Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye Review
Sweet, innocent Corringa (Jane Birkin) arrives at Dragonstone, an ancient castle somewhere in Scotland which is owned by her family. Recently expelled from a convent school, her arrival coincides with that of an unknown assassin, who proceeds to butcher various members of the illustrious MacGrieff family, starting with Jane's mother, Lady Alicia (Dana Ghia). Who is to blame? Is it Corringa's aunt, Lady Mary (Françoise Christophe), who is in danger of losing the family home? The bad-tempered Dr. Franz (Anton Diffring), who's banging both Mary and the French teacher, Suzanne (Doris Kunstmann)? The new priest, Father Robertson (Venantino Venantini)? The apparently insane Lord James (Hiram Keller), who killed his sister when they were children? Or perhaps James' pet gorilla (no, really), who likes to peer mysteriously from behind curtains and barge in on meals uninvited? And just what does this all have to do with the ancient MacGrieff curse, which supposedly means that, if one member of the family is killed by another, they are destined to return from death as a vampire?
For most people, the term "giallo" will conjure up images of black-gloved killers, 70s Italian urban settings and modernist architecture. As I explained in my review for The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, however, the definition of what a giallo actually means is by no means absolute. (In Italian, the word filone is used to explain this phenomenon: encapsulating more than the concept of genre can, a filone is a body of films that incorporate similar trends produced within a specific time period. See Terry Needham's article Playing With Genre for a more in-depth explanation.) While it is certainly true that many of the genre's offerings were decidedly chic, modern affairs, a number of its instalments had something of a gothic twist. Antonio Margheriti's Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye (La Morte Negli Occhi del Gatto) is one such film. Taking its cues as much from Hammer Horror as Argento's stylish debut, it is a predictable and workmanlike effort embellished by an engaging whodunit, moody production design and some much-appreciated campness.
Margheriti (credited here as Anthony M. Dawson, the name by which he was listed on most of his productions) directed over fifty films over the course of his four-decade career, encompassing a wide variety of genres, including sci-fi, swashbuckling adventures and gothic horror. Very much the journeyman rather than the auteur, his aspirations were clearly somewhat lower than the likes of Argento or even Fulci, who usually managed to put their personal stamp on their films. In this regard, Margheriti was closer to a less adept Mario Bava. Bava, who also worked in a number of genres, often on films to which he had no real personal connection, had the technical expertise to make even his cheapest, least imaginative projects visually stunning, but Margheriti was several rungs further down on the creative ladder. The result is that Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye, while a competent piece of work with some neat stylistic flourishes, could probably have been made by just about anyone. As co-writer Giovanni Simonelli says, "With these movies, what you see is what you get. They were not meant to be artistic - they were just entertaining."
The film's most obvious trait, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you're looking for in a giallo, is clearly its sheer ridiculousness. Hopelessly exaggerated and/or unrealistic Scottish accents abound, rats feast on corpses in the labyrinthine caverns beneath the castle, and, of course, the family suffers from an ancient curse that continually haunts the proceedings. There is also the slight matter of James' pet gorilla, which he apparently acquired from a travelling circus when it passed through the area - although the film has little in the way of originality, I'm willing to bet that this is one element you won't have seen any any of the genre's other offerings. There is little in the way of subtlety here, and we are left in no doubt as to what sort of film we are in for - the McGrieffs live in Dragonstone. Riz Ortolani's score (actually re-used from Margheriti's earlier The Virgin of Nuremberg) works as an effective stand-in for the likes of James Bernard's work on Hammer productions like Dracula and The Devil Rides Out, and Carlo Carlini's colourful photography makes the most of the creepy surroundings - although it is abundantly clear that the film was shot somewhere in mainland Europe rather than Scotland. The low budget does become apparent at times (the most amusing example of this being a pair of hands visible in the frame coaxing the enormous ginger cat of the film's title to leap on to Corringa's bed) but Margheriti is a solid enough craftsman to make the most of the limited funds available to him.
Jane Birkin, better remembered for her brief but revealing role in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up, is very good as the sweet Corringa, an innocent embroiled in the greed and lies that have corrupted her family. She does well to contend with some of the script's more dubious elements - we are, for instance, supposed to be riotously appalled at the notion that she might be bisexual, while at the same time thinking nothing of the fact that she beds her own cousin. (Incidentally, Birkin's former husband Serge Gainsbourg shows up in the role of a local detective, although he doesn't chalk up much screen time.) The dialogue is also pretty amusing, and although it has its share of the ludicrous lines that are present in virtually all gialli, James' exchanges with the various guests at the dinner party near the start of the film are pretty sharp and should induce a smile or two. The whodunit element is also quite effective, and although the identity of the killer is one of the oldest clichés in the giallo textbook, Margheriti does manage to put an unexpected spin on it. It's a shame, though, that the script does not play up the obvious Agatha Christie connotations that tend to appear whenever you have a whodunit in a single, isolated environment: the paranoia and amateur detection elements that work so well in these situations are really not exploited to any great extent.
Comfortably the worst-looking of the three gialli released by Blue Underground in October, Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye is presented anamorphically in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and features solid colours and blacks, but sadly filtering and edge enhancement are abundant on this transfer. A number of people have said that they don't see any problem with these releases, but to my eyes this DVD especially is a bit of a mess. The problem is not with the source materials, which are in excellent shape, but with the needless digital manipulation being applied at the encoding stage. Get your act together, Blue Underground.
The audio is reasonable, although understandably constrained by age. Once again, Blue Underground have neglected to provide a complete Italian track, although a handful of scenes in the film that were cut from English-language prints of the film are presented in Italian with English subtitles. This sort of situation really infuriates me: they clearly had access to an Italian version of the film, so why not let us watch the whole film that way, if we choose to? Their inclusion of Italian audio on The Bird With the Crystal Plumage shows that they realise there is a market for this option, so I can only surmise that its absense is due to sheer laziness. There are no English subtitles either, apart from those that appear during the aforementioned Italian scenes.
The sole extra is an 8-minute interview with co-writer Giovanni Simonelli, who provides a fairly frank overview of his memories both of the giallo craze and of his work on the film itself. The featurette closes with a brief snippet from an interview with Margheriti, who died in 2002, where he explains the reason for his Anglicised screen name. It's good as far as it goes, but like so many of Blue Underground's extras, it could have done with being longer.
Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye is enjoyable enough, but it's far from the best that either the traditional giallo or the gothic horror have to offer. Its biggest problem, arguably, is its inability to decide precisely what it wants to be, although some might feel that this mishmash of different styles adds to the fun. Blue Underground's DVD is not particularly noteworthy, although the fact that they have released it uncut and in its correct aspect ratio for the first time is certainly appreciated.