Blasts from the Past! Blu-ray Reviews: THE CAT O’NINE TAILS (1971)

This title is arriving as a Blu-ray/DVD combo from Arrow Films on March 6th ( –

Most horror fans are familiar with the work of Italian director Dario Argento. Some months back, Arrow Films released a new Blu-ray of the filmmaker’s first feature, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970). The movie’s massive success worldwide during its original run resulted in many copycats and the entire genre being dubbed “giallo” after the color of pages pulpy thriller novels were printed on. Now, the same distributor are bringing the director’s second film, The Cat O’Nine Tails, to high definition.

Just like it’s predecessor, the movie has been given the deluxe treatment with a 4K scan from the original camera negative. It looks absolutely stunning with improved picture quality and incredible clarity on display. And the disc also includes numerous extra features that shed light on how the film came to be and what went on behind the scenes. Of course, the film itself isn’t quite as creative and influential as the previous entry, but it’s still an above-average thriller that provides a few moments of visual panache.

The story begins with a break-in at the Terzi Institute, a medical facility and scientific lab doing research on a revolutionary new project involving genetics. Specifically, workers discover that some humans possess an extra Y chromosome and that the presence of it in blood work suggests criminal tendencies (the story was based around actual research at the time that was later proved to be false). Naturally, the robbery appears to have had something to do with the study as well as the fact that most employees at the institute have their DNA on file.

Unfortunately, the villain attracts the attention of a blind man named Franco Arno (Karl Malden), who happens to be out for a walk with his niece Lori (Cinzia De Carolis) at the time of the crime. After learning about the incident and a related murder, Arno contacts newspaper reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) and the two attempt to tie their experiences together in order to solve the mystery.

As far as plot goes, this feature is more direct and conventional than other titles in the director’s catalog, as most of Argento’s work tends toward less narrative coherence and more surreal imagery. This effort is very plot oriented, so much so that it takes nearly twenty minutes before the first big murder set-piece occurs. Still, the death scenes are put together with style and flair. A murder at a train platform incorporates extreme close-ups of the killer’s eyeballs with an elaborately staged accident. The camera smoothly follows another intended victim as they wander through their apartment, creating an eerie vibe. And the climactic murder is wince-inducing in its effectiveness. There’s also some great driving footage of a car speeding through the narrow streets of Turin.

Another bonus comes in Malden’s work as Arno. While the character may be blind, he’s more than self-sufficient and is willing to go toe-to-toe with the killer in order to stop the spree of murders. While sweet and affectionate with his niece, when he gets angry he certainly doesn’t seem like the type of guy you’d ever want to mess with.

Again, while the story seems a bit run-of-the-mill compared to the director’s other works, this is a solid thriller that looks slick and provides “giallo” fans with plenty to enjoy. It looks incredible too, with the new transfer providing a lot more color to the presentation than was seen in the past. In the cemetery scene, a gravestone actually has the director’s picture and name on it, something that I’d never taken notice of before. The fantastic appearance and sharpness adds visual punch and interest to the proceedings.

The extras are also enlightening. First, there’s an interview with Dario Argento, where he shares his thoughts on the feature. He actually claims that it’s his least favorite film and goes about explaining the difficulties working with new, green writers as well using a different cinematographer (Vittorio Stararo shot his previous feature). While suggesting that everything went well enough and the crew were fine to work with, it seems he wasn’t able to experiment as much as he would have liked to with the camera. He also complains about the script being a little too conventional and generic, ultimately calling the approach too American. At least he has nothing but compliments for co-star Malden, and it appears that composer Ennio Morricone returned, providing the movie with a lush and effective score.

There’s also an interview with co-screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, who shares details about his partnership with Argento, describing the idiosyncrasies of the director and their tumultuous disagreements over the years. In the end, it’s hard to say exactly who is telling the truth about what, but it’s intriguing to listen to. The audio commentary featuring critics and Argento enthusiasts Alan Jones and Kim Newman also offers interesting insights and analysis about the feature. There’s a lot of humor, with the pair poking fun at the film’s title and how it has nothing to do with the actual story. Additionally, there are further discussions with production designer Angelo Iacono and actress Cinzia De Carolis. They’re all just part of the grand assortment of informative bonuses that are certain to entertain fans.

Late in the Argento interview, the director states that despite his misgivings he’s glad that it was such a big success financially (and likely pushed him to head into more surreal and extreme directions on future productions). Still, The Cat O’Nine Tails is an entertaining little stop-gap in the filmmaker’s career that shows some flourishes as well as hints of the grandness that was to soon come in films like Deep Red and Suspiria. This is another great release from Arrow Films.

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