The Cat o’ Nine Tails is perhaps the most overlooked of Dario Argento’s films — at least of those films that are taken seriously by his admirers (check out his recent Dracula to understand why his films stopped being taken seriously). The reason isn’t hard to discern. It’s not gory (most of the murders are strangulations) and it’s not entirely nuts — let’s face it, part of the appeal of Argento’s work is that it’s so screwy. Argento — who once said this was his least favorite films — may not be to blame (or credit) for the relative coherence. Apparently, stars Karl Malden and James Franciscus insisted that the script they were handed needed work. This isn’t to say that the movie isn’t at least a little screwy. The story may more or less hang together, but the whole idea of secret genetic research is pretty silly — and the results of that research and the string of murders it brings about can’t be accused of being scientific or even making a whole hell of a lot of sense.
The film can’t fairly be called formative, since Argento’s first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) is much more Argento-esque — even if it still isn’t horror. What we do get here is a reasonably solid mystery with strong performances from its American stars — and a pretty high creepiness factor. The graveyard scene in particular is disconcerting. The film is excellent at misdirection — people are still arguing over the gay bar sequence and how it fits into the puzzle. The suspense is well handled, too — both at the tense climax and in individual earlier scenes. There’s really nothing to complain about here — except for the fact that it’s not quite a giallo and it’s not a bona fide horror picture. Truth is that last can be said about a lot of movies we label as horror movies, simply because the label fits better than any other genre.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Cat o’ Nine Tails Thursday, Aug. 6 at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.