The Ghost

not to be confused with the royal trux song

not to be confused with the royal trux song

Lo spettro
aka The Ghost
aka Le spectre du Dr. Hichcock
aka The Spectre
Director: Riccardo Freda
Released: 1963
Starring: Barbara Steele, Peter Baldwin, Elio Jotta, Harriet Medin, Umberto Raho
Running time: 96 min
Genre: Gothic horror

Don’t move, darling, or I’ll cut you. Doctor John Hichcock is half the man he used to be. Struck down by a wasting disease and confined to a wheelchair, he has only death to look forward to. That and tormenting his beautiful young wife, Margaret. It’s whispered that Hichcock’s illness is just retribution for his weird and unnatural medical experiments, the devilish rites being held in the house of evil, crippled Doctor Hichcock. Regardless, he continues with those evil ways, subjecting both Margaret and his old friend Doctor Charles Livingstone to séances with his childhood nurse-cum-housekeeper Catherine, and also subjecting his body to daily injections of poison. Whether those injections are really meant to kill or cure, only Hichcock could say.

Margaret, however, has something to say, and it goes a little something like, “If you don’t kill him, I will!” After all, she’s the lovely young thing tethered to a hateful, too-slowly dying old man. Forced to play nurse as well as wife , Margaret has turned to the young and virile Charles for comfort. Animal comfort. Conservatory floor comfort. Driven to hate by Hichcock’s cruelty, Margaret insists they do away with their impediment to happiness–and wealth. And after all, wouldn’t it be better for Hichcock, too? To no longer suffering as a living corpse? It’s for the best, really.

But once the deed is done, things begin to go awry. Hichcock’s hound howls ceaselessly,  his wheelchair perambulates of its own accords, and Catherine channels Hichcock in her sleep, his spectral voice calling for Margaret. Then the will is read, and things go from bad to worse as Margaret and Charles discover that Hichcock’s cruelty extends beyond the grave, leaving Margaret the house and estate (on condition that she employ Catherine for the rest of her days) and one-third the contents of his safe. The other two-thirds go to the Home for Indigent Orphans run by Canon Owens. WHAT THE FUCK, thinks Margaret. The missing safe key seems to be yet more abuse from the malign Doctor Hichcock, but perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise. She and Charles immediately plan to find the key and get into that safe, robbing it just a little before it’s opened by officials, one-upping both the deceased Doctor Hichcock and the greasy Canon Owens in one fell swoop.

they both took the hypocritic oath

they both took the hypocritic oath

flowers make me feel like a cripple

flowers make me feel like a cripple

why does this gin taste like cripple?

why does this gin taste like cripple?

But first  they have got to find that damnable key. Increasingly frantic, Margaret and Charles search for the key beneath Catherine’s intrusive nose. On top of that, Margaret must countenance gossip in the village, for after all, it’s Scotland in 1910, and a handsome young man staying with the recently bereaved lady doesn’t look quite right. Nor does Margaret seem like a grief-stricken widow, even to staying away from the memorial service. But who cares when there’s a fortune to be found? Especially when they think they know where to find it: Catherine claims to have seen him put it in his vest pocket–of the suit he was buried in. Well, it’s off to the tomb to investigate, but not before the spectral visitations kick in, and the blood starts to flow, and suspicions grow like worms.

That wonderful inspiration that will save the lives of millions of poor cripples! While not quite as darkly thrilling or subtly perverse as The ‘orrible doctor ‘ichcock, Lo spettro is a fine example of the color Italian Gothic, featuring Barbara Steele at her most stunning and delightfully pernicuous.

Fisty: My two main issues with Lo spettro are a) I keep conflating the English and Italian titles of its predecessor L’orribile segreto del Doctor Hichcock, and calling it The ‘orrible Doctor ‘ichcock. Which is kind of weird. And also, I’ve been calling it Lo spettro because that has a much less generic and more suggestive sound to it than the US title of The Ghost. Even the more literal translation of The Spectre  would be an improvement. But really, those are my main complaints.

Bill: I have a complaint! There’s a small stretch of the film, from just before the murder to shortly after, before the weird things start happening, that is just a tad boring.  I don’t know what could’ve been done about that, really, since there are things happening, necessary things, they’re just not terribly exciting. This is maybe, at most, ten minutes of the movie and a pretty minor thing to bitch about, since the rest is pretty damn good.

watch it, sister

watch it, sister

oh, i will show you some cares

oh, i will show you some cares

just no

just no

Oh! One other issue I have is with the confusing fuckery that is the credit for the film’s score. The music is credited to Franck Wallace, a pseudonym, but it doesn’t seem quite clear who, in this case, was using the name. I think it was likely Franco Mannino, since Wallace was a name he used and that’s what got put in the credits. However, Francesco De Masi, who supposedly provided his own score at Freda’s request after Freda decided he didn’t like Mannino’s work, gets sole credit on some surviving tapes that were found. (You can find all this junk on IMDB.) This leaves me scratching my head and wondering who provided the haunting, creepy, yet so, so pretty music box waltz  that is used so effectively throughout the movie. I love it! So it kind of sucks that I don’t know who actually wrote it or even what the name of that piece is. I spent a good two hours trying to find a version of it online that didn’t have dialog from the movie over it, but I never was able to find it. In the film, in possibly the best, most intense scene, when Barbara Steele is shaving a nostalgic Hichcock, and considering murdering him, it plays on Hichcock’s music box and he refers to it only as a Viennese waltz. I can’t know if this was a pre-existing piece of music used in the movie, whether it was written for the movie or, if it was, who then actually wrote it. Gah!

Fisty: Okay. I’m with you on the shaving scene, though. It’s excellent foreshadowing, and builds to a wonderful intensity. It also hints at currents beneath the surface, like with the way Margaret pauses when Hichcock refers to her as a “beautiful penniless young thing, not a care in the world.” When he says that, she stops as if transfixed, razor to his throat, and her stillness stretches out till it calls Hichcock’s awareness to her. That pause is so evocative, hinting at a past that–for Margaret, at least–is not so lovely as Hichcock would remember it. It is significant in how it suggests some of the difficulties of Margaret’s position: Coming up from poverty, a poverty that was hardly so carefree as he would call it, to the heights of respectable marriage to a wealthy, respected doctor, and then descending into the misery of life as a nurse to a hateful, dying cripple. Because let’s face is, Hichcock is a dick. And a half. A life with Charles is for Margaret a fresh start: She’s thirtyish now, but with a virile young man she can begin again, have a family, possibly children, things that are beyond her reach as long as the horrible Hichcock is in the picture. So her desperation is palpable.

legitimate drape

legitimate drape

who died and made you widow?

who died and made you widow?

my hand smells like cripple!

my hand smells like cripple!

Not to downplay Margaret’s darkness; no, one of Lo spettro‘s strengths is Steele’s weird beauty and her capacity for bitchiness while still communicating vulnerability. Often this was simplified in the dual roles she was famed for (eg, Asa/Katia in Black Sunday, Muriel/Jenny in Nightmare Castle, even Harriet/Beatrice in An Angel for Satan), and those are a great use of her. But I do prefer Margaret for Steele, as she wonderfully creates a decidedly bad lady who is both cruel and conflicted. Not all witch  and while certainly not innocent in the least, still invested with a little pathos. Shades of Francesca Annis in Polanski’s MacBeth, but in gorgeous Edwardian gowns.

Bill: No downplaying for her darkness! She had Livingstone shoot a dog for making noise! Everyone in the movie (except for Canon Owens, who I think just wants the best for his orphans) is pretty dickish, but when Margaret and Charles start killing dogs, no matter how nuanced, layered or conflicted they are, I start thinking they deserve what’s coming. Cruel, horrible Hichcock, as really the only true sadist in the movie, is still King Dick and the absolute worst of the bunch. He’s exactly the kind of prick that you could believe would come back from the other side to troll you from beyond the grave, but at least he wasn’t killing doggies over a little bit of  howling.

Fisty: You know I don’t ever condone wanton killing of animals, but I think that was used to show a tinge of madness in Margaret, how unstable she is. There’s wonderful use of the dog’s incessant mournful howling, and I think that scene nicely underscores how inhumane Margaret and Charles are in their uncharity, especially when compared to a dumb animal. So though it makes me have a sad, it’s absolutely a useful scene. And a really good one, too.

But Canon Owens, you are totally insanely wrong about. The man is a cold, slimy fish. When the will is read, the camera lingers on his mug as he goes from smug, to greedy, and back to complacent once more. It’s nicely telling. Those orphans aren’t getting much from Doctor Hichcock, but Canon Owens will be lining his pocket with silk and velvet.

i'm not always crippled, but when i am, i torment my wife

i’m not always crippled, but when i am, i torment my wife

have a nice funeral, babs, dr hichcock will pay

have a nice funeral, babs, dr hichcock will pay

going bump in the night?

going bump in the night?

Bill: That wasn’t greed, it was joy for all the good things he’ll be able to do for his orphans.  (Fisty: Ha!) Or to them. I’ll admit, he was a little sketchy in that scene and he probably is just as slimy as everyone else in the movie. You have to wonder if Hichcock surrounds himself with shitters or if he finds good folk and shapes them into the nasty people he wants them to be. Charles seems like he may have been okay at one time. There are definitely some moments where some inner decency shines through in him. I could see Hichcock actually planning and secretly facilitating the affair between Charles and Margaret just to tarnish them both and allow him to punish them for the transgressions he orchestrated. I like that even a straightforward, evil character like Hichcock has some wiggle room in just how wicked he is because of the complexity of the characters. Maybe he was jealous of Charles’ youth and virility or maybe he was surprised and upset by the affair or maybe he just wanted to fuck with some people to get his rocks off and they were unlucky enough to be the people he had around. There’s room for interpretation. Though, if his portrait is an accurate depiction of his soul, I’d have to say it’s the last one and that Doctor Hichcock’s wickedness is absolute, because that was one freaky, ugly painting.

Watching Lo spettro, there were three authors that I was reminded of. One of them, Shakespeare, I can’t talk too much about for fear of spoilers, but there were some aspects of the dénouement that felt like a twisted, convoluted riff on Romeo and Juliet. Way more than Billy Shakes however, I was reminded of Poe and of Cornell Woolrich. There are some very “Tell-Tale Heart”-like moments in the film and one particular twist that is almost identical to the Woolrich story “Post Mortem.” I’m trying to talk Fisty into writing a piece about Woolrich, btw, so anyone reading this, let her know she needs to do that.

Fisty: When we’re on a regular schedule, then maybe I’ll have a minute to do it!

haaaaands holding haaaaaaands

haaaaands holding haaaaaaands

mecca lecca hi, mecca hichcock ho

mecca lecca hi, mecca hichcock ho

will all great neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my snuffbox?

will all great neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my snuffbox?

I got a lot of the same references, though maybe a little differently. “Post Mortem” is so obvious that there was never any question about it. With regards to Shakespeare, though, I think I mentioned MacBeth, by way of Margaret’s wickedness, and Charles’ suggestibility into knavery, as well as the imagery of blood on the hands. The lovers are certainly star-crossed in the traditional sense, though, much as Romeo and his fair Juliet are. I got Poe more by way of Roger Corman, specifically the dénouement of The Pit and the Pendulum. (These movies are over fifty years old; are we concerned about spoilering them? Shouldn’t it be “spoiling,” not “spoilering?” Why are we saying that?) And I see a lot of noir allusion, especially with the destructiveness of the star-crossed lovers once greed and guilt get out of control. The relationship between Charles and Margaret also references the way that the shared knowledge and responsibility for a crime spells an inevitable demise for their love.  There’s also Hichcock’s impotence as the husband, symbolized by the wheelchair, and the marriage’s subsequent childlessness. Also, the stifling entrapment Margaret feels, which Freda masterfully implies in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Hichcock domicile. Virtually every member of this ghastly household is perpetrating an assault upon the conventions of family, hearth, and home.

The way Freda has Hichcock’s scheme play out really poses the question of who the true villain is. Margaret is A villain, yes–and to a lesser degree, Charles–but is she THE villain? Or is it Hichcock, and does he go to a fitting doom? While Lo spettro is not as enigmatical as The Horrible Doctor Hichcock, there is still some ambiguity.

babs steele, tomb raider

babs steele, tomb raider

the 'orrible doctor 'ichcock

the ‘orrible doctor ‘ichcock

profondo rosso

profondo rosso

Bill: And the movie is just that much better for it.

Honestly, I agreed to review this one without checking it out first. I’d never seen this or The Horrible Doctor Hichcock. When I first looked at it, I was expecting it to be kind of boring. I figured we’d have a rehash of the 7DitCE review, with you (meaning Fisty, not you, good reader) raving and me snoring. Aside from a few slow minutes, however, I was totally wrong. I got sucked into the movie–so much so that I forgot to take any notes–then spent the two hours after I watched it still caught up in it and yapping to someone about it on Facebook. So … very much NOT boring. I liked it a lot. I loved some of it. In addition to the shaving scene we talked about before, there’s another really great scene (that also involves that same razor) later in the film. There’s a brutal slashing with this brilliant *svip svip svip* sound for each slash. One character is standing outside of the room where the murder takes place and you just hear that *svip svip svip* noise again and again. It cuts back to the murder itself, into what I suppose would be a victim’s POV shot, and as the razor flies, the blood literally runs down the lens of the camera. The murderer’s face is tinted red by the blood covered lens in what is a very, very Sam Raimi-ish scene in a year when Sam Raimi would’ve been about four years-old. Another really creepy scene features a supernaturally propelled wheelchair at the top of a set of  stairs that so perfectly prefigures some of the most memorable scenes from The Changeling that I have to wonder if Medak wasn’t influenced by Lo spettro. If he was, he has good taste.

Fisty: Let’s go ahead and just say that watching and enjoying this film is indicative of good taste.

Chockablock with neuroses, murder, drugs, and adultery, Freda’s Lo spettro is an elegant and colorful Gothic thriller rich with characterization and tension. High production values highlight Barbara Steele’s weird beauty just as a strong script by Ernesto Gastaldi and expert direction from Freda use her witchlike persona to great effect. It’s one of her strongest perfomances, and she’s ably supported by Peter Baldwin, Elio Jotta, Harriet Medin, and Umberto Raho, not to mention beautifully framed by the budget luxe sets and costuming. A lean, mean treat for fans of the Italian Gothic.

this one just makes us laugh

this one just makes us laugh

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The Initiation of Sarah

the morgan the merrier

 The Initiation of Sarah
aka En lo más profundo de la mente
Director: Robert Day
Released: 1978
Starring:
Kay Lenz, Shelley Winters, Morgan Fairchild, Morgan Brittany, Tisa Farrow
Running time: 96 minutes
Genre: horror, thriller

Whenever you see the word “tact,” replace it with “bitchery.” Two lovely girls–sorry, one mousy girl and one stunning girl–kick it at the beach during what appears to be an eclipse (I have no idea how else to explain the simultaneous brightness and darkness in this scene [Bill: Day for night shooting and a blue filter on the camera? Fisty: All I know is it’s even worse than the opening scene of Dirty Harry.]), listening to some groovy tunes. It’s the last party of the summer, and the mousy blonde frets over going off to college on the morrow. A faceless dude comes up and offers to help our stunning brunette with her breaststroke, and they traipse off into the water, where he proceeds to grope and gnaw her, presumably leading to eventual rape in the ocean in full view of the party. Mousy girl watches in mingled fear and fury, before shrieking “Stop!” as Faceless Rapist falls on his ass into the water. While our stunner gets away, he can barely crawl out of the water. Wait, what just happened?

No matter. It’s the next day now, and our two girls are preparing to drive off to college on a beautiful day that glows in a way only days in the Seventies can. Mom dispenses some advice to the brunette beauty about impressing sorority bitches, gushing over what a wonderful time she wants her to have. “Oh, and you too, Sarah,” she adds. It’s now that we learn that the pair are the Goodwin sisters, half-sisters that is, somehow of the same age. They share a dad, so it’s a safe bet there were some shenanigans about eighteen years ago. The blonde is Sarah, a shy introvert, and the brunette is Patty, who has the world by its tail. That tail starts wagging as soon as the pair arrive at the picturesque liberal arts college campus of Waltham College, where Patty instantly enchants beautiful Bobbie Adams and OH MY GOD, IT’S MORGAN “TURKEY’S DONE” FAIRCHILD. Oh yes, there will be blood.

the turkey is done!

Bobbie reappears in the “freshman dorm” (apparently a quad inhabited by a dozen girls) to explain that tonight’s the big night: All the freshman girls get to go around and introduce themselves at the sorority houses. Once the girls are invited to join a house, they’ll make their choice of one, move in and go through a probationary period before a final Hell Week and initiation. It seems awfully early for that sort of thing–and why even have freshman dorms if practically everyone just moves right into sorority houses?–but I’m not complaining.

Outside the Alpha Nu Sigma house Patty hesitates, wondering whether maybe they shouldn’t forget the whole thing. Is it a sense of foreboding? Whatever, Sarah points out that they’ll just end up living in a dorm if they don’t check it out–oh, so they DO get lived in!–and they enter the Temple of Doom. Morgan Fairchild immediately introduces herself as “Jennifer Lawrence” (nice try!), and though Patty makes an effort to include Sarah, it’s clear that Jennifer is admiring only Patty’s good looks and antecedents. She bears Patty off to meet some actives while minion Kathy shepherds Sarah over to the refreshment table no-man’s-land and abandons her. Seeing Patty surrounded by the Chosen Ones, Sarah makes her way through the crowded room, a goldfish in a school of neon tetras, and awkwardly insinuates herself into the group. As Patty and Sarah excuse themselves, an ANS tactfully suggests they check out PED–Phi Epsilon Delta–a house Jennifer tactfully calls both very old and “intellectual,” then demonstrates yet more tact by “forgetting” Sarah’s name. Once the sisters leave, the ANS girls declare that they’ve got themselves a winner AND a loser. Ouch.

patty - 1, sarah - 0

Outside the PED house, the girls are suddenly menaced by a barking Doberman. While Patty cringes in abject terror, Sarah gives it a meaningful glare, accompanied by intense close ups of her eyes, and the confused canine runs off. The music reaches a crescendo, and we understand that Something has Happened. Inside PED, we find a much different scenario from that of ANS. Though the house is massive, there only seem to be three girls living there: twitchy Mouse, sardonic Allison, and orally-fixated Barbara. When Patty mentions this, Barbara declares that “rushing’s not [their] thing,” and that the others are all out … or busy … or something. Patty demonstrates some ANS-worthy tact by declaring the visit “interesting,” and drags Sarah out, but only after Mouse makes a meaningful connexion with Sarah.

As you might guess, Patty is invited to pledge three sororities, and chooses ANS, while Sarah’s lone invitation is to PED. Though until now Patty has made a determined effort to boost Sarah’s ego, the girls are on their own at this point, with everyone from Mrs Goodwin to ANS promoting the divide. Though Sarah finds real friends in PED, and makes nice with her Psych 101 TA, she’s also hurt by the way ANS forces Patty to disown her, even to announcing, “I will not associate with pigs, elephants, or dogs” right to Sarah’s face. Matters are complicated by Sarah’s growing awareness of her own powers and the involvement of crazy housemother Mrs Hunter, who encourages Sarah to strengthen them, but Sarah has her doubts. Tensions mount, with Sarah and Jennifer facing off publicly. When Sarah comes off the winner, she is motivated to encourage her PED sisters to really become a sorority again. But Jennifer plots to humiliate Sarah, and Patty is torn by her loyalty to her sister and her desire to remain pretty and popular. Mrs Hunter’s machinations, which may have killed a girl once twenty years before, bring this soup to a roiling boil of Mean Girl tact and downtrodden dork uprising with Satanism and witchcraft for some extra goodness.

the watcher on the stairs

An Imitation of Carrie? In the Seventies, you hardly had to see a movie in the theater, because sooner or later one of the networks would release a copycat right onto the airwaves for free. The Initiation of Sarah was ABC’s answer to Carrie, and remains a memorable example of that Seventies boom. Populated by pretty faces of the day (the dueling Morgans and Kay Lenz), featuring the late, great Shelley Winters, and helmed by capable director Robert Day, TIoS is a nifty little knock off that reminds you just how cool made for TV movies could be before Lifetime and Syfy cornered the market on them.

Bill: The Bermuda Depths, Don’t Go to Sleep, The Day After, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Satan’s School for Girls, The Initiation of Sarah… Man, the ’70s and ’80s kicked some made-for-TV ass. They used to pop out some fun little thrillers. The closest we get to quality TV flicks like those now are shitty TV remakes, whatever “mega reptile versus giant amphibian” movie Syfy can find a desperate enough has been to star in, and, of course, Lifetime movies starring Markie Post. I mean, I love the shitty Syfy originals and there’s occasionally something good that comes out around Halloween on, say, ABC Fam (who premiered the “reimagined” TIoS) but they are never quite as great as they used to be in pre-cable TV days.  It’s a shame, because I love the format. There’s just something so dramatically perfect about the music-cued fade to black followed by a fade in, book-ending the commercial breaks. Even without the commercials, they’re just perfect, like reaching the end of a chapter in a book and turning the page.

this is my scanner face

Fisty: And speaking of books, you left out Stranger in Our House, aka Summer of Fear, by the queen of Seventies/Eighties YA girl horror, Lois Duncan. (Note that Stranger was directed by Wes Craven and starred Linda Blair!) That’s a big fat FUCK YEAH because no one does scary for pre-teen girls like Duncan: Summer of Fear, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Stranger with My Face, Daughters of Eve, Killing Mr Griffin, Down a Dark Hall, the list just goes on and on. Seriously, you ought to check them out. Maybe it’s the adaptation of several of her suspense novels into tv movies, or maybe it’s just that overall spooky Seventies vibe, but TIoS has a distinctly Lois Duncan feel to me, which helps it to stand out as not just another piece of Carriesploitation.

Also great about made for TV movies are the familiar faces, from television stalwarts to new up and comers. In TIoS you’ll find Shelley Winters reprising her blowzy dame role as the creepy Mrs Hunter, the antithesis of cheerful tippler Mrs Mac in Black Christmas, blithely planning ritual sacrifices to SATAN. We’ve also got two of the most beautiful and famous faces of the Seventies, Morgan Fairchild and Brittany Morgan, the former demonstrating her usual porcelain bitch-goddess character, while the latter is just luminous as the has-it-all-yet-is-sensitive-too Patty. Also familiar are TV movie and show staples Talia Balsam and Nora Heflin, Airplane!‘s Robert Hays–oh! And did we mention TISA FUCKING FARROW? You know, Anne from Zombie?!

you got me on my knees, sarah

Farrow, by the way, is nearly unrecognizable as Mouse, whom she plays very twitchy and high-strung. And lest we forget, Sarah herself is played by Kay Lenz, who somehow buries her own usual radiant, if Gelfling-like beauty behind Sarah’s diffident loner mannerisms. Kay Lenz was absolutely a star in the television firmament, bringing home two Emmys and marrying the likes of David Cassidy (when he was all that and a bag of chips), not to mention her appearance in House. What does this all mean? In a nutshell, we’ve got an experienced cast who really sell their roles, every one of them, from the most silent ANS minion to the frat boy girl raters. It also means we’ve got some of the prettiest faces ever all collected in one neat package. I’d kill for Morgan Brittany’s hair. IT’S SO BOUNCY.

Bill: Robert Hays! He’s so great. It was nice that his character actually had a conscience, too. He totally faced that bitch Jennifer, and walked away rather than let her lead him around by the johnson.

"pinch hitting for pedro barbon..."

All I know about frats and sororities, I learned from watching movies. They can’t really be like that, can they? No one short of Joan Collins can bitch it up like Fairchild and she makes this Jennifer Lawrence person so cunty as to be near inhuman. Why would anyone want to be “sisters” with her?! Ugh. I’d much rather hang with the Omega Mu Phi Epsilon Delta girls, especially Barbara. Hellooooo, Barbara! Are TV movies supposed to be so obviously erotic? But, yes… Why would anyone want to be an ANS? Blah. Though, as we saw in the opening near-rape, Patty can be pretty naive. I mean, she all but climbed onto a pinball machine and did a Jodie Foster impersonation. If Sarah hadn’t been there … So, I suppose I can see her buying into Jennifer’s “charm.” It’s kind of funny that Sarah, who is supposed to be the socially awkward of the two, seems to have a much better idea of the nature of the people she meets than Patty. She even seems to try to shield Patty from the reality of how  snooty the ANS girls are, knowing that that sorority means a lot to her.

Fisty: See, what’s so great about La Fairchild as Jennifer Lawrence is that she actually DOES fake being human sometimes, like when she offers a pseudo-heartfelt apology to Sarah. Most movie sorority bitch stock characters wouldn’t bother, but she can and does. She knows that the only way to maintain a high level of bitchdom is to fake humanity. It’s easy to imagine her being super nice–as long as you’re not ugly and don’t cross her. That’s one of the nice things about what the writers for TIoS did with it, they really created solid characters from classic examplars of high school and college movies, from our beautiful mean girl Jennifer to rejected introvert Sarah. Day and Ingalls et alia focus on these strong characters and the atmosphere and story–without relying on clunky exposition, we never do quite get how the Goodwin family dynamic formed, and it’s only implied that Mrs Hunter is *ahem* more than she seems with respect to Sarah–rather than effects-driven scares, a strength that makes TIoS still a damn effective little movie thirty-odd years later.

solid character

Now, speaking of Carrie … though Brian de Palma’s film really laid out the foundations of the downtrodden-nerd-rises-up-and-has-revenge-with-possibly-tragic-consequences genre, none of the imitators have ever really come close. And not because it’s a perfect film (it’s not), but in part because of the intensity of the awfulness, the real tragedy of the story, they pale in comparison. That doesn’t mean they’re terrible (they’re not), and sometimes they’re much more, well, real in a weird way. In TIoS, Sarah isn’t really an outcast. Yes, she’s a shy loner, and her mother doesn’t really like her, but she isn’t the victim of unceasing torment and humiliations like little Carrie White. (Which, incidentally, cheapens the rip-off Carrie moment when Sarah is pelted with mud and garbage.) She’s not popular, but she does have friends in the PED girls, especially Mouse, but most importantly in Patti. Where TIoS is strongest is in the relationship between Patti and Sarah, a story as old as any in the Judeo-Christian world–after all, are not siblings born to squabble? With sisters, too, you always have the hot versus the not, the smart versus the dumb’; we love to dichotomize sisters (or brothers), to separate and pigeonhole into neat little categories. And it sometimes damages both individuals. Yet these two are close; Patti does her best to look out for Sarah and care for her, and if her love is tinged by pity, it is still love. And that Carrie White never, ever had.

sisters

TIoS is at its best when it’s about their relationship, which is tested by their entry into a foreign, adult world of college. And if Patti does something shameful, well, she isn’t alone in that. Who doesn’t have something for which they are ashamed? It’s an understandable mistake on her part, she wants to be accepted by her new ‘family,’ and by strangers, to prove her worth in the outside world, and Sarah is a vestige of her childhood. But in the end it comes back to the love between them. Sisterhood in general is central to TIoS, though. Sarah’s acceptance in PED, the way she ultimately strengthens their ties to one another, and the juxtaposition of their sorority to the toxic relations of ANS, the pretty hate machine all serve as the central motifs of Sarah’s story. And lest we forget, the longing glances shared between Mouse and Sarah speak of yet ANOTHER sisterhood.

Bill:Yes, it’s a damn effective little flick, but not perfect. I agree about the great way they handle the less-is-more style, like with the Goodwin-Hunter backstory you mentioned, and the is-Mouse-gay? subtext. (She is REALLY into Sarah, and that might explain her suicidal history. And there are a lot of longing glances getting thrown around between these girls.)

did somebody say, "subtext?"

But then there are a few silly moments of irrational behavior and general WTFness that could have an excitable person yelling at their screen. I refuse to believe anyone would actually let that creepy Mrs Hunter teach any class, let alone a class on Ritualistic Magic Among Primitive Peoples. Sometimes it seems like none of these people ever even go to classes. Or do any school work. I also doubt the guys hoisting a piano up on a string are going to be stupid enough to let people just wander around under it, much less loiter under there, looking like fucking Tanooki Mario pulling his statue routine. How retarded is Patty?! She just stands there with Damocles’ Piano hanging over her head, waiting on her sister to psychic that shit down on her. Everyone does that! They just stand still and wait as Sarah psycho-stares them in the face.  She’s not scanning them. No heads are going to explode. She’s not exactly Carrie, who didn’t have to stare at something for 5 minutes to get an effect, so anyone that knows about her power, like, say, HER SISTER, could just step out of the way when she’s aiming her psycho-glare. And why does no one except Mrs Hunter react to this girl’s power? You’d think Jennifer, having been forcefully knocked through the air by an invisible force after pissing Sarah off, would then cut her some slack rather than seek revenge and humiliate the girl that has deadly super mind powers.

what could possibly go wrong?

Fisty: Yeah, there’s definitely too much standing and waiting for those powers to get going. I love that piano gag, though, because it’s right up there with guys carrying an giant glass pane across a street: SOMEONE is going through that glass, just like SOMEONE’S gonna be under that piano. So dumb, but so funny. It’s not just people affected by Sarah, though, it’s Sarah too. Like when she’s getting humiliated outside the PED house–why doesn’t she just run back in? No, she just stands there screaming like a banshee. Nobody does that.

And the fresh meat playing backgammon in the first dorm scene? I have never in my life seen ANYONE play a game of fucking backgammon, nevermind any eighteen-year old girls on their first night at college. The whole college thing is pretty unrealistic–these writers were going on some aging Fifties memories, I’m guessing. I’m not sure how much of that is clumsiness, and how much is perhaps deliberate anachronism, with that peculiar love for the Fifties they had in the Seventies. But I won’t argue with with Mrs Hunter’s class, which I have totally seen in course catalogs. I’m just not sure why she’d be teaching it since she doesn’t even have a doctorate, unless it were Waltham Community College. Those are some pretty minor quibbles, though, and they even lend to a certain enjoyment of the film. (Bill: Amen. I only “quibbled” at all so that no humorless, stick-in-the-mud  can say we misrepresented the movie in our review.) I can revel in that sort of silliness, while also enjoying its good qualities. (Bill: “We,” Fisty, “We can revel in it!”) TIoS is really kind of a perfect nostalgia flick–even for a time I never experienced.

nostalgic ... for SATAN?!?

Unfortunately, due to the ephemeral nature of television commercials (trailers  for made for TV movies falling straight into that category), we’ve been unable to locate a trailer for The Initiation of Sarah. Rather than head into questionable territory by linking to scenes up on YouTube (they’re there if you look, or you can catch the whole thing on Netflix Watch Instantly), here are some authentic commercials from January 1978, just before TIoS premiered, to get you in the mood. You never saw cotton-reinforced crotches looking so good. 

April Fool’s Day

a cut above the rest

April Fool’s Day
aka Week-end de terreur
aka Die Horror-Party
aka A Noite das Brincadeiras Mortais
Director: Fred Walton
Released: 1986
Starring:
Deborah Foreman, Thomas F. Wilson, Griffin O’Neal, Mike Nomad, Deborah Goodrich, and Clayton Rohner
Running time: 83 minutes
Genre: slasher, comedy

It’s gotta be bloody unforgettable: Preparing for the arrival of her friends at her island home, Muffy St John (Deborah Foreman) prepares the house, happening upon an old jack-in-the-box in the basement. While opening it, she recalls receiving it as a birthday present, and how the little monster inside scared the bejeezus out of her while all the adults laughed.

Ready for some Spring Break, Muffy’s friends wait for the ferry to pick them up. The company includes the serious A-couple Kit (F13P2 Final Girl Amy Steel!) and her boyfriend Rob, sex maniac B-couple Nikki and Chaz, and Chaz’s BFF Arch. Unknown quantities are wetblanket shy girl Nan who does theatre with Muffy, the ambitious Hal who’d like nothing more than to make good with Muffy’s wealthy father, and Muffy’s fine-ass cousin Skip. On the ferry over, insta-buddies Skip and Arch smartly play a game that involves throwing knives (yes, exactly what your parents warned you NOT to do), but the fun and games take a turn for the worse when Skip takes a knife to the stomach and falls overboard. Rob and townie crewman Buck leap into the water to save Skip, only to discover that it was an elaborate prank involving a trick knife belt. After all, it’s April Fool’s Day! Oh, you kidders!

we got punk’d

But then as the ferry is arriving at the St John dock, Buck, who stays in the water attempting to hook the boat up from below, is crushed and horribly maimed between the ferry and the dock. He’s carted off to the hospital by the ferryman, screaming imprecations at the group, who are also roundly chewed out by the local constabulary, who warns them not to leave the island until the matter is sorted out. Suitably chastened, they repair to Muffy’s secluded mansion.

The girls talk sex while heating up beans n’ franks for dinner, and the boys goof around outside, but Skip stews over the accident and Buck. At dinner, Nan is mortified by sitting on a whoopie cushion, while Arch is somersaulted by his trick chair. Nan drippily offers a toast in appreciation of college chums, only to be outshone by Muffy, who quotes Boswell’s Life of Johnson. (You really cannot go wrong with Dr Johnson or Boswell, kids.) A touching moment. As the guests raise their glasses to their hostess, Muffy looks on smirking, enjoying the wine dribbling down everyone’s chins. “April Fool,” she says archly. That isn’t the end of the gags, though. As everyone settles in for the evening, each room’s occupant stumbles upon more yet more pranks. Some of the pranks are innocuous–exploding cigars, trick faucets, lights that won’t turn off–but others seem aimed at dark secrets: clippings about questionable deaths, drug paraphernalia, S&M gear, and more.

hey, biff, your mcfly is open and we can see your flux capacitor

Even Muffy seems off-kilter when they come down in the morning, looking unusually frowzy and acting totally out of it. Despite the previous night’s minor contretemps, everyone spends the day relaxing and trying to enjoy their vacation. At least until Kit and Rob sneak off to the boathouse for some nookie, and catch a glimpse of what appears to be Skip’s body floating past. Rob, Chaz, and Arch investigate and find Skip’s trick knife covered in blood, and speculating on a connection to Buck’s accident, the three split up, intending to search for either Skip or the possible maniac. Only, Arch doesn’t come back.

Reassuringly, Muffy offers to make tea, because that’s definitely what’s needed in times like these. Discovering that the water main is broken, Nikki and Hal go out to the well where they discover Arch’s head and Nan’s body and flip their shit. When the constable calls that evening, he assures them that he’s been with Buck all day, but that he’s on his way to the island with some important information. While they wait, the group battens down the hatches, locking doors and windows. Everyone but Muffy hangs tight in the den, where they speculate on how odd Muffy’s been acting–and looking. As they discuss the pranks from the night before, tempers flare and suspicions are raised.

What exactly is going on at the St John house, and will anyone survive?

“april fool”

An essential lack of seriousness: Despite initial low returns at the box office (due in large part to a crap advertising campaign), April Fool’s Day ended up a cult classic due to success as a staple on late-night television and as a video rental. It is a perfect blend of comedy and horror featuring a quintessentially ’80s cast, and directed by Fred Walton who helped kick the whole slasher craze off with ’79s When a Stranger Calls. It’s a lighthearted mid ’80s slasher that manages to pay homage to the antecedents of the genre while epitomizing the decade in which it was made.

Bill: Writing reviews in the two person format we’ve chosen here at PB&G can sometimes be a pain.  With a single voiced review, you can just bang it out whenever you feel like it, but with a partner, you sometimes find yourself hostage to your “co-anchor’s” schedule, health, even mood, and sometimes your desire to crank one out gets stomped on by your 2nd voice’s (my) laziness.  Such was the case with last week’s review of French Sex Murders. I slacked off and we didn’t finish on time. Because of that and because I love April Fool’s Day, I figured I’d surprise Fisty by having this review all primed, synopsis written, and ready to go, so we could turn this mother out  and start on our next, The Initiation of Sarah. …but I got sidetracked. By the time I was ready, she’d already done most of the work and been waiting on me. My response upon seeing this, being as I’m a jerk, was not, “Wow! You’ve been busy. Good work. Let’s get into this.” It was, “Aw. You already did the synopsis for AFD. I was going to do that.” Now, since Fisty isn’t talking to me (this has happened before – it’s temporary) and this review has to be done by tomorrow, I get to review April Fool’s Day all by myself. Prepare to be underwhelmed!

dramatic recreation of the results of two-person format reviewing

First thing I want to talk about is the cast. As our crew of possible killers and would be victims arrives, ready to ship on out to friend Muffy’s island for the week, you’ll notice a lot of faces that any child of the ’80s will recognize. Ginny from Friday the 13th Part 2, Larry the narcoleptic male stripper from Summer School, Biff motherfucking Tannen, the wholesome girl from the S&M scene in Waxwork, um … the boyfriend from I, Madman … and … others. I wish Fisty were here. She’d love to talk about these folks and their ’80s pedigree.

Fisty: Mr Passive Aggressive, you forgot to mention the hot, popular girl in Just One of the Guys AND Rick, the made-over nerd into cool dude also from Just One of the Guys! Plus Stu Charno, from BOTH Friday the 13th Part II AND Just One of the Guys! And last, but certainly not least, that truly dazzling Julie chick from Valley Girl! Totally trippindicular fer sher!

Bill:Fisty! I am NOT passive aggressive. And I’m pretty sure the Julie girl from Valley Girl is the sweet girl from Waxwork, but I’ve still never seen Valley Girl, so… Hey, did you know the guy that played Buck was in Jason Lives? He was the stunt coordinator on that, too. That movie ties with The Final Chapter for my favorite Friday the 13th movie.

Fisty: BILL! Yes! I know that! Actually, he’s also Thornton in Jason Lives, which is why he’s got his own category. Nyah. That’s how we roll here, by the way; we have categories for every actor, director, sometimes FX or composers or writers, that you might possibly find in another movie we might conceivably write about one day.

but where is paul?

On topic, this movie is chock-a-block with familiar faces from myriad other classics of the Eighties, which is one of the reasons it’s so fun. Even Aristotle would agree. Also agreeable in that they satisfy certain expectations are the genre conventions that April Fool’s Day upholds, then transposes. Like gialli before it, AFD takes a murder mystery–in this case, one of the ur-mysteries, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None–and applies the slasher formula, slowly picking off pretty young things in inventive ways.

Bill: AFD is a lot closer to its gialli forebears than most slashers. In ways I think it resembles Bay of Blood even more than Friday the 13th does, with all the mystery and talk of inheritance, the possibility of sinister local boatmen, the missing bodies, scheming for money (by Hal), and the wooded setting. It even slightly resembles 5 Dolls for an August Moon, even if that is mainly due to the island setting and the healthy sense of humor. I love that it feels so akin to a giallo or straight up mystery.

a bay of blood?

I also love that it’s successful at being damn funny (that sense of humor I just mentioned.) Chaz and Arch are the primary funny men, and they are great as the class clown types. The girls’ sex quiz talk is genuinely funny, too, but Muffy’s pranks, childish as they are, are the best. Whether it’s dribble glasses, whoopee cushions, trick chairs, rigged faucets, whack-a-mole lighting or whatever, it all gets at least a smile. Most of these actors have had some comedic experience as well, and they know how to sell the sense of merriment you feel whenever you see someone get gotten. It really makes the first half of the film super fun to watch. It also creates a sense of total uncertainty. From the very beginning of the movie, everything is a joke. You’re never quite sure when something is real or just another trick. When the mischief begins to darken to the point of upsetting people, you don’t know if you’re seeing actual clues to the real mystery, genuine malice, or just more jokesterism going a bit too far. This carries on through the whole film, so that even in the very last moments, you can’t be sure where things will go.

Fisty: Walton creates and sustain tension beautifully throughout the movie, right from the beginning, which has a “found footage” feel. Perhaps this is a metamodernist interpretation (since Cannibal Holocaust was really the only such genre film before it), but Chaz’s video footage gives the feeling that it’s the only surviving testament to their weekend, that perhaps no one survived. And that’s from the very first frame! The creepy boatman that Bill mentioned, the accident, the isolated setting, and the possibly malicious pranks–Walton harps on all of them to keep heightening the tension, and then lessens it with moments of good humor and gregariousness as the narrative rolls on. By the time people really start disappearing, the mood is well-established, and Walton never lets it up right until the finale. But he couldn’t do any of it without the superstrong (mutant strong?) cast.

“hold me as only a mutant strong man can”

As noted above, pretty much everyone in the cast was a regular on the psychotronic scene by the time they hit AFD, and their combined experience–particularly in working together previously–lent a genuine camaraderie to their acting. The first part of AFD is very much an ensemble piece, depending on those actors to create likeable, real people, and they get it right. As does Walton’s direction, and even more, Danilo Bach’s script, of course. Though they’re all spoiled preppies–they (mostly) attend Vassar, and Muffy OWNS an ISLAND, for crying out loud–they’re still not just walking, talking stereotypes, nor do we get Twenty Minutes with Jerks. They’re just ordinary, if over-privileged, young people, concerned with their nearing entry into the post-collegiate adult world, with very real concerns like career-planning, “what will I do with my life” nerves, and whether to do anal or group sex. This weekend, they might have their choice.

Now, I don’t know anything about Bach, other than that he also wrote Beverly Hills Cop, and it makes me curious about his agenda with AFD. Because seriously, there is no other pre-Scream slasher that has anywhere near as much gay subtext as does AFD. It’s not even all subtext; we’ve got the subliminal, the liminal, and the superliminal! So we’ve got Vassar students–a college renowned for its resistance to heteronormativity–and we’ve got at least three men who are very comfortable playing dual roles with their sexuality. Chaz plays bottom to Nikki’s top and camps it up with his New Wave look. Arch, despite vowing to bed multiple women over the course of the weekend, also indulges in a lot of mincing, and is comfortable rolling around on a bed with not only his BFF Chaz, but gets up close and personal with Skip, whom he’s only just met.

heteronormative

Rob is kind of a nonentity, but he does like to prance around in half-shirts and short-shorts, displaying his wares for men and women alike. With the women, we have first Kit, who like Rob is the control, though she is fond of mannish attire (contrasting with his slutty togs?). Next we have Nikki, a mostly confident and sexually adventurous young woman, who is comfortable experimenting though she might sometimes feel insecure. And then there are Muffy and Nan, our Vassar theatre girls. There is definitely something going one with those two; not only is Nan completely out of place with the group, she’s also unreasonably upset when she thinks Muffy may have betrayed her secret. Her toast celebrating the particular importance of college friends seems to hint at the particular importance Muffy has for her, and notice her role at the end? Very telling! My interpretationof their relationship casts Nan in the role of Serious Sapphist, maybe new to it, but sprung on Muffy, while Muffy is a bit of a playgirl–maybe she’s just experimenting, maybe she’s an honest to goodness bi Ethical Slut. Muffy is a bit of an odd fish, with her past with Biff Arch; contrast that with her interactions with Nan and Nikki, and she comes off as very much as smooth operator, a genuinely self-assured coquette, even a femme fatale of sorts. Deborah Foreman OWNS Muffy, and she OWNS this movie. Hats off to Amy Steel for another outstanding Final Girl, but it’s Foreman who gets the standing ovation here. No other Val girl can touch her.

Bill: Speaking of homo-subtext, I really would’ve loved to see Muffy get it on with Nikki. Or even just see Nikki get her kit off. (See what I did there?) Man, Nikki was hot. There’s no nudity in AFD, however, and less gore than you’d expect, a certain boating accident’s victim being the main exception. Even the three – count ’em THREE! – severed heads aren’t particularly gruesome. Believe it or not, I’M NOT COMPLAINING! This a movie that doesn’t need any more red than it has, would, in fact, suffer by its inclusion. This is a movie that needs a bit of mystery to the kills for it to work. You have to be kind of uncertain about what happened and how. Is someone just missing or are they dead? Where did they go? Who startled them? Are they kidding? Is it just a joke or did something terrible happen? The less you know, the more tense it gets.

met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine

Charles Bernstein’s music adds to that intensity. He’s done plenty of horror scores before, for movies like The Entity, Cujo and, of course, A Nightmare on Elm Street, but there’s something different going on in the music for AFD. There’re no discordant sounds meant to disorient you. It’s not about some unrelenting chase theme or crazy stinger. It gets at you the most during calm, quiet scenes. It’s simple and serene. It sounds like secrets and childhood. It reminds me a little of the music from Poltergeist, but even more so, it reminds me of the opening of Tales from the Darkside. It makes me feel like I did when I was a kid, when it was so easy to be scared.  It makes me think of the opening sequence of Darkside, where everything looked nice and sunny and pretty, but you knew there was something else, something you couldn’t see, that needed to be feared. I don’t know much about music, but I know when it’s effective and the music in April Fool’s Day really creeps me out.

So, we dig the cast, the music, the direction, the tone, the writing… What do we have to bitch about in this movie? I know the most common complaint thrown at it and I suppose we can address that after this…

SPOILER WARNING! SPOILER WARNING! SPOILER WARNING!

Do not read past this point unless you’ve seen the movie!

Fisty, what do you have to say about the people that hate the twist ending of April Fool’s Day?

Fisty: Well Bill, they’re fools. I’ll admit it, the very first time I saw AFD back in high school (after years of admiring the VHS cover), I was like, “Wait, WHAT?” I can understand the shock, really, I can. But any long-standing ire or complaint is completely unwarranted. It’s just so cleverly done, so much misdirection and hinting–with very few stretches of imagination–that you just have to applaud. And it’s so fucking funny, too. Kit’s reaction when she runs into the parlour, and everyone silently pretends to ignore her, is fucking priceless. It’s absolutely perfect. And poor Rob! Still locked in the pantry while Kit’s getting the lowdown, wailing and pounding on the walls–oh, I may just faint. Hilarious. Absolutely worth it.

oh, HA HA, that’s really funny, you guys

Bill: Damn right, they’re fools! I watched this A LOT when I was younger and I can’t really remember my very first reaction to the twist, but I imagine I must not have had a problem with it, since I went on to watch it so many more times. As it is now, I love it. It’s a slasher movie with a truly happy ending. How often does that happen? Everything about the reveal is perfect. Even better, Walton did such a great job of keeping you on your toes and questioning everything in the movie (even when you hear a dog howl in the dark, it turns out to be one of the guys getting drunk outside) that you doubt the happy ending. The denouement reveals everyone to be ok, it was all a big joke, they partied down and had a good time and, yet, you, as the viewer, can’t relax.  You’re still expecting something horrible at any moment. So great.

Fisty: And you do get a final jump scare, one of my favorites!

Now that we’re in Spoiler Town, let’s touch on how AFD handles those slasher tropes, shall we? Attractive young people: check. Any questions? Remote location: check. There’s no boat back to the mainland till Monday. Stalking victims into an And Then There Were None scenario: check. AFD is relentless and creepy about it. Nil authority figures: check. Our constable is the only one, and he’s only nominally involved, long enough to disappear. Bodies disappearing so that no one knows what happened to them: check. It’s essential to the plot.  Inventive deaths & Poetic Justice: check. We’ve got F13P2’s caught in a Looney Toons trap, Hall’s trussing, the Chaz bondage mask murder, and Skip’s being stabbed with his own prank knife all fit. Holiday theme: check. It’s the whole gimmick of the movie! Yes, yes, these qualities are all in line with what we expect from our slashers. What’s different?

As mentioned above, the characters aren’t two-dimensional assholes, and we’re not rooting for any of them to die. We also don’t have any expendables, people who wander onscreen long enough to die and show what a Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day the Real victims are going to have. The Psychotic Evil Twin of Happy Birthday to Me and Blood Rage is inverted not only by being not a psychotic evil twin, but by being a fraternal twin, not Buffy but Muffy. And then there’s Death By Sex: Doesn’t happen. Yes, all of our characters are sexually active, but the first to “die” is the most morally upright and virginal-seeming, Nan. Darling Nikki is the last girl–barring our Final Girl–to go, and she and Chaz were getting it on all weekend. Our Final Girl Kit herself is a pretty ordinary, non-virgin type: monogamous, but not with the guy she lost it to, gregarious, happily participating in the sex quiz. She and Rob even sneak off for some midday booty without being impaled in the middle of it. The guys are all pretty similar; Arch and Hal are both intent on getting some, while Rob and Chaz actually are. Now if only the many slasher imitators had had the brains to be similarly original, then perhaps the slasher genre wouldn’t have peaked and devolved into self-parody quite so quickly, effectively murdering the horror genre for years.

THUS ENDETH THE SPOILERS! SPOILERS HAVE ENDED THUSLY!

You may resume reading. Or just go watch the movie and come back, jerk.

Bill:So, no real complaints about April Fool’s Day at all. It’s a solid flick. I’d put it right up there with Friday the 13th, The Burning and Halloween as one of the best. Do yourself a favor and watch it, if you haven’t already.

And thank you, Fisty, for forgiving me and being the consummate pro that you are. I couldn’t do this without you.

PSYCH! I got this shit, man. I got it by the ass! HAHAHAHAHAHA! April Fools, sucka!

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!