Antonio Margheriti started his directing career by making science fiction movies, which were among the first authentic sci-fi flicks made in Italy since the silent days. He went on to make movies in almost every commercial genre except hard-core porn — including gialli, crime films, Westerns, more science fiction (including a futuristic adaptation of Treasure Island years before Disney's... and thinking of Disney, he also made a comedy, Mr. Superinvisible, for the Mouse Mob), and movies that manage to roll several seemingly-unrelated genres into one, such as the infamous horror/ adventure/ war/ cannibal/ sci-fi thriller Apocalypse Domani, or the comedy/ Western/ ghost story Whiskey and Ghosts. His restlessness and refusal to concentrate on a single genre have made him difficult to pigeonhole. Rare is the instance in which a Margheriti film would come to mind as a prime exemplar of any of the genres he worked in... with one important exception: the Italian Gothic.
Margheriti's first Gothic was the 1963 film Danza Macabra, known in English as Castle of Blood or Castle of Terror. Made at the height of the genre's popularity, it featured impressive black and white photography, Barbara Steele practically falling out of her costume, and at least one absolutely terrifying sequence amid the usual melodrama (and anyone who has seen the film will probably remember the thing in the coffin). This remains the film for which Margheriti is best known, and some critics even place Danza Macabra second only to Mario Bava's Maschera del Demonio / Black Sunday as the apex of the Italian Gothic.
Danza Macabra was a typical triumph of style over content: the movie provided enough chilling atmosphere to distract the audience from the fact that the Corbucci brothers' script was ridiculous. Though it was supposed to have been based on a tale by Poe, and even featured Poe as a supporting character, the actual story of Danza Macabra is very far removed from anything Poe would have written1. The film's explanation of the nature of ghosts is downright silly (worse, a poor little snake had to die to illustrate it) — it's not the sort of "natural philosophy" Poe would have found appealing... though he might have been attracted to the basic idea of revenant shades forced to relive the last futile moments of their lives, over and over again through eternity.
On the subject of repeating yourself hopelessly forever, Margheriti's producer coerced him into re-making Danza Macabra ten years later — only this time in color and scope format. Margheriti thought he was nuts. Still, a job is a job, so he went ahead and directed the film anyway. The Web of the Spider, as the remake was called, is a complete failure, with Anthony Franciosa looking sweaty and out of place in his 19th-century costume, and Klaus Kinski (as usual for movies like these) doing most of his overacting off-camera.
Slightly more successful (although still pretty stupid as far as the script was concerned) was The Virgin of Nuremberg, made at about the same time as the original Danza Macabra, which proved that Margheriti could make a reasonably convincing Gothic in color and widescreen... as long as his heart was in it. Virgin... was also interesting and unusual in that it brought its creepy tale of dank castles, secret passages and disfigured monsters into the present day. But in my opinion, the most satisfying of all Margheriti's gothics was his most conventional: The Long Hair of Death, another black-and-white Barbara Steele vehicle, which contained a few squirm-inducing moments that outdid anything in Danza Macabra.
Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye is Margheriti's last nod to the genre that helped establish his career. It was made in 1973, at a time when the Gothic had all but disappeared from Italy's screens. In those pre-Exorcist days, Italian horror had become pretty much synonymous with the giallo, the stylish, violent and colorful suspense films of which the young Dario Argento was the recognized master. Margheriti's film manages to look in two directions at once: although it harks back toward the Gothics, in content it is unmistakeably a giallo.
How can we tell it's a giallo? Well... first of all, through the title. By 1971, fter Argento's first two films (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat o' Nine Tails), it became the habit of giallo film makers to include an animal in the title, whether there really was an animal in the story (as there had been in Bird...) or not (like Cat...)... with the majority falling into the Not camp. Seven Deaths... is unique in that the cat of the title not only appears in the movie, but actually has a significant role in the plot. He's as important as some of the human characters, and at least as good an actor. Equally surprising is the fact that he's not the lithe black cat you usually find in a horror film: instead, he's a big, fat, contented-looking orange longhair.
Next, we have plenty of POV shots of a mysterious black-gloved killer. This puts us squarely in giallo territory. True, one of the first on-screen murders is a bloodless attack with a bed pillow; but when the red paint does get tossed around, Margheriti doesn't hold back. We don't see very much actual on-screen violence, or any lingering shots of bodily harm such as we might run into in Argento — but we do get to see bright jets of blood spattering the walls; and lurid, zoom-laden shots of the mutilated corpses. All these are more characteristic of the giallo than the old-fashioned Gothics.
Seven Deaths... does throw in a few hints of the supernatural. For example, the heroine has a bizarre dream in which she sees her mother come back from the grave thirsting for her killer's blood. These hints, though, are never more than a distraction. We in the audience don't believe for a moment that a vampire might be responsible for the killings, and the heroine's dream does more to point up her emotional instability than it does to convince us there are monsters on the prowl. In fact, the dream sequence was seen as being so extraneous to the plot that it was cut from the English-language print by the distributor... which is a shame, because although is is an interruption, it's a very effective one, reminiscent of the weird, stylized interruptions Argento put in his gialli (such as the dreams about beheadings in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, or the fetishistic pans across the killer's assorted toys in Profondo Rosso).
True to the conventions of European exploitation, there's also the obligatory lesbian among the characters... and she gets offed equally predictably. But the biggest confirmation that this is indeed a giallo we're watching comes with the identity of the killer... and that's something I don't intend to reveal. If you've seen any Italian suspense movies — and I call in as my witnesses Lucio Fulci, Aldo Lado, Pupi Avati and Antonio Bido, among others — you know the First Rule of the Giallo concerning the killer's identity. You could watch the film with the sound off and still know precisely who it is before half an hour had gone by. More than that I will not say.
But there's still a good deal of Gothic atmosphere to the movie, which makes Seven Deaths... seem at the same time both familiar and fresh. As expected, we have plenty of scenes of the pretty young heroine creeping through darkened catacombs; we even have a direct reference to Virgin of Nuremberg, as rats gnaw off the face of a murdered man. And, of course, there's the afore-mentioned dream sequence, which is certainly chilling even if it serves little purpose.
The film manages to look back even further, to the American "old dark house" films of the 1930's and early 1940's. For instance, guest star Anton Diffring has a slightly bigger role here than the featured character actors of the Italian Gothics usually had (e.g., Christopher Lee in almost all of his appearances, or wheelchair-bound Joseph Cotten in Bava's Baron Blood); surely his red-herring German doctor is the role that would have been given to Béla Lugosi in the 40's? And let's not forget the stunt man in the unconvincing gorilla suit, who occasionally gets out to menace the castle's inhabitants! Unlike Jess Franco's Night of the Skull, which also stands Janus-faced between the creaky "inheritance thrillers" of the Golden Age and the modern giallo, Margheriti films his action without the slightest trace of irony. That probably makes Seven Deaths... the first movie to play the "gorilla in the haunted house" device seriously in forty years.
But as long as I've brought up the dreaded words "Jess Franco", I might as well get to the main failing of Seven Deaths...
It's that stupid zoom lens again!
If there's one thing that really helped kill Gothic horror cinema, it was the zoom lens. Even the great Mario Bava fell in love with it, and as a result almost ruined Operazione: Paura/Kill, Baby! Kill!. As for Margheriti, in practically every scene that isn't dialogue-based, he gets restless. In the opening, when the body of an unidentified man gets dumped down a flight of stairs into a rat-infested stone dungeon, the camera zooms in and out on the remains — "oooh, look at the bloody corpse!" — until your head starts to throb right along with it. During a funeral scene, the camera can't be bothered to stay in one place; so, like a bored child, it roams all over, panning and zooming more or less at random.
The constant zooming in and out is much more annoying than the silliness of the plot — which, needless to say, really doesn't make any sense at all. Wait until you find out what the real killer's motivation is — it's a groan-worthy explanation we've heard a million times before; but since there's been practically nothing in the story to prepare us for it, we just sort-of have to accept it with a shrug. But so what? We expect logical problems from a story like this, no matter which side of its nature (the giallo or the Gothic) has the upper hand at any given moment. Three times within the first half-hour of the movie, one character or another complains that thinking is too much of a bother to be worthwhile. We fans of Italian horror know the feeling all too well.
1. We're so used to seeing Poe's name attached to every kind of horror potboiler that we tend to forget that Poe did not write ghost stories; that most of his tales weren't really concerned with the supernatural at all. When Corbucci's Poe recites a bastardized version of "Berenice" at the beginning of the movie, or insists that everything in his stories actually happened as pure, literal truth — as journalism, in fact — the Poe devotee cringes. Poe expressed his opinions on such things very clearly in his essays on writing, and in his criticism. No one who had ever read Poe's non-fiction would ever have named his friend "Lord Blackwood", since Blackwood's Magazine represented everything that Poe despised in the sensational fiction of his time.