Sometimes a movie is the cure for what ails me on an aesthetic-slash-spiritual plane, providing just the right blend of style, suspense, and strangeness that I require for a fulfilling cinematic experience. "Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye" is just that kind of movie--a combination of giallo and gothic themes set in the early 20th Century but exuding a palpable 70s grooviness. How can I hate on a movie that features a house cat as a murder suspect and famed French pop singer Serge Gainsbourg as a police inspector dubbed with a cartoonish Scottish accent?
But I'm way ahead of the game--allow me to get my train of thought back to the station and allow you guys to climb on board.
It's Scotland in the early 20th Century--you can tell that because everyone dresses in black and the women's skirts are all of a modest length, and also because everyone has names like "Angus." Makers of Italian thrillers in the early 70s clearly didn't have the highest opinion of British Isles fashion, as every film set in these locales has an overwhelming brown tweediness to it (check out "What Have You Done to Solange?" for further proof). After a pre-credits murder, upper-class gamine Corringa arrives at her aunt's estate to assist her mother in sorting out some contentious inheritance-related business. Working under the theory that "too many books never did a woman any good," Corringa hurls her schoolbooks into a fireplace, only to be horrified when she burns her Bible. Things take a turn for the even-eerier when the young lady learns of the rumors of vampirism that surround her family, and after an uncomfortable encounter with her handsome yet insane cousin, all the pieces of a fulfillingly creepy melodrama are put into play. It would spoil some of the magic of the movie to describe the plot any further, but suffice to say fans of 19th Century gothic novels will rejoice at the LeFan-attitude of this story.
Director Antonio Margheriti is something of a poor man's Mario Bava, and his track record is predictably spotty as a result. It's just not fair going toe-to-thematic-toe with one of the finest directors of the fantastique films that the world has ever known. That having been said, Margheriti can put together damn fine gothic when he wants to--his Barbara Steele vehicles "Long Hair of Death" and "Nightmare Castle" are loved by many, and I found "The Virgin of Nuremberg" to be a pretty great movie-watching experience. "Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye" is even better than "Virgin," trading that movie's Edgar Wallace sadism for moody occult innuendo.
In the lead role of Corringa, Jane Birkin displays a fetchingly wide-eyed series of emotions, ranging from convincing innocence to helpless terror. Ms. Birkin, muse to Serge Gainsbourg and namesake of the nine-thousand-dollar-and-up Hermès Birkin Bag, was a pop-culture icon by the time this movie was made. Her fresh-faced beauty is a fine complement to the feline features of other Euro-starlets of the time. Hiram Keller is compelling in the role of probably-mad (and definitely handsome) Lord James MacGrieff, combining leading man good looks with Heathcliff-like moodiness. The supporting cast ranges from capable to excellent, and includes such international cinema veterans as Anton Diffring, Konrad Georg, and Françoise Christophe.
The film is lensed with the kind of colored gels, chiaroscuro lighting, and sinister angles that characterize the best Italian gothics. Stained glass windows cast lurid shapes across characters' faces, Tiffany lamps add psychedelic color to black-and-white costumes, and sudden light reveals shocking secrets. Top this off with a soundtrack by Riz Ortolani, and it's a tidy package of period-piece giallo success.
In addition to thoughtful production design and capable performances, the X Factor that elevates "Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye" above other, similar thrillers is its embrace of its ludicrous elements. Not content at creating the standard parade of usual suspects in the form of the salacious governess, the greedy faded noble, and the sketchy doctor, this movie adds "the sinister cat" to the mix. Really. The cat is always around when someone meets their untimely end, and he seems to play some sort of role in the suggestion of a supernatural motive. The cat isn't the only animal suspect, either--there may be a killer ape on the loose! And if that's not enough for you, there are always those rumors of vampirism surrounding the MacGrieff family...
Adopting the hyperbolic histrionics of my favorite gothic novels along with the convoluted artistry of the giallo, "Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye" is that rarest of Eurotrash films that is both ridiculous and artistic. It's an unexpectedly great movie that deserves more plentiful genre love than it receives.