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Forgotten Gialli: A Scot in the Dark

Serial homicide in a drafty Scottish castle, under the watchful eye of a chubby tomcat. But is it a giallo or merely an Italian gothic?


Part of our series on Forgotten Gialli

If we look at Italian genre film-making as a blurry palette rather than a paintbox of discreet hues, we can perceive areas where one kind of film-making shades into another. The gothic fantasy may have preceded the giallo, but the two co-existed for some years, and most of the filmmakers who were important to one genre were also valuable in the other, as exemplified by Mario Bava, who more or less inaugurated both fields, first with Black Sunday and then with Blood and Black Lace (to pick, more or less randomly, two well-known English titles for two oft-retitled films).

Antonio Margheriti was another genre workhorse, shooting some of the more elegant bits of Paul Morrissey's Blood for Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein, but also dabbling in sci-fi, the spaghetti western, Vietnam war flicks, often under the pseudonym of Anthony Dawson.

One thing Margheriti didn't make a lot of was gialli, which is a shame, as he showed, at times, a sharp sense of design and camera style. But Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye (1973) is an intriguing blend of gothic and giallo.

The setting is a Scottish castle in what looks to be the late 1920s or early '30s. This allows for a world that seems caught between the Victorian and the medieval (much like Scotland today) but with leading lady Jane Birkin attired as a flapper, which is no bad thing. The plot seems to hinge upon who will inherit this dreich homestead, with various parties turning up dead and suspicion tending to fall upon the deranged yet chiseled scion of the clan MacGrieff, Hiram Keller from Satyricon. Anton Diffring is at hand as Keller's doctor, but being Anton Diffring his efforts seem calculated to induce deeper and more violent psychosis rather than any miracle cure.

Family legend hints of vampirism, and there are enough draughty halls, thunderstorms, exploded coffins and violated crypts to satisfy the most fervent Barbara Steele fan, should such a creature ever be capable of satiation by anything other than Barbara Steele. But in fact, this is a straight whodunnit with gothic trimmings, and the supernatural is merely a red herring. A black-gloved killer with a dagger is responsible, and his subjective camera homicides nudge the film into classic gialli terrain. Also on hand is a pet orangutan, a suspect who becomes a victim, and a clear nod to Edgar Allan Poe, one of the genre's many spiritual fathers. The ape is played by a man in a gorilla costume, as is traditional in Rue Morgue adaptations, which this isn't.

There's also the title, which is as clear a marker as one could wish: take the name of an animal, a number (preferably prime and odd) and maybe the word "death" and a color, and you have the makings of your own psycho-thriller. There's even a random giallo title generator that largely follows these principles, though sadly it's a cunning fake.

"I saw what you did!"

As the title hints, the murders, which you can count as the film progresses to make sure they're not cheating, are all witnessed by the family cat, a fat, ginger tom who is delightfully nonthreatening. His placid, stodgy presence imparts a surprising and inappropriate cosiness to the many scenes of violent mayhem.

Birkin, Keller and Diffring are all extremely decorative, a set of ambulatory bone structures with dubbed voices, but the greatest pleasure afforded by a human participant comes from Serge Gainsbourg, cast against type as a small-town Scottish police inspector. While the rest of the cast manage to match lip movements to script quite closely, the sozzled chansonnier complicates the life of the dubbing artist by refusing to move his lips at all, beyond a sort of faint, downward flutter. The voice guy, rising to the challenge, rejects the obvious but for plot reasons impractical option of maintaining complete silence, and makes the nameless character incessantly garrulous, invisibly mouthing vaguely ominous statements in a rather good Glaswegian accent, with the manner of what would locally be termed "a wee nyaff." He's having so much fun that he can't bring himself to stop, even after Gainsbourg exits a scene: we hear the nasal drone continue, fading softly in the gloaming as the off-screen songster retreats.

Like most films of this kind, the experience you have with Seven Deaths depends largely on the quality of the print or transfer you're watching. It's an exercise in style and genre silliness, so give it its due by watching the best copy you can get.

 ***

The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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Loving this series, not only the larger “Forgotten” columns, but these most recently focusing on gialli. I’ll confess I have a mixed track record with Margheriti—I found Seven Deaths a little too silly and plodding, but I recently watched his The Unnaturals (not in the database, though it’s been submitted) and found it to be truly compelling. It’s not much of a hybrid, with the emphasis almost totally on gothic (an eerie and decadent old house that a band of travelers are forced to stay the night in after being waylaid by a storm, a seance scene that reveals past wrongs, taboo sexuality, etc.), but I found it surprisingly effective. (His particular use of flashback making the narrative stronger than it otherwise would’ve been, imo.) If you’re looking for future possibilities for “forgotten” gialli, I’d wholeheartedly recommend any of the following: The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972; dir: Emilio Miraglia); Death Walks at Midnight (1972; dir: Luciano Ercoli); The Fifth Cord (1971; dir: Luigi Bazzoni); The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971; dir: Duccio Tessari); Death in Haiti (1972; dir: Giampaolo Lomi, Edoardo Mulargia) Look forward to reading more of your work—cheers!
Thanks! Haven’t been able to source an English version of Contranatura / The Unnaturals. I’ve seen The Fifth Cord, which is very handsome courtesy of Storaro, and just watched Tessari’s Puzzle, which was pretty engaging. I have several of the others you mention but haven’t watched yet…
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This one (http://shop.dtm.at/product_info.php?manufacturers_id=&products_id=44545) has English subs and was the way I found it. The picture quality is nothing to get excited about, but that’s sort of par for the course for many of these releases … Puzzle actually left me a little underwhelmed, with a central mystery that spooled out a little too straightforwardly and tame (at least until all that chainsaw hilarity at the end). My mileage for gialli has as much to do with the cast as anything, and Berger and Merenda have never tripped my trigger as much as some of the other Eurostars of the genre. Though I do always enjoy watching Bruno Corazzari, who played the perpetually sniffling hitman…
Thanks for the link. Puzzle is minor-league, to be sure. I found the lead characters likable, though it was interesting to see Berger, a very good actress most of the time, be fairly unconvincing and vapid under the typical giallo script/direction. But the blood-soaked climax was very satisfying. Currently in the Panasonic: The Perfume of the Lady in Black.
I agree with Mr. Arkadin about SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT’S EYE. A lot of potential (cast, cinematography, setting) – but it’s pretty dull. I don’t rate Margheriti very highly. I found PUZZLE highly entertaining, however. A pity Whisky had to get his.
True. There’s a shortage of crime-fighting canine assistants in gialli. Whisky could have been the Asta of his genre. But no domestic pet ever makes it to the end credits in those films — except the pussycat above. Maybe that’s an argument for it not being a true giallo.

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