FILM– While out for a nighttime stroll, Franco Arno (Karl Malden) and his niece, Lori, walk past a car with open windows. Franco hears one of the occupants talking about blackmail, so he stops to listen, pretending he is tying his shoe. Franco is blind, so he makes Lori describe the man talking. She gets a good look at the driver, but the passenger’s face is hidden by darkness. They arrive at their apartment and Franco sits down to complete a crossword puzzle.
Meanwhile, the faceless passenger begins to break into the Terzi Genetics Laboratory (conveniently right across the street from Franco’s place). After beating the guard half to death, the soon-to-be murderer sneaks into the genetics file room, possibly taking something with him. A researcher heading home notices the guard, and calls the police.
The next morning, the police and lab workers are stunned. Nothing was stolen, nothing was tampered with, and nothing was broken (save a few prybar marks on the dooorjam). Mr. Terzi is more than a little secretive about the activities conducted in the labs, and wants the police gone ASAP. His daughter, Anna, and lead scientist Dr. Braun dismiss any ideas of espionage.
On his way to the scene, suave reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) accidentally bumps into Franco. After some harsh words, the two begin to discuss the break in. Franco believes the blackmailer he heard last night had something to do with it.
While the police and reporters clear out, the blackmailer is revealed to be employee Dr. Calabresi (who I’m willing to bet infused his genetics with those of Dustin Hoffman and Jeff Goldblum). While taking a look over his files, he quickly realizes something IS in fact missing. He informs his fiancé that he knows who the thief is, and his blackmail is about to yield a handsome payout.
Calabresi agrees to meet the thief/ blackmail victim at the train yard. As the train nears the station, the thief pushed Calabresi in the path of the train, tearing off his head. Some photographers from the same paper as Carlo are on site waiting for a celebrity to get off the train, and snap photos of the incident.
Franco asks Lori to read him the evening paper, which it turns out contains the article about the train incident. She also notes that the picture of Calabresi on the cover shows him falling in front of the train, and recognizes his face as the man in the car from the previous night. Franco decides to contact the author, Carlo Giordani.
After initially dismissing Franco, Carlo realizes the old man is much smarter than he thought. He’s only lost his sight recently, and before that was a journalist. Upon Franco’s request, Carlo calls his photographer to inspect the uncropped negative of Calabresi falling. Sure enough, there is a hand pushing him in the cropped off area of the photo.
The three decide to inspect the photo themselves, but the killer has other ideas. After sneaking into the photographer’s house, he strangles him with a garrote- then slashes his face with a blade. While upset about losing one of his friends, Carlo runs an article about the murders in the paper.
The hunch of the Terzi Labs thief covering his tracks in murder intrigues both Carlo and Franco. The two begin an odd partnership, and try to piece together who the killer might be. After sending his niece away, Franco talks with Calabresi’s fiancé- and Carlo talks with Mr. Terzi.
The fiancé offers no help, and actually seems to be working against them. After checking her late boyfriend’s car, she finds a note with the killer’s name on it- hiding it in her locket with some scotch tape she finds in the glove box (convenient, huh). Later that night, she also finds his garrote around her neck.
Carlo gets a small lead from Mr. Terzi, but his daughter seems to provide the most help. Anna begins to like Carlo, and the two begin a relationship. After talking with her, and several lab techs, Carlo finds out the secrets of the genetics center. They’re working on two projects, a “wonder drug” for the government, and a study on the XXY chromosome trait.
XXY chromosomes (in today’s textbooks referred to as the “Supermale”) are an additional X chromosome added to the typical male XY pair (duh). It causes heightened aggression, vicious impulses, and 90% of murders in prison have this markup. Carlo determines the killer must be a researcher who was discovered to have the XXY trait, and is probably trying to cover up this finding.
While the two men try to figure out who the maniac is, he sets his sights on them, tauntingly sending letters to “the reporter and the puzzle solver”. After narrowly avoiding poison, Carlo and Franco decide to follow their only leads. There are nine total, which Franco calls their “cat o’ nine tails”. But as they get closer, they also get drawn into a web of bizarre romance, forgery, lies, and even more vicious murders. And when the killer somehow manages to kidnap Lori, Franco and Carlo begin a desperate race to find her before its too late.
This is the only Argento film I haven’t previously seen, at least all the way through. Yeah I know that’s kinda weird, but I actually have a good reason. When I tried to find a copy a few years back, the only one in print was the Diamond Entertainment public domain release. If you’ve ever had the displeasure of enduring a Diamond disk, then you know exactly why I never finished Cat o’ Nine Tails. They’re virtually unwatchable.
So after numerous distractions and setbacks, I can now officially say I’ve seen every movie from my beloved favorite director’s filmography (except The Five Days of Milan). I’ve often heard that Cat o’ Nine Tails is considered one of Argento’s worst films, even by the man himself. While it is underwhelming, it’s nowhere near his worst. Anyone else seen Phantom of the Opera (a rat catching machine that looks like a discarded prop from Labyrinth, I mean come the fuck on)?
I say this particular entry into the Animals Trilogy is underwhelming because if you were to come off Bird with the Crystal Plumage (like many did in the 70’s, when it gained its less than favorable American reviews), you would realize how padded and almost bloated this particular entry is. It’s not bad; in fact it’s probably one of his most elaborate and creative plots- but it feels unnecessarily long.
The Giallo subgenre is one of the oddest and most expansive I can think of. While Cat o’ Nine Tails is a Giallo in nature, in execution it feels almost like a Eurocrime thriller. The lack of blood, extreme violence, and either sleek or sleazy content almost removes the Giallo experience. However, what you’re left with is satisfying and somewhat gripping regardless.
Now while most of Argento’s non-supernatural films have a moderately low suspension of disbelief (Deep Red almost seems feasible in many ways), Cat almost has none. The things most memorable are also the things most farfetched. Like the killer somehow knowing the photographer had an uncropped image with him in it. Not only that, but somehow this guy finds out the exact photographer of many present, finds his address, and sneaks into his house through the right door to be within striking distance.
Or Calabresi’s fiancé concealing the note with random tape he carried with him in his car. Who carries a roll of scotch tape around? And who hides a note that conspicuously (which actually turns into a plot point when Franco can’t open it without damaging it)? But the wackiest, and also the most badass thing in the entire film is Franco’s cane. It has a goddamn foot long blade that extends from it. What blind man thinks it’s a good idea to conceal a mini sword in their walking stick? Zatoichi his is not, and the result is so ridiculous that it transcends and actually becomes one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Blind, bladed-cane wielding Karl Malden threatening people- it doesn’t get much cooler.
Aside from the absurdity, Cat o’ Nine Tails actually has some tremendously impressive aspects. One thing, it’s got an interesting cast full of semi-famous genre actors from the era. Malden is great as always, and Franciscus goes without comment. But it really shines with the supporting cast. The first actor I recognized was Horst Frank, who played Dr. Braun. He was the titular character in Albino (aka The Night of the Askari), and also starred in Jess Franco’s Justine. Others include Rada Rassimov, the fiancé, who was the whore roughed up by Angle Eyes in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
Also, the killer actually has an interesting motive. The only other Giallo that even mentions genetics (that I can think of, at least) is Death Laid an Egg- and that wasn’t even human genetics. The basic “murdering to cover up a secret” is strong, but while most killers are perverted nut jobs or meat-cleaver-packing-mammas, the murderer in Cat has a chromosomal drive to kill.
While unnecessarily long (most of the padding is exposition and an odd amount of humor), and in some places almost devoid of anything interesting, The Cat o’ Nine Tails unique story, pretty much one of a kind killer, notable genre actors, bizarre subplots, absurdly ridicules antics, and Argento’s expected cinematic flair makes this not only a watchable Giallo- but an entertaining one. Yeah it’s no Deep Red, and in many ways it feels like an experiment its self (almost like Argento was toying with complex, interlinked idea that he would later prefect in movies like Suspiria and Tenebre), but it’s still a solid effort from one of the most influential Italian horror masters. 7/10
PICTURE/ AUDIO– While I’m almost driven by instinct to give Blue Underground a perfect score based on my dreadful Diamond Entertainment disk, there are a few minor issues that Blu-Ray fans will point out. The biggest being a moderate dusting of noise, but I’m in the same boat as people who prefer less DNR, so that bothers me none. The second is some of the darker scenes are a little hard on the eyes. There’s not much that can be done about it, but it is pretty tough to make some things out during the nighttime moments. Aside from basic aging, there’s no heavy damage or issues with this transfer, and it looks damn near beautiful. 8/10
There’s an English 2.0 DTS and original mono track-both in HD, as well as both French and Italian Dolby options. I watched in the default 2.0, and it sounded great. Aside from showing off Ennio Morricone’s very, um, strange score, it also really enhances Malden’s hammy acting as Franco. What’s there is awesome, but I always want my 5.1 track. Aside from the lack of a 5.1 option, no other complaints. 7/10
BLU-RAY– A fairly basic, compact design, but effective for this release. There’s not a tremendous amount of extras or setup options, so everything fits well on the small pop-up block used. Easy navigation, and good text size (not to mention the cheesy menu animation of a cat with nine tails) make this an above standard design, something always expected from Blue Underground. 8/10
EXTRAS– Blue Underground has included Tales of the Cat-interviews with Argento, co-writer Sacchetti, and Morricone. The other interviews are with Malden and Franciscus, but these are audio only. The other features are two trailers and two T.V. spots. Now I wouldn’t have been too harsh if there were no new extras added from the DVD, but the Blu-Ray is actually missing the bios and still gallery from that release. The talent bios I honestly care nothing about, but I’m disappointed they omitted the stills and art gallery. Sadly, the extras are sub-par the DVD. 5/10