sat 20/01/2018

DVD/Blu-ray: The Cat o' Nine Tails/Phenomena | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: The Cat o' Nine Tails/Phenomena

DVD/Blu-ray: The Cat o' Nine Tails/Phenomena

Horror maestro Dario Argento on the way up, and down

Vera Brandt (Fiore Argento) loses her head

Dario Argento’s Suspiria was confirmed as one of horror’s great fever dreams on its 40th anniversary re-release last year. The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Phenomena (1985) are lesser book-ends of the director’s peak period, when his global genre influence was vast.

The Cat o’ Nine Tails (★★★) is pure Italian giallo, inserting lurid sex and violence and weird narrative elements till its crime tale twists towards horror. Karl Malden is a wonderfully muscular presence as a blind ex-newspaper photographer living in happy mutual dependence with his young niece, and thrusting through life with the power of his voice and puzzle-solving, steel-trap mind. He is joined by handsome, wooden James Franciscus (Beneath the Planet of the Apes’ Charlton Heston-lookalike lead, pictured below left with Malden), as they investigate grisly murders rooted in a since disproved theory about killers' DNA. Argento really finds his range with the last outrageous shot, as the killer tumbles down a lift-shaft, hands smoking with friction from uselessly gripped cables.James Franciscus and Karl Malden in The Cat o' Nine TailsPhenomena (★★) takes us to the other side of Suspiria’s phantasmagoric peak. Elements remain from 1971: modish, half-digested scientific theories (telepathic insects here), and pruriently prolonged murders of women – garrotted in Cat, Argento’s elder daughter Fiore repeatedly stabbed here, before smashing her head on glass above a waterfall, which that head soon rolls down. Beginning as a shameless riff on Suspiria with its strange, isolated girls’ school setting, Phenomena also keeps that film’s balancing sense that these misogynist-seeming murders occur in a strongly female world.

Jennifer Connelly (pictured below), recommended aged 13 by Argento’s mentor Sergio Leone after her debut in Once Upon a Time in America, understandably only shows glimpses of her Oscar-winning, finely beautiful future. Playing a girl who communicates with insects, thereby tracking a murderer across Switzerland with a carrion fly as her mini-bloodhound, would anyway test a Streep. Donald Pleasence's wheelchair-bound Scottish etymologist and a razor-wielding chimp also join her team.

A first half in which her perceptions during sleep-walks aid the film's dislocated, dream logic disintegrates into narrative chaos. Goblin, the Italian rock group who helped Suspiria’s head-pounding atmospheric unity, had similarly split, leaving stray band-members and heavy metal songs to crudely fill in. Though Phenomena is memorably outré, Argento’s decline is already clear.Jennifer Connelly in PhenomenaThese individual Arrow 4K restorations’ extras are exemplary. New interviews include Argento, who bemoans the “too American” The Cat o’ Nine Tails, only remembering Karl Malden and scenes in the Turin newspaper where he once worked with fondness. A two-hour documentary on Phenomena tells you everything you could possibly want to know, including Argento’s deteriorating relationship with his Suspiria co-writer and girlfriend Daria Nicolodi, perhaps explaining why Phenomena requires her to wrestle a live chimpanzee.

The biggest pleasure in either release is a long interview with The Cat o’ Nine Tails’ co-writer, Dardano Sachetti. His description of Roman bohemia in the 1960s, watching the new Godard in the cine-club all day, mixing with Borges, becoming Argento’s friend in the pasta mogul’s attic where he lived, and typing The Cat o’ Nine Tails’ first draft alongside the unmade screenplay for an Italian Easy Rider in a grand villa, is a vivid memoir. “He kept doing the same thing even once it was obsolete,” he concludes of Argento’s eventual fate. “He didn’t reinvent himself. He stopped there.”

'Phenomena' keeps the balancing sense that these misogynist-seeming murders occur in a strongly female world

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