The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)
Writer and director – Dario Argento, Luigi Collo, and others
Cast – James Franciscus, Karl Malden, and Catherine Spaak
It appears that my foray into the world of Dario Argento has turned from a brief visit into something of a habit. I respect the work of Argento, particularly Supiria, Inferno, Phenomena, and what he has done for horror cinema, but I’m not necessarily what you could call a ‘fan’. His films often remind me of bad dreams, or true nightmares, which is a complement, but at the same time they are often devoid of a coherent plot or character actions, which I’m a bit of a stickler for. That said, in the past two weeks I have developed a weird sort of bond with his work: getting used to living in Nice, France and battling jet-lag, it has become a bizarre ritual for me to wake up in the wee hours of the morning and watch some early Argento on my lap-top while my girlfriend continues to sleep. My odd European life feels akin to the emotions stirred up by the Maestro of Italian horror cinema, Dario Argento. Last time I brought you a review of his first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. This time I’ll talk about his second film, which came out a year later in 1971, The Cat O’ Nine Tails.
The film is true to Argento’s reoccurring plot in many regards: a killer is stalking victims for some unknown reason, razors and switchblades are weapons of choice, and the killer speaks in a menacing whisper. However, this is where the similarities stop and Cat O’ Nine Tails becomes something refreshingly different from typical Argento Fare. The central characters are an unlikely group of heros: a young journalist, an old blind man, and his 10-year old child (granddaughter?). The killings surround a supposed theft at a secretive genetic research lab which contains many documents which could be incredibly valuable in the right hands. Finally, while razors and knives do make their necessary appearances, the killer’s weapon of choice is a thin whip used for strangulation, like I said, not typical Argento.
The above differences aside, Cat O’ Nine Tails relies less on the typical visual flare of Argento, in fact I may not have guessed that Argento made this film if I didn’t know so beforehand. In fact, plot and a building a sense of mystery are the focal points. While it would have been great to have my cake and eat it too (the visual flair of Argento combined with a competent story), it was hugely surprising and very rewarding to see Argento competently handle a mystery plot, maybe not like a master, but certainly not like an amateur. It should also be mentioned that I watched the film in Italian with subtitles, so this combination in itself probably made the film more tolerable, rather than the horrendous English dubbing that is present in most of his early films.
Give The Cat O’ Nine Tails a chance, if only to see Argento do something slightly different. I don’t know if I will be able to keep this up for Argento’s entire filmography, but I have every intention of making it to Deep Red (1975), which many consider one of his best films and the greatest Giallo film of all time, although I’m not sure if I agree with them.