Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Perspective vs Technology in The Cat o' Nine Tails

The Cat o' Nine Tails is only the second film from Italian writer/director Dario Argento, and yet it is perhaps the clearest indication of his interest in the cross section between identity and perception on the one hand and science and technology on the other. The story revolves around a break in at a genetics lab where researchers are studying the XYY gene mutation. It seems as though nothing was stolen, but the event is followed by a series of apparently unrelated murders, starting with the only man who knew what the intruder really did. With no apparent robbery and no obvious connection to the murders the police aren't interested in the case, and the investigation is left up to a young journalist and a blind man with a love of solving puzzles.

The ideas surrounding science and technology are woven into the very crime at the center of the film itself. The laboratory that was broken into is studying the XYY gene mutation looking for a connection to criminal behavior (based on a study of prisoners which found a surprising majority of XYY inmates). But even as advanced as this research is, it's not enough to stop the violent murders taking place at the hands of an XYY serial killer. Science and technology may chase the dream of a utopian society, but it is tragically handicapped by its inability to prevent its own sabotage. Science cannot pin down what makes us who we are.

These scientific studies are also inextricably linked to the search for the root of identity, of what makes us who we are. The idea that our genetics may determine whether we become violent criminals assumes that there is an immutable nature inherent to our identities. The film also explores these ideas in the way it links identity to perception, specifically through its motif of eyes. The only part of the killer we see before their apprehension is their eye in extreme close up, and many of the murders are shot with point-of-view shots showing their perspective.

This character who can only see (who is never seen) is contrasted with the blind cruciverbalist who cannot see. While the killer is heartless, the old man is a loving father to a daughter that's not even his own. This juxtaposition makes a point made most famously in Hitchcock's Psycho about the violence of voyeurism, or the threatening nature of looking. Characters in The Cat o' Nine Tails are defined by their eyes and their ways of looking, and the third point on this triangle is the young reporter, whose red-flecked eyes indicate a rare genetic mutation which ties the thematic exploration of vision back together with the film's earlier ideas about science and genetics.


From a technical standpoint, The Cat o' Nine Tails is a well made film which suffers from a slight lack of creativity. After Argento's incredible debut with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat is a slightly disappointing follow-up. It shows some of what would become the director's trademarks (shooting the murder scenes extremely close to give the audience a sense of claustrophobia; punctuating moments of intensity with the overly dramatic musical score), but the film is surprisingly lacking in his usual excessive sense of visual style. The only mark of this comes from the editing, which has a remarkable sense of timing and occasionally jumps back and forth between reality and character's inner imagination in a way which is simultaneously beautiful and unsettling.

Argento is often referred to as the Italian Hitchcock because of the way he creates a palpable sense of tension, and here the lack of surrealism helps maintain this unease. But while the director's hand is felt in the way he lingering on negative space or shows the killer's presence to the audience but not the characters, these great scenes are often counterbalanced by slightly more laughable ones ("They tried to kill me...with milk!"). Like Hitchcock, Argento also bridges the gap between thriller and horror by presenting what is a fairly traditional mystery and then breaking the audience's sense of safe distance by showing the killer murder his victims in viscerally gruesome detail.

Ultimately, The Cat o' Nine Tails is my least favorite film from Argento so far (to be fair, I haven't seen any of his notoriously bad films like Dracula 3D). I fell in love with the director last October during my horror marathon, and this film doesn't quite live up to any of the great ones I watched at that time. Hints of his style are here, but they're buried too deep beneath the surface. The narrative tension is there, but it's occasionally undermined by scenes which are silly or simplistic (Lori's scenes are particularly guilty in this regard). If you're looking for a prototypical Italian giallo then this basically fits the bill, but it's not something mystery or horrors fans need to seek out for its own sake. It's a film which is interesting primarily for the way it ties into thematic concerns which Argento develops more successfully elsewhere.

Dario Argento: more reviews | films ranked

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