Antonio Margheriti, 1973
Starring: Jane Birkin, Kiram Keller, Serge Gainsbourg, Anton Diffring, Françoise Christophe
“Are you excited by all the blood that’s been flowing around here?”
Corringa, a beautiful young schoolgirl, has returned to her family’s Scottish castle to visit her mother during the holidays. Unbeknownst to her, her arrival is being watched from a tall window by a gorilla, which marks the beginning of a series of strange, increasingly violent events. Her mother and her aunt, Lady Mary, try to keep her from meeting her cousin, Lord James, who is allegedly insane. But he and Corringa develop a fascination for one another, which leads to a sexual relationship. Meanwhile, someone is slashing throats in the castle and Aunt Mary is trying to maneuver Corringa’s inheritance away from her. Will Corringa be the next victim?
This absolutely fun and unabashedly ridiculous film was written and directed by Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony Dawson), one of the forerunners of Italian horror alongside Mario Bava. Margheriti made a number of well-regarded Gothic horror films in the ‘60s, such as Horror Castle, Castle of Blood, and The Long Hair of Death before turning to peplum and then every conceivable genre of cult film (sci-fi, cannibal, animals attack, crime, sword and sorcery, etc.). He also joined Bava in releasing a Gothic pseudo-giallo at the tail end of the genre’s 1971 and 1972 boom. While Bava’s Baron Blood (1972) deals with overtly occult themes, Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye shares its castle setting, bold colors, ‘70s fashions, and patently silly dialogue.
A particularly fluffy cat watches all the murders and even engages in some corpse-eating action – it’s also implied for much of the film that the cat is somehow responsible for the deaths. Now, it would be extreme to say that I hate cats, but I’m simply not a cat person and I really can’t figure out why Margheriti thought that this device would be a good idea within a horror film. It’s also difficult for me to see fluffy, grumpy-looking cats without thinking of Blofeld and his absurd feline friend in the early James Bond films. On the other hand, it could be that Margheriti is introducing an element of parody, as in the film he depicts violence committed by bats, rats, the aforementioned cat, and an ape – named James, I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be a gorilla or an orangutan. The latter is an obvious nod to Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” where an ape murders people with a straight razor, the weapon of choice here. I really think Margheriti is just mocking the flood of animal-themed titles like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Black Belly of the Tarantula, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, and so on. At least I hope he is.
The best thing about the film is the appearance of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. Pop icon, model, and sort-of-actress Jane Birkin (she was also interestingly in Antonioni’s giallo predecessor, Blow-Up) was in a long-time relationship with French musical genius Serge Gainsbourg – their union produces a number of great songs, the wonderful anal sex drama Je t’aime moi non plus (1976) that Gainsbourg directed, and actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg. While Jane pleasantly phones her way through the film, Gainsbourg is the real gem. Serge has a dubbed Scottish accent for the few scenes he appears in as the head police inspector, which nearly made me fall out of my chair. He’s just incredible. He doesn’t even need to try.
There are some other welcome performances. Doris Kunstmann (Funny Games) appears as a saucy French teacher was hired to seduce Lord James (Fellini Satyricon’s Hiram Keller), but is really shacking up with the castle’s doctor/psychiatrist – who in turn is somewhat reluctantly having an affair with Aunt Mary. The doctor is played by Anton Diffring, so if you’re tired of seeing him cast as a Nazi, here he’s actually got some ambiguity and even – gasp – some sex scenes. In a fun twist on Victorian mores, the castle’s inhabitants gradually reveal their dirty secrets and perversions. The larger subplot about a destitute Aunt Mary, the castle’s heir, trying to marry her insane, inbred son off to his wealthy cousin reminded me a lot of Borowczyk’s The Beast (1975), though sadly Birkin does not have sexual relations with James the Gorilla.
The worst I can really say about Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye is that the conclusion is dissatisfying and doesn’t do justice to the rest of the proceedings. While some other giallo films use the supernatural as a cover for a human killer, such as The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye uses its Gothic trappings as something of a red herring. Instead of a ghost, the family curse – vampirism – is potentially to blame for all the murders, but this is sadly cast aside in the final act.
Regardless, there’s still plenty to look forward to: accidental bible burning, nightmares, potential vampirism, a missing corpse, a dank crypt, a pleasant soundtrack from Riz Ortolani, and some lovely, stylish set pieces. Though this was clearly not filmed in Scotland, Marghariti makes the best of the packed Gothic set dressings inside the castle. All in all, it has the best elements of Gothic literary bodice rippers and Margheriti’s earlier Italian Gothic horror films, a dash of Edgar Allen Poe, Serge Gainsbourg, and just enough giallo elements to land this in the genre. Available on DVD, it comes highly recommended.