Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eyes

pet sematary

La morte negli occhi del gatto
aka Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye
aka Seven Dead in the Cat’s Eye
aka Cat’s Murdering Eye
aka Les diablesses
aka Oi eromenes tou Diavolou
Director: Antonio Margheriti
Released: 1973
Starring: Jane Birkin, Hiram Keller, Françoise Christophe, Venantino Venantini, Doris Kunstmann, Anton Diffring, Dana Ghia, Luciano Pigozzi, Serge Gainsbourg
Running time: 95 minutes
Genre: Gothic, giallo, inheritance thriller

Here, kitty kitty: A choking scream and crimson blood splattering. A straight-razor. A body is dragged and then dropped deep into some catacombs. Rats descend upon the corpse, stripping it of flesh in a matter of moments. A cat is the only witness. So begins Antonio Margheriti’s La morte negli occhi del gatto.

Following her expulsion from convent school, Corringa MacGrieff returns to Dragonstone Castle, her family’s ancestral home for the first time since she was a small girl. In residence at the gloomy castle are her mother Lady Alicia, her aunt Mary, the Dowager Lady MacGrieff, her mad cousin Lord James MacGrieff, a new priest Father Robertson, James’ doctor Franz, and James’ French tutor Suzanne, as well as a full complement of domestics. Oh, and there’s also an orangutan that James rescued from a travelling circus and named … James. Castles are expensive to maintain, what with all those battlements to dust and servants to feed, and Lady MacGrieff is feeling the pinch, and has asked Lady Alicia to Dragonstone to hit her up for some funds. Though denied by her sister (in-law? they look alike, but I’m not sure whether they’re both MacGrieffs by blood or marriage), Lady Mary seizes upon the gamine Corringa as another opportunity: Since Alicia has no money of her own, only Corringa’s inheritance, why not marry off Corringa to her son James? Also eying Corringa’s … assets … is foxy doxy Suzanne, who exhibits an intense interest in Corringa’s playing Claudine at School and stripping down to her skimpy slip while blithely bragging about her convent school escapades and expulsion. “Too many books never did a woman any good,” she announces, as she casts her schoolbooks on the fire–along with her Bible. Whoopsie! That might be an omen.

“too many books never did a woman any good”

At a family dinner, Lord James makes an unexpected–and unwelcome–appearance. Attraction simmers between James and Corringa, until she makes the mistake of mentioning that they had played together as children, along with his sister, you know, the one he accidentally killed. Awkward. James indulges in some witty barbs, retaliating in the only way he can for his emasculation, with um, incivility. Uncomfortable with her sister’s demands and insulted by James, Lady Alicia plans to stay only a few days before taking Corringa back to London, but alas, she is smothered in her bed that same night, with the titular cat as the sole witness. The same night, Corringa is awakened by the yowling of Kitty, and sees Lord James apparently hovering outside her window above a hundred foot drop. Is she dreaming? Following the sound of the cat’s cries, Corringa makes her way deep into the bowels of the castle, stumbling across the mutilated corpse from the beginning and first panics, flips out on some innocent bats, then faints.

When Alicia’s body is discovered, Lady Mary convinces Franz to provide a certificate of natural death, despite all evidence to the contrary. James spies on Alicia’s funeral from the cemetery walls, as does Kitty, who then makes a startling appearance, leaping onto Alicia’s casket. As we all know, this is another terrible omen, and proof of vampirism, and Lady Mary retaliates by ordering Kitty sealed into the family crypt with Alicia. Instead of a wake, the household goes into a bunch of explication, and we discover that some of the household are playing double roles. That night, kindly groundskeeper Angus sneaks back into the cemetery that night to free Kitty, but finds the casket empty. He then pays with his life as the straight-razor makes another appearance. Meanwhile, Kitty watches over a sleeping Corringa as Lady Alicia comes to her in a psychotronic dream, pale and hair blowing, exhorting Corringa to avenge her death. Knowing the family legend, that a MacGrieff murdered by another MacGrieff will become a vampire, Corringa fears the worst. Is she dreaming? Is there something supernatural stalking Dragonstone? Or is there something more venal afoot?

monkey see, monkey … kill?

Half Agatha Christie murder mystery, half giallo, and half Gothic, Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye is one and a half hot messes of fun by a master of Italian Gothic horror.

Bill: More of a tepid mess I’d say. Not much heat to go around in this flick. Least ways, not for a fella such as myself. Jane Birkin as Corringa is kind of attractive and has one really promising scene in her sheer slip, but that’s about as good as you’re going to get with her. Doris Kunstmann, playing Suzanne, is sexier, but just as under utilized. When I pop in a giallo, I want to see heat! Passion! … or at least some tits. I don’t need Skinemax softcore, but you have to offer me something! Look at The Whip and the Body, a similar Gothic thriller: no nudity, no graphic love making, but the women are GORGEOUS and photographed beautifully, everyone struggling with volcanic passions barely restrained, every scene smoldering with intense sexuality. Watching The Whip and the Body, I felt like my groin could spontaneously combust at any moment! Watching Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye, I didn’t really feel my groin at all. Where’s the heat?! Eh, James was pretty handsome, I guess.

when cousins are two of a kind

Fisty: Amusingly, if you simply Google Jane Birkin, you’ll see her ta-tas at least twice on the first page of results. Its not as though she was shy or assuming artistic pretensions (unlike some modern starlets, you know who you are). And how can you see her without hearing “Je t’aime… moi non plus” playing in your head, Bill? I’d think you’d love that. She does seem a trifle out of place here, though, looking to me so quintessentially Sixties; in the post-Great War world of 7DitCE, she looks awkward and coltish, but also wholesomely pretty, a startling juxtaposition with the elegance and glamour of Doris Kunstmann, Françoise Christophe, and even Dana Ghia. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Despite the red herring of James’ insanity (and the death of his sister), Corringa and James are the Babes in the Wood, innocents in the cynical, dissipated, and decadent world of Dragonstone. Their romance hardly has time to smolder, but instead is the bright sparks of a newly struck flame, a counterpoint to the jaded appetites surrounding them.

And perhaps that’s partly because 7DitCE isn’t saying a whole lot, what you see is what you get. As with the Gothics Margheriti did so well (Danza Macabra, The Virgin of Nuremberg, The Long Hair of Death), 7DitCE is a lot of style, and little to no traditional narrative or plot. The story is fairly silly, and the characters not especially deep–much as we would find in a typical giallo. And should we even mention the Chekhov’s gun of a giallo generic killer? Seriously, nothing prepares us for the reveal of the real killer except that a) he’s in the movie, and so he must have a reason for being there, and b) we’ve seen a few gialli in our time. The motivation for the murders is really completely peripheral to the movie; whodunit or whydunit is of less importance than howdunit–which is of even less importance than how things look at feel. But the setting of a remote castle in a long ago time, and the strange, claustrophobic atmosphere and supernatural events are squarely in the Gothic realm.

this is the cover of a lois duncan novel

Corringa, too, is straight out of the Gothic: a young, unspoiled girl in a gloomy old house. She isn’t exactly the active amateur sleuth of the typical giallo, but more a hapless victim, tormented by the events she’s caught up in–even the killer calls her an innocent and regrets having to kill her. After all, she wasn’t even meant to be there.  Really, almost no effort is made to solve the murders; most characters are just concerned that they not be held responsible, and that their own unrelated plots not be uncovered, and as viewers, we are more concerned with whether the underlying reason is mundane or supernatural. Being the former, we know again that we’re watching a giallo. It’s that racketing between the genres that the problems come in. Ultimately, gialli are stories contemporary to the time in which they were made, and all their accouterments, from motivation to setting ought to be, too. Blending these with the rococo sensibilities and stylings of the Gothic is awkward, especially in the Gothic’s implication of sex and violence, which is inimical to the giallo‘s explicit sex and violence. Viewers can find it difficult to reconcile to two genres, because well, frankly, even Margheriti finds it difficult to balance them.

Bill: Not only are the characters lacking in depth, for me, at least, they were completely uninteresting. I am perfectly fine with characters thin enough to be translucent, so long as I can at least laugh at something they do or say or have even one trait that makes them stand out. Corringa and Suzanne have, like, one good line apiece, but are, otherwise, just as bland as everyone else. The Jameses and the cat  are the only consistently entertaining beings in the movie … and one of them only lasts halfway through the movie.

kitty sees dead people

I don’t think it would’ve been so hard to blend the Gothic and supernatural with the giallo. I think they’d blend perfectly, just like peanut butter and something that goes good with peanut butter, so long as you do it right. The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave is a good example of a movie that does so. Hell, the first few minutes of 7DitCE are a good example! The movie starts off with a lot of promise. The opening scene, so wonderfully described in the synopsis, is great. It’s got flash, pizazz, and it’s got blood. At no other point in the movie, however, is any other death quite so great. I want more rats and razors! A big, dark, Gothic castle is the perfect place for both. I can imagine a fantastic chase through the catacombs beneath Dragonstone, a blade glinting in torchlight, Corringa running in terror in her sexy slip, startled bats taking flight, frightening her into a dark side passage where the killer stalks unseen. Sadly, that scene isn’t in the movie.  Instead, she just walks backwards into the bats and ends up in the kitchen. D’oh!

Fisty: Really? The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave? Are you as high as Scott? Let’s not even go there, dude.

what did mummy tell you about burning bibles?

If you’re looking for pizazz, what about the dream sequence (which, oddly, is subtitled)? It has a wonderfully bizarre and hallucinatory feel reminiscent of Argento, a quality Margheriti excels at in his other works. Though we viewers know there is a mundane force behind the killings (because we’re watching a giallo), that dream sequence, along with the superstitions harbored by virtually everyone in the castle, creates a mood of paranoia and suspicion for Corringa and the others–and even she begins to think she might be going mad. It’s James, the putative madman, who seems to be the only inhabitant of Dragonstone who can think clearly. In fact, he and Corringa take opposing paths, with him being insane at the start and slowly becoming one of the sanest characters, and her driven from normalcy into being unbalanced. Serge Gainsbourg’s Inspector is the only other person who seems to know what’s going on, and he really doesn’t appear to think he ought to let anyone else in on it–till the very end. But it’s all good. After all, though it carries the trappings of a giallo, 7DitCE approximates an Agatha Christie murder mystery, or an inheritance thriller. The actual plot, the motivation, is hardly convoluted. Following the rules of the genres, it’s easy to decipher the killer–though the motive is baffling until the very (abrupt) end.

And though the characters themselves are somewhat flat, the players aren’t. Everyone here seems to know what they’re doing and they go to it with a will, turning in some intensely straight performances just this side of hammy. It’s the only way to handle dialog that is sometimes deliriously overwrought: “You are absolutely on fire tonight, darling! Are you excited by all the blood that has been flowing around here?”  and “Why all these scruples all of a sudden? When you found me, you knew I was a slut!” being two of my favorites.

what more can suzanne do but strip and say, ‘here it is?’

That theatricality goes beautifully with the grand guignol setting, whether the characters are in sumptuous chambers adorned baroque bibelots, or scuttling through darkened catacombs, or meandering in elaborate gardens. There’s some beautiful photography despite the frequent abuse of zoom, and cinematographer Carlo Carlini saturates many of the scenes with an array of gorgeous hues.

Bill: It can be a pretty movie, and you know I love colors. There’s a lamp in the movie that is just outstanding, even when it’s just sitting there, being lampy, doing the sorts of things lamps do. And, yes, the players are better than the characters they play. The sets are great and I love the kitty. I like when he attacks necks. The fact that there are things to like about 7DitCE are part of why I’m so hard on it. It’s not a bad movie! There’s a lot to like about it: a mad orangutan, flesh-eating rats, a possible vampire, secret passages and dark catacombs, a school girl home from school and a self-proclaimed slut and supposed master of seduction … those are a few of my favorite things. This movie should be a lock for me, but they barely utilize any of it. If only they’d let loose, gone a little wild, lost their restraint, went fully over-the-top, and gave me something a little less Murder She Wrote, then I could’ve really enjoyed it. As is, it’s just not enough to keep me from being bored.

this is discretion

Fisty: Okay, your feelings are valid, Bill. Margheriti exercises a lot of restraint; the scenes of seduction and murder are pretty discreet, and I can see how that would tantalize, frustrate, and underwhelm you. I didn’t mind in the least, but thought it both classy and entertaining. And really, this–and pretty much any giallo–is supposed to be just that: entertaining. But for you, I guess it failed, which surprises me because I know how you enjoy Hammer films and gialli, and this channels the spirit of both.

I’m the first to admit that it’s not without flaws. Even tasteful and artistic direction and excellent acting cannot overcome an often (entertainingly) clumsy script and sub-plots and character arcs that dwindle and disappear. The whole mystery of James’ sister’s death–an ACTUAL mystery–is only a red herring, the Inspector hardly makes any appearances till the end, and the ape/orangutan seems significant but … isn’t. Like so much of the story. As Inspector Serge would say, “There’s too much that makes no sense.” But that’s what you get with Margheriti: trippy motifs and themes, not coherent plots.

But I do love the cat motif, how it creates suspense and is actually, you know, relevant. I especially love that he’s a big, fat, fuzzy marmalade boy (he looks just like a cat my mom once had named Teddy Bear), rather than a stereotypical black cat (though I love all kitties). I wonder whether they simply picked the most docile cat they could find … ? And the romance between James and Corringa seems genuinely sweet, and a nice contrast to the otherwise mildly sleazy goings-on. They’re a fairly unusual pair in a giallo, innocent, but not blandly so.

cutest harbinger of death evar

Though it is not an entirely successful Gothic inheritance thriller cum giallo, cleverly reversing the standard Gothic arc, instead going from the supernatural to the mundane, Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eyes skillfully uses tropes  from all three genres to create a diverting exercise in postmodern Nerdrum-esque kitsch.

Bill: Great Gothic setting, but too much Masterpiece Theatre and not enough Joe Bob’s Drive-In for me. …and there was so much potential! It’s like, if a really smelly, ugly girl with zero personality is a vegan, who cares? But if she’s kinda cute, maybe sorta fun to talk to, smells like oranges, and she’s a vegan, it’s sad. Then you’re disappointed. I say, give it a look only if you’ve run out of better giallo to watch, really dig straight up murder mysteries or, like me, need to see every mad monkey/ape movie ever made. And when deciding whose opinion to value more, Fisty’s or mine, keep in mind that she’s the smart one and I love Michael Bay movies and cry during Bill Pullman’s Independence Day speech.

who’s a handsome psychopomp? yes you is!

One thought on “Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eyes

  1. Pingback: All the Colors of the Dark « peanut butter & gialli

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