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Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973) and the Complication of Italian Horror

Antonio Margheriti’s Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (La morte negli occhi del gatto, 1973) is one of the strangest films to emerge from Italy’s giallo cycle. Blending gothic mise-en-scene with the violent murder mystery structure of the giallo, it is one of a few films that straddle the two forms of horror that dominated Italian popular cinema in the 1960s and early 1970s. Italian popular cinema directors making horror during the period would often work both in the giallo and the gothic, and sometimes the forms would overlap. This goes right back to the start of Italian horror production with Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1957) situating an Elizabeth Báthory tale of vampirism in a contemporary murder investigation narrative, and Margheriti himself directed both classic gothic horror such as Castle of Blood (Danza Macabra, 1963) and giallo like Naked…You Die! (Nude… si muore, 1968).

A lot of scholarly and critical attention demarcates the 1960s as the period of Italian gothic production. Christopher Frayling notes that the gothic horror cycle operated from 1959-1963 (Frayling 1981: 70-71), while Maggie Gunsberg’s illuminating study of gender in ‘classic horror’ spans 1956-1966 (Gunsberg 2005: 133-172). However, production of gothic horror did not fade away with the onset of the new decade. Films continued to be made in the gothic mode in the early 1970s: films from Mario Bava like Baron Blood (Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga, 1972) and Lisa and the Devil (Lisa e il diavolo, 1973) as well as others like Renato Polselli’s Black Magic Rites (Riti, magie nere e segrete orge nel trecento, 1973). There are a number of other gothic gialli too, most notably Emilio P. Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave (La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba, 1971) and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (La dama rossa uccide sette volte, 1972), as well as Sergio Martino’s All the Colours of the Dark (Tutti i colori del buio, 1972) and Aldo Lado’s Short Night of Glass Dolls (La Corta notte delle bambole di vetro, 1971), which both blend murder mystery narratives with a stories of Satanic cults.

Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye, although not alone, is a film that acutely represents the generic liminality of Italian horror in the 1960s and early 1970s, making it one of the most interesting films to emerge from Italy’s ‘Golden Age’ of horror production. The story revolves around Corringa, a young woman who returns home from her school in London to her family’s ancestral castle, the aptly named Dragonstone. At Dragonstone her bizarre family, the MacGrief clan, await: her aunt Lady Mary MacGrieff, the castle’s owner, her mother Alicia and Lord James MacGrieff, Lady Mary’s son. The family are terrified about James’ supposed insanity and lack of moral compass, so to cure his ‘sickness of the soul’ there is a priest and a doctor at Dragonstone, introducing a gothic rationalism/religion dichotomy. And if that wasn’t enough, there is also Suzanne, a sexually liberated young woman who has been hired as a French teacher for James.

Although bearing what many would consider a highly formulaic giallo title (death, animal, number), and a traditional giallo murder mystery structure – one by one the MacGrieff clan are dispatched with a razor blade – the film eschews much of giallo convention. It contains little of the sadistic, masochistic and erotic elements that were commonplace in the giallo: most murders take place off-camera, there is little nudity and only a thin lacing of sexuality in the form of Suzanne. There is also a total rejection of modernity, with events located to the fin-de-siècle. Subtracting the modern European city for a castle in ‘Victorian Scotland’, the film’s runtime features many of the traditional gothic trappings found in both literature and film. On top of the ancestral castle we have an old family legend about vampirism (as it goes any MacGrieff killed by another MacGrieff will return as the undead), a mad libertine son and a bizarre interweaving of animals and death pulled straight from the pages of Edgar Allan Poe. The title of the film derives from the presence of a cat at the scene of each murder, implying its supernatural implicitly in the crimes. This is a giallo rich both with gothic excess and antagonism between scientific rationality and superstition.

One of the most striking aspects about the film is its temporal incongruence. The story takes place around the fin-de-siècle, however, there is only one concrete reference to this. Midway through the film Lord MacGrieff remarks to Corringa, “there’s this new theory by someone called Freud, who says you can cure souls the same way you can cure bodies.” This is the only line of dialogue that temporally positions the film. The Interpretation of Dreams, in which Freud lays out his early theories about psychoanalysis was first published in 1899, so we can speculate that this roughly when the piece is set, give or take a few years. There is visible evidence too. In the opening scene Corringa travels to Dragonstone in a horse and cart, and clothes worn by many of the characters, particularly the policeman investigating the string of killings, are clearly late Victorian. But with all this, the film is littered with anachronism. Most notably in the clothing of Corringa, who arrives at the castle wearing a 1920s style dress and later, at the funeral of her mother, adorned with a hat more suited a flapper-filled ballroom. More incongruity comes in the form suits and ties that would fit nicely into a 1950s film noir. Dragonstone is away from the world and it seems, away from time. It’s almost as if the film is pulling itself forward to a more contemporary period.

Eleven years prior to Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye, Riccardo Freda directed one of the great films of Italian gothic horror: The Terrible Secret of Dr Hichcock (L’Orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock, 1963). Shot in Technicolor, like Margheriti’s film, and set in 1885 London, everything about the film screams late Victorian England: the neck ties, Barbara Steele’s buttoned-up dresses, the lavish but conservative interiors, the social awkwardness of the characters and the shots outside University College London. Freda’s film follows generic plausibility to the tee as did much of Italy’s 1960s gothic output, with most films securely located in the Victoria era and providing many temporal signifiers.

Conversely, Mikel J. Koven notes of the giallo that ‘almost all of these films are filmed in the present. That is to say, they are contemporary with when they were made (Koven: 54-55).” (The one ‘exception’ that Koven highlights is Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby…Kill but he mentions that he is not sure whether to classify it as giallo or not. In any case Bava’s film, like Freda’s, is clearly located in nineteenth century Germany, with its costumes and settings.) The giallo, unlike much of the gothic horror cycle that preceded it, is securely located in the contemporary, with films providing many temporal signifiers of the period: houses adorned with 1970s art and fashion as well as car travel, air travel and telephones.

Margheriti’s film, on the other hand, with its giallo structure, gothic setting, anachronism and incongruity is far harder to pin down. Unlike both the giallo of the 1970s and the more classic gothic work of the 1960s, it does not adhere to generic convention and temporal plausibility. Although it is a plausible giallo in that murderous events are located with a mystery narrative, the film is an incongruous blend of the two forms that initially delineated Italian horror. Xavier Reyes has pointed out that the relationship between the gothic and the giallo is “complicated, namely because directors…produced both gialli and more straightforward gothic products, sometimes in close proximity, to the point that their aesthetic and thematic preoccupations cross over and blend (Reyes: 2013).” For this reason, Italian horror has always been hard to assess in terms of ‘genre’ or filone. Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye, with the strange timelessness of Dragonstone, is just one film to represent this ‘complication’ but it is perhaps the most potent.

Works cited.

  • Frayling, Christoper. Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, Routledge, 1981, pp. 70-71.
  •  Gunsberg, Maggie. Italian Cinema: Gender and Genre, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp. 133-172.
  •  Koven, Mikel J. La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film, The Scarecrow Press, 2006, pp.54-55.
  • Reyes, Xavier. Italian Gothic Horror. http://www.gothic.stir.ac.uk/guestblog/italian-gothic-horror/, 2013, (accessed on 3 April 2017).

About Alex Morris

Alex Morris studied MA History of Film at Birkbeck, University of London, writing his dissertation on gender in the Italian giallo. He now works for a charity that advocates for the use of moving image in higher education and research, and also freelance for a distributor specialising in cult and exploitation cinema. Follow him on Twitter @necrobaker.

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