Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Creature Double Feature Night 6: SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE (1973), THE GHOUL (1933)

 Tonight, a double feature of prime Prime old dark house thrillers, each set rollicking over gloomy Gothic estates with their own secret chambers to the burial grounds, tombs with cats, gems and vows of vengeance beyond the grave, an assortment of shifty-eyed suspects and a couple of 'kissin' cousins' who haven't seen each other since they were kids, teaming up "shoulder-to-shoulder" in a kind of young hip 'divine right of hotness after a key death in the family ramps up the antics of a relentless killer. The denouement of both is even similar, with surprise villainy where you used to least expect it. Prizing heavy Gothic atmosphere over whodunnit base tagging, these films make a perfect October night in. Working can wait, as the old hillbilly in that WB cartoon once sang, this is para-diise... for some of us. I'm rating and reviewing these according to my eccentric patriarchal whims, as stated in my will...

La morte negli occhi del gatto
1973 - Dir. Antonio Margheriti 
***1/2 / Amazon Image - C

Often creatively ranslated or interpreted (the English credit is "Seven Deaths in the Cats Eyes" and on imdb it's "Seven Dead in a Cat's Eye"), La morte negli occhi del gatto is worth seeing under any guise or language track, provided the colors are as lovingly soaked in dusky golden, maroon and black, as here. And with her huge eyes and endearingly crooked smile, Jane Birkin makes a fabulous Edgar Wallace-style heroine; her suitor/cousin, Hiram Keller (Satyricon) is the pretty but blank Hamlin-esque 'madman' Lord James MacGrieff, kept a virtual prisoner up in his fabulous top of the castle salon with his paints and pet gorilla (you know it's an old dark house movie when there's a gorilla, provided it's played by a guy in a gorilla suit- and this is one of the worst I've ever seen. I'm in a peculiar kind of heaven). This international-Italian/French co-production finds Lady Corringa (Birkin) hiding the fact she's been expelled from the nun-run girl's boarding school she's been attending and dropping in unannounced on her mother and her aunt, who lives in the ornate castle and won't sell it even though she'll get no more money to run it. Soon mom is dead and our unlucky ingenue is possibly going mad in a mansion full of eccentrics all vying for possession of the elaborate yet crumbling secret passage-ridden ancestral estate. She's a bit like Paulette Goddard in the 1939 CAT AND THE CANARY if the Bob Hope part was played by a brooding Byronic pretty boy chief suspect... and he had a pet gorilla; and she came to the reading of the will with her mom, but her mom was murdered and then appeared to her as a vampire ghost at night, with a Hamlet-like demand for vengeance.

The score's a bit on the dimestore Morrione cop show side, but that's hardly bad thing. The main benefit here is gorgeous photography lush enough that at times Birkin's luminous hair is so perfectly reflected in her candelabra's lamplight we can count the strands. This film bumps up three stars now that it's not a panned, scanned, washed-out mess. Margheriti clearly loves along with the writing of the godfather of the giallo, Edgar Wallace.

One of the stand-out elements here are the clothes, which 'nod' to an assumed setting of 1930's England, but just nod, keeping the high fashion edge rather than getting bogged down in stuffy details like bowler hats and woolen overcoats. For her mourning wear (above) Birkin is given a beautiful black fur collar and her nightgown's sexy without being tacky (Von Sternberg would have approved). The whole production, aside from lingering close-ups of rats eating the face of victim #1, is very tasteful. The music is the orchestral suspense-generating variety rather than the moody giallo electric guitars of the time, but that's not worth a demerit. Indeed, the only demerit is maybe dubbing Serge Gainsbourg (he's the detective) with a fake Scotch burr.

SPECIAL NOTE: My experience with Prime, and finding a good stream, is that there are often numerous options --the one in the upper left of the screenshot at right has a picture of the DVD cover art, so seems to be the most reliable, but it has an issue in the last half where the image jerks around like every third frame is missing. Too bad, as the image is divine. The middle version (left) with a green frame isn't 'Prime' so who cares?

Then there's another version, also "Prime", with no cover thumbnail art at all (circled) but there's no jerking; however the image is somewhat softer, though not to a dealbreaker extent. The beauty still comes through. This is of course subject to change. However, it's good enough that if you love the film you may be prompted to buy the Blue Underground DVD and you'll be glad ya did. 

(1933) Dir. T. Hayes Hunter
*** / Amazon Image - B (various versions exist on Prime)

To be a classic horror fan is to love any movie that features both Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger (they co-starred in two James Whale classics: Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein), so we love The Ghouls. Here they're back home in England, at lovely old Gaumont, but with Universal's horror film tropes at the forefront of their producer's minds, and we love their minds for loving those tropes as we do, even if they don't quite have a full-on horror knack, and this bends more towards Gothic chiller, the type with wry wit and--thankfully--no scenes of local color shootin' the shit down the pub, a British staple. Here we get lots of swirling fog and no daytime scenes whatsoever, which I love. Karloff is a dying Egyptologist living on a big dark estate with its own Egyptian tomb. Most of his remaining fortune has been spent on a huge mystical emerald which he thinks will bring him back from the dead once he rises in the shadow of giant statue of Isis (ala The Mummy). His big worry, some quick-thinking pallbearer will steal it before he gets walled-in. After he dies, and his eerie Egyptian-style funerary procession to the strains of Wagner's immortal "Siegfried's Funeral March" is concluded, the real show begins with the jewel and A+ MacGuffin. The first person to break in finds the gem already missing, thanks to nervous but well-meaning butler (Thesiger) but there's also Ralph Richardson as an overly-friendly parson; Cedrick Hardwicke as a grumpy Dickensian lawyer; the great Harold Huth is Aga Ben Dragore, the art dealer who sold Karloff the jewel, and the shifty agents he stole it from. Dorothy Hyson and Anthony Bushell are the young, attractive, egal inheritors of the estate and therefore the jewel (depending on who you ask). Cousins who bicker over old grievances, they stand "shoulder to shoulder" once the spooky goings on commence. Kathleen Harrison provides the comic relief as Hyson's pal who comes along for moral support and ends up swooning over Dragore's tales of whipping slave girls for miles across the dunes. It all takes place over a single, wild night in almost real time (my favorite kind of movie). Naturally Karloff come back from the dead and skulks about the mansion search of his expensive emerald, scaring, killing, and even the bit where he carves an ankh symbol on his chest has been restored!

Long just a streaky duped public domain blur, available only on second-hand dupes, The Ghoul has since been spiffed up and now is a personal favorite that's just oozing with delicious spooky Universal-does-Edgar Wallace atmosphere (with dabs of The Mummy).  Pure 30s horror / old dark house mood it is, with enough fog to carry it through to the giddy end (no tired moments or tedious exterior daytime shots). And if you lose track of who has the jewel, or where it's hid, or where everyone else is relative to everyone else on the grounds, don't worry, just vibe on the old dark house glory of it all, and watch it again later. It gets better, and easier to understand, with every viewing... now that you can see what's going on, kind of, in the fog.

Amazon also has a 1970s Ghoul with Peter Cushing, no relation to the 1933 version, and with terrible dupe streaks and bad framing. There are several uploads of the 1933 version on Prime too, so pick a good one. The green and white cover with Karloff's face is the one I'm covering here. It's a slow burn joy, so is Seven Deaths. 

Optional Third Choice (for the die-hards)

1963 - dir. Roger Corman
 **** / Amazon Image - A
A personal October perennial, this loose comedic 'adaptation' of Poe's poem has reluctant sorceress Vincent Price longing for his Lenore on a dark and stormy night, reading forgotten lore until Peter Lorre (bloated but hilarious) as the raven interrupts his moody brooding with a request for wizarding aid. A drunken sorcerer of lesser skill, Lorre tells Price he was turned into a raven by Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff)--whose castle is right down the coast (Big Sur, naturally). It just so happens Scarabus killed Price's master sorcerer father in a duel years earlier. Price lost Lenore (Hazel Court) to him as well (a bit like Karloff stole Lugosi's wife in the 1934 Black Cat --another Poe "adaptation") but doesn't know she's still alive. Soon they're all packed away in a carriage, along with a young Jack Nicholson as Lorre's son Rexford and Olive Sturgess as Price's cute daughter.The Les Baxter score at times errs on the side of the Mickey Mouse-ish but this is pure uncut Halloween delight, so you might as well bring the kids, by which I mean depressed lovelorn sophomores reeling from too much bad acid, as I was, catching this at the Student Union while a sophomore, and needing desperately at the time to return to the Gothic chambers and forgotten lore of childhood, wherein every fairy tale was grim. 

In the land of the damned Price is as the soothing balm of Ativan to the alcoholically twisted. 

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