Saturday, May 29, 2010

R.I.P. Dennis Hopper

It's looking like this month is going to become one of the most heartbreaking months of all time... a childhood idol, a very close and loved family member, and an iconic filmmaker all taken by the same hellish disease. The sadness is just piling up here and each one that passes adds to the distress, sorrow and projected emotions that they all reflect upon one and other.


Billy in Easy Rider, Daniel Morgan in Mad Dog Morgan, the lost Tom Ripley in Der amerikanishe Freund, the drunken Dad in Rumble Fish, Lieutenant Lefty in TCM2, the sardonic Kaufman in Land of the Dead, Feck in River’s Edge, Milo the assassin in Catchfire… the list goes on and on… not forgetting the psyched out photographer in Apocalypse Now, and Frank Booth in the masterpiece Blue Velvet… what ever his characters where called, he brought them to life and did it with such a talent that they became the main persona that that specific movie revolved around. The one you remembered after the lights came back on. Nobody could bring complexity and awe to a character in the same way as the great Dennis Hopper could.

Not only a great actor, but also a exceptionally talented director who’s movies always seemed to be ahead of their time, scolded at release, but later re-found to be modern classics years later. From Easy Rider 1969 through the magnificent Colors 1988, Catchfire 1990 and The Hot Spot 1990 to his last effort as director Homeless 2000 these movies are incredibly potent and elegantly told stories. Stories that undoubtedly will be re-visited by many now as he has left us.

There are only a few actors who I feel a "personal" bond with, amongst them is the great Dennis Hopper. I will watch anything that Hopper is in because he always brings something else to the movie with him. There’s an aura to his person, a sense of something larger than life. He held a magnificence that most others actors lack.

I once met Dennis Hopper. It was almost twenty years ago. I was a young runt attending one of my first ever movie festivals, my first ever visit to Stockholm, and Hopper was the guest of honour at the Second ever Stockholm Film Festival. Together with two mates from university we attended every screening of his movies during the festival only to hear him introduce them. We also attended the face to face interview session as this was the last stop on the festival. One of the girls who I was staying with had shot a music video the week before and had the camera still in her possession. As we where all taking the train back to Uni. later that night, she had the camera with her, and jokingly I said that we should interview Hopper and get it on tape. After being told by every official working at the festival told us that there was no way we could get an interview we felt determined to prove them wrong. Said and done, these two very determined women marched right up to Hopper’s daughter who was there at the Festival with him and asked if there was any possibility for a quick interview. Surprisingly we where granted one, a quick five after the Face to Face. She told us to get back in touch afterward and she would set it up for us… But, and there’s always a but… the two chicks I was there with got into an argument who was going to interview him and after a big ugly row walked off in separate directions.

I was kinda lost for words and in a city I didn’t know my way about. So I hung out in the foyer waiting for one of them to come back and pick me up so that I could get to the station for the ride home. Whilst waiting, Hopper’s daughter came back to fetch us, and I explained the situation. And then Hopper walked out looking for his daughter. I shook his hand and excused the situation in some way I can’t recall, but his answer was “Well you know... Women!” and he shrugged his shoulders. I stood there like a mute, and the next two or three awkward lines of dialogue where in the same spirit as those Chris Farley sketches from S.N.L. where he always ends up with the punch line “That was like, awesome!” I asked him to sign my notebook, and then we said our goodbyes and off he went… For years I hated the guts out of those two chicks for wasting the opportunity, and then reached the insight that I’d gotten all the spot for my self instead. I realised that this great actor took the time to talk to a random fan for five minutes of his time for no other apparent reason than for being a good guy - a complete polarisation of the characters he commonly played - and that impressed the hell out of me. This iconic actor, this man of cinematic importance, this landmark of independent filmmaking gave me a moment in time, and I adored him even more for that simple brief meeting.

After a battle with the most horrendous of all antagonists, the great Dennis Hopper, lost his battle to that monster called cancer early this morning. He was 74 years old.

Rest In Peace Dennis Hopper. I will miss you.

Paranormal Activity


Paranormal Activity
Directed by: Oren Peli
USA, 2007
Horror / Drama, 88min
Distributed by: SF

Even though I’m a fan and supporter of independent film, I can’t really see why this one was picked up by a major company and then boosted with that incredible guerrilla marketing campaign… which I now feel that the petition to get it on screens was all about after actually seeing the film. What’s the friggin’ hype all been about? When did this movie earn he name ”the scariest movie in a long time…” I didn’t find it scary at all, I wasn’t impressed, I wasn’t especially interested in the characters, I didn’t really give a fuck, and that ending… holy crap, how many times hasn’t that been used before?

Nah, I’m really disappointed in Oren Peli’s overhyped Paranormal Activity, as it really wasn’t that scary at all. My wife didn’t even find it scary, the ”Will I dare sleep alone tonight when you watch your second movie?” question posed as we started to watch went to a ”See ya later honey!” as she shut the door and it was pretty obvious that this movie had failed to hit the mark.

And that’s a bit of a strange thing, as this is a movie that I first heard about almost two years ago, and I've been really looking forward to being scared shitless for a long while. Already 2008 people where saying that it was the ”scariest movie” in ages… and the net was buzzing with pieces on the new classic to be. Just last year when I was working on the Ministry of Horror the head of a major company here in Sweden said that we should do something on this movie, as it was the most scary and disturbing movie he’d ever seen... I know that there where several changes made to the movie, as Paramount demanded it picking it up and releasing it theatrically last year after that great grass roots rallying of the fans. But I fail to see that the studio would have sliced anything of the plot or narrative out to scare audiences even harder. So I don’t really see what all the hoopla is about, and why this one when there are considerably better flicks still out there without distribution.

So why did I not like this movie? One: sticking a pseudo ”reality” sign at the start of a movie is getting pretty old and I don’t think that anyone ever really falls for that anymore. Two: the Micah character is completely unbelievable. I don’t feel anything for his character and instead just get irritated by his ridiculous taunting of the demon, lack of respect for his girlfriend and complete failure to convince me that he actually does get scared from the strange activities in there house. Trust me, nobody would be as controlled and calm as he is after repeated shit happens. Three: it takes too long, and it’s too obvious whilst they build towards the first attack, which isn’t much of an attack, and there are more strange noises in my house than that initial encounter with the demon. Four: Lack of Back story and characterisation. I never really get into the head of the characters. That could have easily been taken care of if Micah or Katie had taken a few minutes to talk right into the camera and confess or share their real emotions as if making a video diary. Everyone remembers Heather Donahue snivelling and discharging snot all over the camcorder in Blair Witch Project 1999, and that’s the scene that sells the realism. It authenticates it all and we obviously become deeper engages with a character that shares their fears, flaws and regrets with us in that way. Five: that ending sucks major ass.

But I do like the form, even if the home footage / documentary style is getting boring, and more of a genre convention than an innovative novelty, and movies without opening credits or endings have been old since Coppola did it with Apocalypse Now 1979. Although there are some freaky – not scary - freaky scenes in the movie and the frustration of Katie is believable. But if she really were as scared as she was, she wouldn’t have taken Micah’s constant documentation for as long as she did. Neither would she have let him off so easily for the Ouija board incident. I also liked the subtlety of the incidents, especially the ones that you had to pay close attention to see, such as the slight breezes or swift shadows, not to mention that great part with the talk on the floor... It just goes to prove that you can get a long way with atmosphere and viewer imagination and don’t have to smear the whole thing in flash effects and screaming sound effects. And no matter how effective the scene when Katie is pulled out of bed and into the hall ism it still kind of breaks the form and starts to feel more like a classic horror movie trick which I find busts the mood as the movie get’s close to the climax. And as mentioned above, the climax leaves a lot to be asked for, and I’m not talking about a great reveal, but something that stays more in line with the rest of the movie. It’s more of an anticlimax than anything else, as I could see it coming from a mile away.

I would have been more freaked out if Katie has stayed by the side of the bed and simply watched as something got Micah and made him pay for his ignorance and taunting. Katie awakens and when the cops get there, she's charged even though she obviously was innocent., which we the audience know that from the footage we just watched... That would have been much more scarier than breaking the fourth wall and attacking the camera or in other words the audience in that silly ending.

So no, I didn’t find Paranormal Activity to be the scariest movie in a long while, I actually found it kind of boring, predictable, and somewhat insulting as they way to times felt obliged to show me a second time what had happened the night before with the characters interacting to what they see on the monitors… In all honesty I was bored. I feel that it’s safe to say that Paranormal Activity is indeed a classic mainstream horror; aimed at mainstream horror fans, the ones that don’t see horror movies on a regular basis, because that’s the only people I can see being scared by this movie. But if scaring multiplex audiences within the accepted frame of convenience determined by the men in suits was the dream that Peli had when he set out to make this flick, then I certainly raise my hat to him as he at least created a movie that definitely caused a stir and more than likely created himself a whole little fan base that will follow him from here on.
Image:
Widescreen 1.85:1

Audio:
Dolby Digital 5.1,dts Digital Surround. English Dialogue. Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic subtitles optional.

Extras:
An alternative ending… and what the fuck was alternative about it? It’s just as ridiculous to break the fourth wall and stare into the camera as it has no real effect.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cellat





Cellat
Aka: The Executioner,
aka. Turkish Death Wish

Directed by: Memduh Ün
Turkey, 1975
Action/Thriller, 78min
Distributed by: Onar Films

I’m really enjoying going through the releases of lost Turkish cinema classics brought to us by Onar Films. There’s something tremendously appealing with those fascinating pieces of movie history that finally have seen the day of light and in the best shape they have been since initially being made back in the day.

Cheap, gritty, sleazy and violent but ever so entertaining pieces of wonderful fantastic cinema that deserve to be seen once again.

In the wake of Michael Winner’s controversial and successful common man out for revenge flick Death Wish 1974 starring the late great Charles Bronson, there was an endless flow of vigilante / revenge movies hitting the market. Like many other places domestic filmmakers where getting in on the action and producing some really great stuff. Needless to say even the producers and companies of Turkey’s Yesilçam wanted their share and one of those movies to finally resurface after years of being missing in the dark vaults is Memduh Ün’s Cellat.

But instead of simply copy, pasting the plot and climax from Winner’s movie - even if it does play almost identically at times - screenwriter Bülent Oran actually wrote a script that predates Winner’s sequel, Death Wish 2 1982 and brings more to that character and the law enforcement trying to bring the vigilante to justice. It’s a hard hitting, fast moving flick that after a somewhat deceptive opening get’s right in there and proves that there where certainly some splendid movies made in Turkey during the seventies.

Successful architect Orhan [Serdar Gökhan] returns from a wonderful holiday in the woods with his wife Filiz [Ernel Özden], his beloved little sister Sevgi [Melek Ayberk], and brother in law Jahit [Mahmut Hekimoglu]. After returning to work in the city, he is appalled to read in the papers of the violent crimes that have been taking place in Istanbul whilst he’s been away.

At the same time Orhan's wife Feliz and little sister Sevgi return home from a shopping spree only to be confronted by three vile, and almost comical thugs Jemal [Oktar Durukan], Hasan [Ibrahim Kurt] and leader Sabri [Tarik Simsek] that have come down from the hills to vent their frustrations on the wealthy inhabitants of the city. Possibly portrayed as comic louts at first to differ them drastically from the mature and very down to earth characters seen in the opening sequence, and also to harden the acts they are about to commit. The thugs break into Orhan’s home only to humiliate, beat and rape the two defenceless women. Meeting his brother in law at hospital, Orhan is devastated to learn that his wife has passed away and his sister is in a coma.
The cops lead by Commissioner Nejati [Reha Yurdakul – who you can see in a whole bunch of other Onar Film releases like Yilmaz Atadeniz’s Casus Kiran (Spy Smasher) 1968 and Kunt Tulgar’s Süpermen Dönüyor (The Return of Superman) 1979 and Iilhan Engin’s Kadin düsmani (The Woman Despiser) 1967] – anyhow, they are fairly uninterested in Orhan’s frustration for the lack of leads to the guilty gang, tell him to keep calm and await for his sister to come around so that she can give them the valuable information that they need.

Fed up with police neglect, growing crime statistics and a desire for vengeance, Orhan fills a sock with quarters – we even get to see him make the with drawl from the bank – and takes his frustration to the streets. This frustration builds and builds as he starts to make his way through the underbelly of Istanbul leaving the former gentle and loving Orhan further and further behind and gradually descending into a one man death machine out for revenge.

This change in character is fascinating, and it’s built delicately, there’s no sudden decision to become something else, it get the space it needs and Orhan is always a believable character. Breaking it down in an easy way the movie has a pretty lot of small character traits seeping through the movie that in some way’s make Serdar Gökhan’s Mr. Orhan a much more likeable and empathetic character than Bronson’s Paul Kersay. Where there’s not much time spent establishing a sympathetic persona for Bronson in Death Wish, Oran and Ün make sure that Orhan is a really, really good guy before the dark transformation takes place. He’s out with his wife and sister on romantic holidays; he tends to an injured dog, he wishes for love and happiness for all his family and friends. Even the scenes at Orhan’s architect office show how respected he is by friends and colleagues. He’s a good guy, it’s easy to like him.

This line of decency continues, and is brilliantly shown when he returns from his first lethal confrontation with a backstreet thug. Filled with nauseating remorse he vomits violently when coming to terms with the fact that he just killed a fellow human being. Now these establishing traits are of outmost importance, as the later will be polarized when Orhan finally get’s his revenge. The kind, gentle character has become a dark, vengeful death machine that shows no mercy at all.

There’s an effective use of a clever plot device in the shape of Sevgi’s necklace. It’s a great little detail that at first seems random as the rapists rip it from her neck, later when it returns in the Club Love Story when Sabri buys his way with a prostitute [Anuşka] for the jewellery we expect Orhan, who just had a drink at the place, to get that rush of insight and bring the bad guys to justice. But instead it’s cunningly held back and only later does it return as Orhan has been broken down to the lowest point of his tour of vengeance. Shot in the leg, bleeding profoundly and suffering terribly from his injuries, he breaks into an apartment and finds the prostitute that Sabri paid with Sevgi’s necklace. He finally has his lead and the movie can shift into top gear and final act with full speed.

And even though the opening titles may seem like something a kid threw together, and the starting segment somewhat cheesily sets up the character of Orhan and family, it does get dark and hard pretty fast. His character develops, or rather degenerates into the murder machine, and when his personal justice is served it is definitely in the most evil, sadistically and righteous manner. You will be cheering Orhan on as the thugs finally get their comeuppance. Even the cops stand by and almost give Orhan a nod of appreciation as he’s completed his task, hands over his shooter and walks away from the carnage.

Cellat is a brilliant piece of Yesilçam cinema, and really shows Turkish Exploitation film at its best. It’s gritty, it’s rough, and it goes all in taking no prisoners what so ever. Revenge is served up without any mercy at all. Serdar Gökhan is a great leading man, who not only has that great character arc, but also show’s that a hero character can take a few deep wounds and limp his way through the rest of his mission. I get quite annoyed when hero characters take one hell of a beating, stabbing or even like here get shot, and simply walk around as if nothing happened. Gökhan suffers from his wounds and brings them with him in each following scene, which at the same time adds immensely to his character. He will make them pay at all costs, and his reward for the great performance he gives is obviously the many parts as the leading man out for revenge that he played in the movies to follow Cellat.

Bülent Oran’s script is well written, as there is a depth to the lead character that commonly is pretty friggin’ shallow in this kind of niche. He also brings a fresh new twist to the end of the movie that differs from the original source. Ironically the writers of the movie that inspired this one used the same kind of ending in their sequel to Death Wish twelve years later. Even though the movie is within the exploitation sphere, there are some wonderful shots by cinematographer Kaya Ererez who uses some great angles and locations in his compositions. I absolutely love the many scenes featuring Orhan surrounded by thugs often located in stairwells, or tight spaces. It makes for some inventive cinematography, and splendid shootouts with a lot of movement. Mehmut Ün had been directing movies since the mid fifties, and moved freely in a wide range of genres and receiving several awards and nominations for his films. Amongst the few of his titles available domestically the secret agent flick Altin çocuk (Golden Boy) 1966 – also scripted by Bülent Oran, which you can easily obtain from Onar Films, and if you want to read all about that movie here’s a patch through to the splendid Ninja Dixon. Ün also produced near one hundred movies, acted in three dozen films, wrote scripts and directed somewhere near eighty films between his debut Yetim yavrular (The Orphans) in 1955, and his last film to date Sinema bir mucizedir (Cinema is a Miracle) 2005, starring Kadir Inanir who starred as Yilmaz in Mehmet Aslan’s grim Gialloesque Aska susayanlar seks ve cinayet (Thirsty for Love, Sex and Murder) 1972.

The soundtrack to Cellat is awesome. It’s certainly eclectic, much of it very traditional and the kind that you would expect in a Turkish movie and some is surprisingly suave with a hint of jazz prog that could have come right out of an Italian Poliziotteschi flick.

Fans of great genre pieces really need to get themselves over to Onar Films right now, and pick up some of the movies released there. The site has just been revamped and there are some great offers available right now. And while you are at it, pick up a copy of Mahmut Ün’s Cellat, as the limited release of 500 pieces is starting to run out.

Image:
Full screen 4:3

Audio:
Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0. Turkish Dialogue, optional English or Greek subtitles.

Extras:
As usual the Onar Film releases are packed with extras, here there’s a great half hour feature on Turkish revenge films, Selected filmographies, the original theatrical trailer for Cellat, and other titles available from Onar Films. Last but not least that great fold out poster art for the poster of Cellat.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Losers


The Losers
Aka: Nam’s Angels
Directed by: Jack Starrett
USA, 1970
War/Bikers, 95min
Distributed by: Dark Sky Films


One of the things that I remember from decades ago when the video wave hit us, was that apart from the cheap, exploitation horror, action, kung-fu and soft core porn that was released there was a bunch of flicks that all where set in the Vietnam war. There was a pretty fair amount of films that took place in a jungle hell where combat was impossible and the tone was constantly dark and damning, almost as an anti-war statement in themselves. Two of them that still conjure up some vague memories are French director Chalude Bernard-Aubert’s Charlie Bravo 1980 and Jack Starrett’s The Losers 1970.

Jack Starrett was an actor and director of and exploitation flicks back in the seventies and eighties. He’s one of those actors who you know that you have seen when you see him, be it as Gaby Johnson in Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles 1974, as the sinister Officer Galt in Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood 1982 or in one of his many guest appearances in classic TV serials like Hill Street Blues, The A-Team or Knightrider. But it’s his films that are in focus here, and among them you will find stuff like his biker flicks Run, Angel Run, 1969 and The Losers, also know as Nam’s Angels 1970, both starring William Smith in the lead role. Smith who would later go on to gain fame as the great villain Falconetti in Rich Man, Poor Man 1976 partially directed by Bill Bixby, and yeah, that is the same Bixby who later starred as Bruce Banner/The Hulk.

Starrett also ventured into Blaxploitation genre with Slaughter 1972 starring Jim Brown and Cleopatra Jones 1974 with Tamara Dobson in the lead, two pretty amusing movies with some great performances. It’s also worth checking out Race with the Devil 1975, which Starrett took over from writer and director Lee Frost after he was sacked, starring Peter Fonda and the great Warren Oates which is all about car chases and Satanism.

Apart from being a great character actor an interesting director of cheap exploitation movies and some pretty successful TV shows, Starrett was also a raving alcoholic, and this eternal battle with the bottle finally wrecked his kidneys, and in the late eighties he passed away at the young age of 52.

Starrett’s The Losers may at first simply look like a classic low budget exploitation flick – which it indeed is – but it also has quite a lot of interesting things going on for itself above being a really fun and shit kicking war and biker film hybrid. Being something of a crazy mix of The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, The Wild Angels, The Losers takes the characteristics of the sleazy biker film and sets them in motion in the midst of the pessimistic awareness of the Vietnam war. It makes a good mix, packs a pretty ferocious punch and manages to engage me all over again even though I have some recollections of how the film all comes burning into it’s climax ninety minutes later.

In a nutshell The Losers is all about a bunch of bikers, the Devils Advocates, who are brought in by the military to take on a risky and dangerous rescue mission. Cutting straight to the chase, the movie starts with two scenes of random assault and bloodshed in the Vietnamese jungle. All to make the point that war is hell and pseudonymous with pain and suffering to all. The band of bikers arrive at their destination and are greeted by the platoon leaders, one who happens to be Major Thomas [Dan Kemp], brother of biker gang leader Lincoln [William Smith]. After mocking the Yamaha motorbikes that they are to use on their daring mission, where they aim to customize the bikes so that they are suitable for the combat to come. Alan Caillou’s screenplay and Starrett’s direction get’s pretty interesting at this point as the characterization of the biker’s starts to take place. It becomes apparent that the band of angels all have a history in Vietnam, and each holds a piece of back story that will matter to their arc’s in the movies narrative. Apart from once being soldiers and being discharged at one point before becoming the Devils Advocates back in the States, they all have personal reasons for returning to Nam like Dirty Denny [Houston Savage who died in an unfortunate biker accident a year after the movie] who wants’ to reclaim the cash that Mama-San [Paraluman] has stolen from him before he was sent back home to the US. And it’s within these back stories that we find the two main subplots elegantly crafted to get us engaged in the bikers and they’re pending mission. Duke [Adam Roarke] has a girlfriend that he finally get’s to be reunited with and intends to bring back to America after the mission, Limpy [Paul Koslo] also finds love in Nam before the mission and when his date turns out to have an infant child with an American soldier, Limpy too decides to take her away from all the fighting and to the safety of suburban life in the US. With all the character establishing set, the bikers customise their rides with the aid of master mechanic Diem-Nuc [Vic Diaz] with among other things Swedish 9mm machineguns, and start laying out the plans for their mission.

The mission is a very complex rescue assignment where the bikers have to ride into enemy territory and rescue CIA Agent Chet Davis [played by Starrett himself] from the camp he’s held captive in. Even there there’s an interesting little catch, as Davis and Link have a tense relationship to each other as Davis once had Link put in prison for five years. Against all odds the bikers set out on their mission and being a movie in the Vietnam War genre, we already know that there’s going to be a series of violent deaths before the movie is over.

Character wise the movie is interesting, as the group become a fascinating mix of archetypal bikers that we’ve seen in former movies of the genre, and surprisingly tender and emotional characters like Duke and Limpy, and even leader Link. And being a movie in the exploitation sphere it’s pretty easy to guess that the positive emotions evoked will be hit the hardest by the polarized negatives waiting in line for them. I appreciate that they have chosen to single out Duke and Limpy to portray two very sympathetic characters, and in a small way it actually works, we invest in these two characters and become affected by their fates. This also rings true for the Link character brought to life by Smith, there’s a scene where he picks up an invalid child and let’s him ride his bike showing a gentler side to the classic Hells Angel character, then there’s a complexity to him as he takes on a task to rescue a man he actually hates.

Scripted by Alan Caillou the movie is surprisingly based on somewhat real events. Supposedly Hells Angel’s president and lead figure Sonny Barger at one point in time wrote a letter to President Lyndon Johnson suggesting that the Hells Angels actually could be sent to Nam as a secret guerrilla platoon... Obviously the President rejected the proposal, but it provided Caillou with an idea for his movie. In 1994 The Losers became part of pop culture as it is seen in a brief scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and the biker gang The Devil’s Advocates lived on to fight again in Michael Levesque’s Werewolves on Wheels 1971.

Starrett and Smith changed Caillou’s original ending into a more darker one, which most likely is why they spent so much time establishing characters and making them sympathetic – even if it’s in minor way, and the during the escape from the camp the crash that Limpy has is actually a real crash that he had when they where trying out the bikes and cameras.

With the little recollection that I have of seeing this movie back in the eighties, it’s surprisingly a great little action piece with a really dark brooding tone, which in many ways still is pretty entertaining. Interesting characters, even if still pretty shallow, but at least an attempt was made to give them some depth and value to hang on to. But all in all the movie is a great little exploitation flick that get’s to the point pretty fast and then makes the most of those Philipino sets to portray that what we fiurty years later already know, that war is hell, and in reality there are no heroes.

Image:
1.85:1

Audio:
Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono

Extras:
Photo Gallery, Radio Spots, Theatrical Trailers, and a commentary track with William Smith and Paul Koslo which is pretty fun as Smith obviously has no real recollection of the movie at all.



Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Cat O'Nine Tails


The Cat O’Nine Tails
Original Title: Il gatto a nove code
Directed by: Dario Argento
Italy/France/West Germany, 1971
Giallo, 112min
Distributed by: Anchor Bay

Following up his successful debut feature L’uccello dalla piume di cristallo (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage) 1970 cannot have been an easy task for the young Dario Argento. But follow it up he did, and took his exploration of the themes and styles that would become his signature moves within the Giallo genre further, but not necessary forward.

For some reason Il gatto a nove code (The Cat O’Nine Tails) 1971 often ends up in the middle or lower parts of most Argento fans lists. Sure with some twenty plus movies to his credit, it’s a tricky job arranging his films in any specific order. We all know which one’s we rate as his best movies, and we all know which ones we felt let down by… but with that said there’s several bloggers who are with a good measure of distance and time boldly revisited some of the lesser favourite movies and rediscovering them in a whole new light. I’ve decided to work my way through the catalogue methodically, step by step to see if I can reconnect and rediscover the progression of Dario Argento and see if the side steps really are as bad as I recalled them. In the meantime I recommend that you check out Ninja Dixon who has given three of the lower rated movies a new going over, and found some very interesting things in them.
Franco Arno [Karl Malden], a old blind gent living together with his niece Lori, [Cinzia De Carolis – later to be seen in Antonio Margheriti’s epic Apocalypse domain (Cannibal Apocalypse) 1980] overhears a conversation where the word "blackmail" is spoken whilst walking past the Terzi Institute. I don’t know why but I’ve been convinced that it’s his niece for years – but paying attention to the dialogue, Arno has no family and she no parents…. Arno later finds out from cocky reporter Carlo Giordani [James Franciscus] that a burglar had tried to steal something from the institute. Soon after this discussion, doctors and other people connected to the institute start getting knocked off one by one. In a great scene one of them is even pushed in front of a train. One of Giordani's colleagues happens to shoot a few shots with his camera during the accident at the train station, thus revealing the killers identity (only to him though) evoking a sequence catching the context of Antonioni's Blow Up. Staying true to Giallo convention, as soon as the killer is close to being revealed he strikes again. Arno and Giordani team up and start putting the pieces together in their attempt to solve the mystery. After concentrating their investigations on the people connected with the institute, they look to the Institute itself and finally discover that the answer would cause great scandal if ever revealed…

The Cat O’Nine Tails is a rather so-so Argento movie, it get’s the job done but not much more. It’s tricky to see why this one often is referred to as being the movie that secured Argento the epitaph; The Alfred Hitchcock of Italy, as his first feature overshadows this one in all possible ways. And where The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was very obvious in whom its leading man was I find that The Cat O’Nine Tails suffers terribly from the device of two amateur detectives. It fails miserably and never really becomes clear who is the main lead character – Malden or Franciscus. There’s an apparent lack of motivation to solve the case more than simple curiosity, which is one of the weakest reasons, as there’s no real value at stake like in many of Argento’s other Gialli.

It also lacks the flair and elegance of that successful debut feature the year before. I get the feeling that the movie is in some ways was rushed into production and therefore suffers for it. Characters are shallow – sure Franciscus and Malden give great performances, but what’s up with the leading lady Katherine Spaak? It’s no doubt that she’s one of the most boring and stiff leading ladies in any Argento movie so far. Once again, and in many Argento movies to follow, good old Fulvio Mingozzi makes an appearance as a police detective, and the gay character Dr. Braun played by Horst Frank is miserably under used. What is it with Dario Argento and gay characters… there seems to be one popping up ever here and there, but never really making any specific imprint.
Finally the reveal of the killer who has hardly been part of the narrative throughout the movie at the very end of the movie is a trick that several other Gialli have used before and after The Cat O’Nine Tails, but when it comes to Argento one expects more, as he’s the one who commonly is referred to as the leading name of the genre. There’s nothing leading with convention.
Within the Giallo genre there’s quite often scenes, clues and solutions that demand the audience to just accept what is going on without questioning. Stuff happens by chance, coincidentally characters will find something that will guide them forward in the quest, that vital clue that randomly lands in the grasp of the protagonist. I have a real problem with the fact that Arno – the blind man – is the one who on several occasions sees the clues, or rather “tells” Giordani where to look. It’s irritating that the blind man suggests that they look ”outside the cropped image” (read frame), as it is kind of strange that the blind guy should think of looking outside an image he cans see. There are several of these short, disclosed scenes with Arno, like the encounter in the cemetery, where he first fights off the killer but it all happens off screen whilst Giordanni is locked in the crypt. It’s not quite satisfying, and annoying to say the least – I watch Gialli because I want to be teased and part of the detective work, not to be kept in the dark.

But at the same time the ”cropped image” is kind of interesting as the off screen space is where the killers in Gialli dwell, and it’s almost as if Argento this early on in the film decides to mock the conventions he would help to sustain. By opening up the frame he’d expose the killer, and also takes the opportunity to homage that great Antonioni movie Blow Up 1966, just like Sergio Martino did the same year with La coda dello scorpione (Case of the Scorpions Tail) 1971.
It strikes me that there are no Gialli character gloved hands at all in the movie, instead these images are replaces by the close-up of the killers eyeball instead. It’s odd to revisit a movie after such a long time only to discover that the trait very personal to Dario Argento is missing completely from the film.
The comic character – just like those found in the spaghetti westerns and definitely in many Argento movies – is also apparent in The Cat O’Nine Tails, this time in the guise of the police detective who can’t stop talking about his wife’s cooking and never manages to catch anyone’s attention.
Then there’s that busting finale. The last act, from the vault’s under the cellar, the kidnapping of Lori and the final chase on the rooftops are some really fine moments, and almost make up for the pretty sloppy narrative up to that point. But don’t you feel that things move a bit too fast and then slam to a grinding halt? The killer is pushed down the elevator shaft and before he even hits the bottom the end credits start rolling… What happens to Giordani? Are Lori and Arno reunited? Etc etc. there’s a few questions that still are posed here and I don’t really find it satisfying that it’s ended where the killer is dead, as he was never the main driving force of the film, but Arno and Giordani where. You can’t have a scene where one of the two protagonists is knifed, beaten and left on the ground only to not give us a closure on that lead. It’s an irritating flaw that the movie never sorts out.
I’m pretty convinced that The Cat O’Nine Tails partially suffers from that bad rap as this is one of the films that Argento himself constantly states to like the least. It’s all too easy to follow him down that path and criticize the movie. Sure it does have some flaws, but at the same time does manage to entertain and pull me into the story even if I don’t really have a definitive character to root for.

Ennio Morricone’s score for The Cat O’Nine Tails is softer and gentler than the previous The Bird with Crystal Plumage, not to mention the frantic hard-hitting jazz score of 4 mosche di velluto grigio (Four Flies on Grey Velvet) 1971. Neither is Erico Menczer's cinematography anywhere near the splendid compositions and colour balance of Vittorio Storaro, but then again it does feature some interesting extreme close-ups of eyeballs, which is in suit with the exploratory imagery that soon would become Argento’s trademarks.

The Cat O’Nine Tails is the weakest of the three movies that make up the “animal” trilogy. It lacks several of the significant traits that are associated with Argento, and the characters are much more shallow than those before, and those to come. I can see why this one doesn't manage to make the same kind of imprint that other do. But it holds an interesting part in the lineage of Argento. It was the first movie that Dardano Sacchetti wrote, well the first he saw go into production at least, and the first collaboration between Argento and Sacchetti. It would take another sixteen years before the two worked on a movie together again, and that would be with Lamberto Bava’s Dèmoni (Demons) 1985. But as a team on an Argento movie the two would never work together again, perhaps because of the final result of The Cat O’Nine Tails. I can feel in some ways that The Cat O’Nine Tails may have grown some since I last saw it, but still is a weaker Dario Argento movie, and will forever be trapped between the impactful and impressive The Bird with Crystal Plumage and the ferocious for many years lost gem Four Flies on Grey Velvet 1971.

Image:
Widescreen 2.35:1

Audio:
Dolby Digital 2.0, English, French or Italian dialogue available, English or French subtitles optional

Extras:
Interviews with
Argento, Ennio Morricone and writer Dardano Sacchetti. Theatrical Trailers, Tv Spots, Radio spots and Poster/Stills gallery (does anyone watch these?). There’s also an interesting radio interview with Malden and Franciscus too.