The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)

Directed by Dario Argento; Written by Dario Argento and Bryan Edgar Wallace

The Cat o’ Nine Tales is a stylish saunter down the darkened hallway that leads to Argento’s more renowned and refined films, as there’s less kinky violence and feverish ambiance, but the aesthetics are there along with masterful set design that’s all bound together by the promise of what will later become his signature style.  

Karl Malden plays Franco, a blind crossword setter, who teams up with journalist Carlo (James Franciscus) to investigate a break-in at a genetics research lab. It’s not long before scientists and their acquaintances are killed, and as Franco and Carlo try to put the pieces together, they soon find themselves hunted as well.

In Argento’s universe, the trappings are everything, as The Cat O’ Nine Tails is, even more than in his later films, a film about looking. You have his favourite POV shots from inside the eyes of the killer, creating that tantalizing mix of voyeurism and disgust borne from watching the unwitting, and their grizzly deaths, but more than just camerawork, there’s Carlo Leva’s production design, which places the action in such eye-catching surroundings that there are several stretches where you honestly don’t need to have the sound on, or follow the scene – it’s that gorgeous, these marble-halled research institutes, rooftop bars and Italian mansions Franco and Carlo move around in.  

The sense of style goes for its characters too. Even if there’s only one omnipotent killer, seemingly everywhere at once and watching from the wings, everyone here is dressed to kill, and if you’re unconvinced by Argento’s commitment to the fantasy, just note that Carlo, a newspaper reporter, wheels around town in a Porsche. 

It’s strange to say a horror film is more a sensual pleasure than it is frightening, but that’s the truth of The Cat o’ Nine Tails. Its plot and twists won’t shock you, and the violence within are caresses compared to what Argento will later dish out. Ennio Morricone’s score is melodic more than it is unsettling, and the beautiful people, places and outfits makes this an aesthetic dream rather than a paranoid nightmare. 

There’s enough scintillating suspense to stick a finger in your ribs over the film’s runtime, but for the most part, it’s a late-night film that trades in mystery rather than fear. Carlo and Franco’s investigation reveals rivalries, taboo fascinations, and dubious act that murder is not the only crime committed in the court of human morality.  

It’s a dark, lurid film, and a milestone for Argento as he heads deeper into the shadows of the human psyche and explores his fetishes to the iconic limits his classics will be known for, but The Cat o’ Nine Tails is a solid watch for anyone who likes a little perverse thrill, and especially for anyone who values the visual treasure of what’s being filmed, rather than how it’s filmed. 

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