Thursday, January 31, 2019

4DK at 10: Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye (Italy, 1973)

[FIRST POSTED FEBRUARY 8, 2008: Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye is a film I had not heard about until I found a DVD of it in the dollar bin in my neighborhood Walgreen's, whereupon it became the first movie to receive a feature review on 4DK]

Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye is a movie that I would have watched sooner or later no matter what people said about it. And, from what I've heard, people don't have much to say about it that's very encouraging. However, I'm the type of person who always thinks, "How bad can it be?" And in this case I thought, "How bad can a sort-of-giallo co-starring Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg be?" I mean, if you're a fan, like I am, of 1960s French pop music, European genre cinema and unrepentantly seedy Frenchmen, you are basically doomed to see this movie whether you like it or not.

And the fact is that Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye isn't bad; It just isn't really good, either. Antonio Margheriti (here working under his Anthony Dawson pseudonym) is a director who, at his best, seems content with being just okay. He obviously knows how to set up a shot and light a set - and, in its best moments, Seven Deaths has the look of a lesser Mario Bava film, which isn't bad. But aside from looking handsome, the film is little more than a lazy composite of stock gothic horror elements--the aristocratic family with a blighted bloodline, the driven mad son kept locked from public view, the innocent young girl wandering wide-eyed through endless dark corridors in a foreboding mansion, etc--all of which are marched out at a fairly languorous pace.

That all might clue you in that Seven Deaths isn't really much of a giallo, either. That's fine, of course, unless you were expecting it to be one. Which you very well might, given that its title--which includes a numeral, an animal, a reference to death, and doesn't make one lick of sense--is about as giallo as Dario Argento slashing people's throats with a razor while wearing a Lucio Fulci mask in a stark white gallery filled with nothing but giant stainless steel sculptures of human hands (which reminds me, if you haven't experienced Braineater's genius Giallo Generator, you must do it right now).

In addition to that, in faithful Giallo fashion, the film's characters are uniformly unlikeable, and there is indeed a series of murders committed by a mysterious, gloved killer. Despite that, however, the aforementioned gothic trappings, the period setting (the 1920s, I'm guessing, based entirely on one hat that Jane Birkin wears) and relative lack of gore serve to undermine Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye having the feeling of a true giallo. That seems like quite a missed opportunity, seeing as how a figure like Gainsbourg would have so complimented--and been complimented by--the decadent, morally withered and cosmopolitan setting of the typical giallo.

Which brings me to another reason why, if you're someone like me, you shouldn't bother to watch Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye, even though you're totally going to anyway. Serge Gainsbourg really isn't in it very much. His police inspector character doesn't show up until well after the film's halfway mark, and when he does he's saddled with a ridiculous dubbed Scottish accent. (The film is set in Scotland, which makes it all the more jarring when the DVD's reinserted scenes, taken from an Italian language print, pop up). His relationship to the character his missus plays in the film is purely incidental, and so we don't get to see much going on between them.

Of course, that I had expected it to be different was no one's fault but my own, since, unlike the headlining Birkin, Gainsbourg is far from top billed. Though it's not like I expected the two of them to break into a version of "Je T'aime Moi Non Plus" complete with orgasmic moaning, either. I just thought that, since both halves of the famous couple were near the height of their celebrity at the time, the filmmakers might have tried to capitalize more on the fact that they were starring together. But instead it seems like Gainsbourg's role was intended as more of a cameo.

And it is an entertaining cameo. Even with the awful dubbing, Gainsbourg still manages to exude an air of casual debauchery that hangs around him like cheap cologne (along with the cloud of actual cheap cologne that I also imagine him to be wearing). Ambling onto a crime scene, rumpled and heavy-lidded, he comes off like a more dissolute version of Columbo.

As for Birkin, I have to say that I'm a lot more familiar with her work as a pop singer than as an actor. As such, I can only say that she doesn't hold a whole lot of interest here, and I'm guessing that's due more to the thinness of the stock gothic heroine character she's given to play than to her acting ability. She does do all the wide-eyed, lantern-bearing wandering through darkened corridors quite serviceably, though.

So suffice it to say that Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye does not rank up there with Histoire de Melody Nelson and Charlotte among Birkin and Gainsbourg's most successful collaborations. In the film's favor I can say that one of it's murder victims was a gorilla, which I thought was pretty innovative (the gorilla costume ranking between the one in King Kong vs. Godzilla and those of the kung fu fighting gorillas in Shaolin Invincibles in terms of quality). Also, the film is at least true to its title in providing a cat, though he's more of the well-fed, Garfield variety than the scary type of cat you might expect in this sort of film.

That's not a lot to recommend Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye, and if I were you I'd-- Well, if I were you I'd just watch it anyway, no matter how stridently people tried to dissuade me from it, because that's what I did. So just don't say I didn't warn you.

4DK = 10

When a blog gets to be ten years old, it is usually due to either perseverance or neglect. Given my last post bears a date that’s within the last two weeks, I guess I am to be congratulated for the former. Oh, how I have suffered these many years, again and again triumphing over staunch adversity to bring you thoughtful reviews of Filipino midget spy films, Indian dinosaur epics, Soviet beach movies and Turkish comic strip adaptations. Where else would you have learned of such irreplaceable cinematic icons as Suzzanna, Sultan Rahi, Dara Singh, Dolphy, and Ismail Yassin, or of the awesome contributions to the world cinematic cannon of auteurs like Sompote Saengduenchai, KSR Doss, Yilmaz Atadenis and Pearl Chang Ling?

Obviously, this is a cause for celebration. And that celebration will begin tomorrow, February 1st, when, every day until February 6th, the 10th anniversary of 4DK’s first post, I will be reposting significant reviews from throughout the blog’s improbably long history. Of course, comparing these early posts to my later work will show that I have neither matured nor evolved--but that I have done solely in the name of bringing you a consistent, reliable product. You’re welcome.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Singing Ringing Tree (East Germany, 1957)

The East German children’s film The Singing Ringing Tree might have slipped under the internet’s radar had it not been serialized by the BBC for its Tales of Europe Television series, whereupon it gained a reputation as one of the most frightening children’s films ever made. No stranger to the idea that a children’s film can be terrifying—I’ve seen Santa Clause and the Ice Cream Bunny, after all--I tucked into it with an expectation of seeing just what had caused so many postwar British toddlers to wet their knickers back in the day—and came away with the conclusion that that particular generation of British toddlers had yet to have instilled in them the Churchil1ian stolidity that got their country through the Big One. You see, the film just isn’t scary—at least not in the realm of scary kiddie films, the ruler of which is unquestionably that master sadist Walt Disney, whose Snow White and Darby O’Gill traumatized my elder siblings to an extent that it was no wonder my parents had given up on his movies by the time I came around.

In place of scares, what The Singing Ringing Tree gives us is a carefully constructed alternate reality, achieved through the use of fanciful indoor sets, miniature exteriors, and surreal puppet creatures. This, combined with a recurring motif of pretty things being made, or revealed to be, ugly, might upset certain toddlers, given theirs was a personal reality so cozy and familiar that there was no relief in seeing it subverted. Personally, being a somewhat downcast, serious minded child, I was always willing to sign up for an escape from the everyday. So much so that my fantasy world of choice was that inhabited by the expressionless automatons of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, Stingray, and Captain Scarlet.

The film further departs from reality by making of its characters mere archetypes who are designated by their titles only: The Prince, The Princess, The King, etc. The Prince, played by Eckart Dux, is, of course, handsome, and starts the film by showing up at the King’s door and asking for the Princess’ hand in marriage. In a flip of the usual fairytale script, the King takes an immediate liking to the Prince. This is perhaps because he knows all too well that the Princess (played by the indeed bodacious Christel Bodenstein) is a ravening bitch. Presented by the prince with a jewel box brimming with pearls, she haughtily casts its contents onto the floor and demands that he bring her the Singing Ringing Tree (or “Das Singende Klingende Baumchen”, which sounds really funny when the cast members say it over and over again.) Everyone present laughs uneasily at this, because, in truth, no one knows where the Tree is, or whether it exists at all. Undeterred, the Prince marches off into the blinding matte painting that lies just beyond the throne room door.

After marching dutifully across the colorful sets (constructed in DEFA’s Brandenburg studios) that represent the world beyond the castle, the Prince comes upon Fairyland, which is ruled by a malevolent dwarf in a psychedelic onesie. The Prince tells the Dwarf that he is looking for the Tree and the Dwarf tells him that he has it—because, of course he does. The Dwarf gives him the tree with the caveat that, if it does not sing upon being presented to the Princess—because it will only sing if the Princess truly loves him—he must return it by midnight or become the Dwarf’s slave. In an odd fit of bravado, the Prince declares that he will return the tree on time or be “turned into a bear”, which must be the most nakedly prophetic line in film history.

Of course, the tree doesn’t sing, because, as I said, the Princess is a total bitch. So the Prince returns to the Dwarf, only to be transformed into that most fearsome of the forest’s predators by way of a patchy looking bear costume (it’s fun, but nothing on the bear that the Prince gets turned into in The Thrilling Sword.) The Prince makes for a particularly grouchy bear, grumbling his way through his daily tasks while befriending all the animals of the forest—including a giant goldfish that looks like a cross between a carousel animal and a parade float.

I’m going to skip over a couple more back-and-forth trips between the kingdom and Fairyland by saying that eventually the Princess is brought, kicking and screaming, to Fairyland, where the Prince/Bear takes her on as an unwilling pet. The first thing we learn is that all of the animals who are so dear to the Prince instinctively shy away from the Princess, because—did I mention she was a bitch? In fact, the Prince tells her, in not so few words, that, if she looked on the outside the way she was on the inside, she would look like total ass. The Dwarf, always willing to lend a helping hand, obligingly turns her into a green-haired (yet still somehow hot in a Nina Hagen kind of way) hag to illustrate this fact.

There follows a series of scenes in which the Prince teaches the Princess to be kind to the animals, over the course of which she gradually returns to her beautiful self—with the added bonus that she’s not so much of a bitch anymore. This transformation is completed when she rides to the Prince’s rescue on the back of the goldfish.

In the course of writing this review I learned that, when the BBC aired The Singing Ringing Tree, they broadcast it in black and white, which might explain how it might have had a somewhat more ominous tone. This, I believe, was part of a nefarious BBC plot to turn all of the former axis powers’ children’s films into blood curdling nightmares by means of changing their color palette. Still, I have to admit that, in it’s normal, colored form, I found The Singing Ringing Tree engaging, a little charming and, at times, even beautiful. See it at your own risk.

Friday's best pop song ever