Sunday, February 3, 2008

Cat O'Nine Tails: Grave-robbing Ain't A Thang

Call me a snob if you want, but nobody makes horror movies like the Italians. Granted, American horror movies are often better paced, better acted, and actually make sense, but so what? Give me the aging prints, the bizarre but wonderful obsession with using a different color filter in every set, and--last but not certainly least--the wood paneling.

The wood paneling is in full bloom in Dario Argento's "The Cat O'Nine Tails," a giallo and the second in his "animal trilogy" (along with "The Bird with Crystal Plummage" and "Four Flies on Gray Velvet"), "Cat O'Nine" stars Karl Malden as blind ex-reporter searching for a vicious killer alongside hot shot reporter Giordiani (James Franciscus). The plot, involving a team of geneticists and their research on the bizarre XYY gene pattern and its connection to criminal behavior, is hilariously lame (how can any human being have an extra chromosome?) but part of the fun is how bereft the movie is of actual thrills.

Don't get me wrong: "Cat O'Nine" has plenty of gruesome deaths (though they're a little tame by Argento standards). For fans like me, who haven't been "thrilled" by a movie since they were they were fifteen, the true worth of any horror movie rests on the amount and the quality of the gore.

But much of the joy of "Cat O'Nine" for me comes from its cheesiness, its implausibility. For a blind man and a desk reporter, Malden and Franciscus have incredible access to everyone involved with the murders, from the head of the genetics team and his daughter (who Giordiani hooks up with) to the mysterious gay German geneticist that Franciscus finds in the quintessential 70s gay bar. Few of the players balk at answering questions only the police have business asking. Silly as well is how the two sleuths brush off the brutal deaths of the people they've interviewed with a "Well, who do we talk to now?" nonchalance.

In one of the most movie's most implausible scenes, Malden and Franciscus break into a tomb to find the secret contents of a necklace of a slain dead girlfriend. There is no discussion of how they're going to explain to a police or anyone else how they acquired what's in the necklace, just a singled-minded focus on solving the case that apparently allows for popping open a casket or two.

I sort of have a soft spot for this sort of implausibility and lack of explanation in older horror movies and thrillers. Nowadays, great lengths are gone to to make silly situations plausible, with the end result still seeming contrived. Malden and Franciscus could have dressed in gravedigger uniforms or bribed a cemetary worker to keep watch and the scene still would have seemed far-fetched.

Argento's use of POV shots from the killer's perspective is both cheesy and artful. Instead of quick, jumpy cuts that tell us exactly what the killer wants, Argento follows him down halls and behind doorways. When he beats up a security guard, we see him lock the man in a room and look nervously down at the man through the locked door's window. On the soundtrack, we hear the killer's labored breathing. While POV shots are often standard in slasher movies, Argento's use of them humanizes the killer.

As a thriller, "Cat O'Nine" is meh, and as a horror movie, it doesn't reach the great heights of gore of Argento's masterpieces "Inferno" and "Tenebrae," but its charm rests in its very weaknesses: outdated plot devices, implausible scenes, and clunky pacing.

In the special features of the DVD, there is a trailer for the movie that shows us quick shots of the movie's most salacious moments: the geneticist's daughter disrobing, a victim choking, the killer's fall down an elevator shaft. With Ennio Morricone's dissonant jazz score playing and a voiceover intoning that "Cat O'Nine out-psychos Psycho," you almost believe the movie was more exciting than it actually was.

But that, ironically, is why I liked "Cat O'Nine Tails": the charm of how far away it was from being what it claimed to be.

Addendum: My girlfriend Jessica has pointed out to me that not only is it possible for humans to have more than two chromosomes, but the XYY gene is real and associated with overly aggressive behavior (apparently many politicians have it too).