently walking down an empty path, the music totally gone. The score also features softer, dreamier moments, recalling the melodies of later Italian horror scores, like Riz Ortolani’s infamously misleading score for “Cannibal Holocaust.” Morricone’s score is used especially well during the final scene. Apparently director and composer argued during the film’s production, and Argento and Morricone wouldn’t work together again until 1996’s “The Stendhal Syndrome.” While Morricone’s music is always welcomed, this split led the way for Dario’s far-more successful collaborations with Goblin.
Unavailable for many years and only seen as grainy, overly dark bootlegs and internet files, “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” was finally given a home video release a few years back. It’s the best film in the Animal Trilogy and Argento’s first real horror movie. For these reasons and others, it’s worth seeking out. [Grade: B+]