Monday, June 26, 2017

"That Science of Yours Knows Nothing About Man" - Night of 1,000 Cats (1972)

Our next film is Rene Cardona, Jr.'s avant-garde masterpiece Night of 1,000 Cats.

On IMDB, reviewer alvaro_dd writes, "what an awful movie! I was hoping to see an undiscovered classic and what I got was something like a tacky 70´s after shave commercial; crap acting, crap visuals...what a waste of a suitably crazy plot." Reviewer EyeAskance writes, "The story, however, is rather convoluted and comic-bookish...more discerning horror fans may find the goings-on a bit juvenile." Coventry writes, "The photography, editing and sound effects are all incredibly tacky and amateurish. Hugo Stiglitz is a lousy actor without the slightest bit of charisma."

Clearly, these reviewers would not recognize a masterpiece of minimalist cinema if it ground them into hamburger meat and fed them to 1,000 cats. Therefore, I must correct the misinformation they are spreading and highlight the brilliance of Rene Cardona Jr.'s film.
A couple is on vacation in a beachside paradise. They lug their scuba gear along the beach. The woman rubs at a small scratch she got by swimming too close to coral. The man stares at the blood, then complains of a headache.

In a riveting three-minute scene, the couple takes an extraordinarily long boat down a river.

The woman, a psychiatrist, says she knows what is wrong with the man. He is sick. He begs to differ, quite calmly. Then he tells her he remembers receiving electroshock therapy at the age of six. He only survived, as so many people do, with the help of his grandfather and his mute manservant.

It quickly becomes clear that the man means to do the woman harm. Cleverly, she jumps out of the long boat, already having a massive head start on her pursuer due to the fact that she was sitting in the front of the 20-foot-long boat.

She runs through the river and through the jungle, pursued by the man in the hat.

Then she runs back into the river, a singularly poor decision, as the man strangles her.

The killer is Hugo, played with great machismo by the estimable Hugo Stiglitz, who would later grace the screen as Dr. Carmelo Cardan in Cemetery of Terror (1985). We watch as the shirtless Hugo seduces several beautiful women on his yacht, named with artistically subtle irony the Puritan.

The man cuts an irresistible figure in his striped swim trunks, oversized sunglasses, brandy snifter, and pipe.

"I know about your studies," he tells a blonde woman. "That sciences of yours knows nothing about man."

Hugo says he wants to be with the woman forever, then adds that he would like it to be where no one could touch her, like in a crystal cage. For dramatic effect, in one of director Rene Cardona Jr.'s fine flourishes, he raises his snifter to demonstrate what she would look like behind glass, at least from his perspective. (Of course, from her perspective, he would be behind glass, though we do not see her perspective.)

The first suspense sequence occurs when the blonde woman ends up in the water after a long day of water skiing. Hugo turns the boat around. The sequence is scored with spy-movie jazz. Will Hugo murder her with his boat? He approaches her helpless form as she treads water.

Then he slows the boat down and pulls her up to safety.

They fly in Hugo's tiny helicopter to Mexico City. We join them in their aerial sightseeing for many minutes until we see their destination: a huge estate in the middle of rolling hills.

They are met by Hugo's mute, and also bald and be-robed, manservant, Dorgo, who locks everyone inside the ruin-filled estate grounds.

The woman, Christa, is disturbed. "His face, his cold stare. Somehow he scares me." Hugo tells her that Dorgo is loyal as a cat. Then he tells her that all his ancestors were megalomaniacs.

With delicious foreshadowing, Mr. Cardona Jr. has Christa ask, out of the blue, "Who else lives here?"

Hugo replies, "Some very charming and silent people. You'll meet them after dinner." Those of us in the audience who have read the title of the movie are acutely aware of the subject of his subtle allusion, though we have yet to see a resident of the feline variety.

For dinner, Christa is served an amorphous lump. "Dorgo is an excellent cook," Hugo tells her. "And meat is his specialty." More foreshadowing, perhaps?

We do get our first site of cats at the 27-minute mark, as a white cat interrupts dinner. As would anyone, Hugo grabs the feline by its neck and swings it around while carrying it into the basement. Then he cruelly tosses it at least 20 feet into the air, into a cage containing the titular 1,000 cats.

Christa has a mild negative reaction to the idea that her new boyfriend keeps 1,000 cats in a cage, though she does not seem disturbed about his tossing the little creatures end-over-end through the air.

To assuage her curiosity, Hugo tells her he will show her the rest of the house. He leads her through a dark stone dungeon and through a series of jail cell doors. Christa, needless to say, is not the suspicious type. After making their way through three doors and into a weapon-bedecked torture chamber, Hugo shows her his grandfather's taxidermy collection, which includes the requisite human heads in tanks--behind glass, as it were, as brilliantly foreshadowed with the earlier shot through a brandy snifter.


It is at this moment that Christa chooses to scream, her suspicions about her boyfriend's intentions finally aroused. However, when he tells her they are made of wax, she embraces and kisses him.

Christa's trusting nature has gotten the better of her. Hugo strangles her to death and immediately feeds some ground meet to his 1,000 cats, scooping the meat up with his bare hands. Then, to make a tragedy even more tragic, he eats some of the meat that Dorgo serves him.

Later, Hugo flies his tiny helicopter to an apartment complex, where he hovers above the swimming pool and ogles a woman in a blue bikini. Hugo's modus operandi becomes clear: He flies around Mexico City searching for swimming pools where he can abduct helpless females and feed them to his 1,000 cats.

The woman in the blue bikini is unresponsive to Hugo; she tells a caller on the phone that she is being bothered by some idiot in a helicopter, which apparently is a common occurrence in Mexico City.

Hugo flies off to a modern estate with a swimming pool. Again, the helicopter hovers over the pool. This time, Hugo is stalking a girl of about five years and her mother, who thinks nothing of a tiny helicopter hovering over the grounds of her estate. The woman and the girl wave goodbye to her husband, who drives away on a business trip. Like the rest of the city dwellers, he thinks nothing of the helicopter stalker hovering a few yards away.

Unable to capture any women on this helicopter expedition, Hugo returns to his estate to play chess with Dorgo and smoke his four-foot-long pipe. "Checkmate."

Hugo's plans for picking up some cat food are not dashed for good, however. He returns to the modern estate, this time on a motorcycle. When the woman leaves the house, he follows her to the golf course for a suspenseful, surreptitious-glance-filled sequence of golf stalking (Hugo's picking up a caddy, golf clubs, and golfing gloves is unexplained.) The golf stalking ends suggestively when two golf balls enter the cup together.

But, as it always must, the golf stalking gives way to more helicopter stalking. From said helicopter, Hugo drops a doll on a parachute into the woman's yard, delighting her daughter. It is only a matter of a few quick cuts until the woman is in Hugo's bed, clawing his shoulder and staring up at the taxidermy littering the walls.

Their post-coital trip to the cat-filled dungeon is interrupted by a knock at the front door several miles away. A doctor's car broke down when he was trying to get to a patient. The woman uses the interruption to make a casual exit, driving away in her own car (and ignoring the doctor for unexplained reasons).

While the woman escapes, the doctor is presumably not so lucky. "The cats are hungry," Hugo tells Dorgo. Later we watch as Dorgo plays with the doctor's stethoscope as he incinerates a doctor-shaped object, and then as Dorgo and Hugo feed ground meat to the cats.

This scene of savagery can only give way to a nightclub act that Hugo attends.

Of course, Hugo being Hugo, he is smitten with the featured performer, a scantily clad brunette woman wearing a pink feathered headdress that makes her 10 feet tall.

Through the good graces of the film editor, Hugo is able to seduce the performer immediately, as the nightclub act is intercut with their presumably later-occurring lovemaking and zoo-visiting.

Back at the estate, Hugo has a flashback triggered by one of the heads in jars. In the flashback, yet another woman, this one another blonde, visits Hugo at his estate. "No, Dorgo, not this one," he says as Dorgo is symbolically chopping flowers off the bushes.

There follows a slow-motion sequence of Dorgo chasing the blonde woman with his shears dangerously dangling from one hand--the audience is instantly worried for the mute manservant's safety. The climax of the dream/flashback occurs as Hugo, from a distance, shoots a dove out of the sky.

We return to Hugo in the nightclub in what can only be described as a twist with a subtle shift of perspective worthy of Lynch's Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, or Miike's Audition, or even Rebane's Monster-A-Go-Go. We see that Hugo was not the only one of the main characters in the nightclub, and that he has not seduced the nightclub performer--at least not yet. The little girl's mother and father are watching the nightclub performance at a different table, in front of Hugo. He is continuing to stalk the woman--this time not by helicopter or motorcycle, but by sitting at a nearby table!

After repeating the nightclub performance, director Rene Cardona Jr. repeats the scene of Hugo and the girl's mother making love in Hugo's taxidermy room.

Then Hugo strangles and drowns a live cat in a swimming pool.

Subsequently, Dorgo beats Hugo at chess, so of course Hugo pushes the manservant into the cage full of 1,000 cats.

The climax rushes toward us as Hugo abducts the little girl in his tiny helicopter and takes her to his home; her parents had left the five-year-old alone in their swimming pool-filled estate for a few hours. Once she discovers her daughter is missing, the mother rushes outside, only to see Hugo wordlessly return the little girl, then fly away in his tiny helicopter.

The abduction means nothing to the girl's mother. She joins Hugo again in his bedroom, sipping out of a snifter larger than her head.

Her return can mean only one thing. It is time for Hugo to show her his secret. As all women would, the girl's mother follows Hugo through the dungeon and jail cells, where she sees Dorgo's head in a jar.

But Hugo has not counted on the size and weight of the brandy snifter that the woman has insisted on bringing to the dungeon. She throws it at him, causing him to bleed. The cats go wild. Somehow, they escape through a hole in the cage that they never noticed before.

I will not spoil the shocking ending of the film, but suffice it to say that it involves poetic justice as well as a chase sequence involving a large number--perhaps as many as 1,000--cats.

In some ways, Rene Cardona, Jr.'s Night of 1,000 Cats is a cinematic missing link between two giants of the horror genre, Manos: the Hands of Fate (1966) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), filtered through the lens of Latin American machismo. Instead of stumbling accidentally into cult-involved predicaments in rural Texas, the innocent victims of Night of 1,000 Cats are seduced by the undeniable charisma of the irresistible Hugo Stiglitz. Then they are ground into hamburger meet and fed to cats with the assistance of the Torgo-like Dorgo. And, just as in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one of the reasons is the maddening influence of the sun, which beats down on nearly every outdoor scene. One can only conclude that Tobe Hooper based his startling shots of the sun on similar shots in Mr. Cardona Jr.'s masterpiece.

In addition to the bloodthirsty cats, which are always welcome, Night of 1,000 Cats clearly serves as wish fulfillment. What early 1970s man would not want to be Mr. Stiglitz as he flies his tiny helicopter over the mansions and condominiums of Acapulco, wordlessly seducing women, taking them back to the ruins of his family home, and preserving their heads in glass jars? No film could come closer to the ideal of 1972 male behavior.

I do have one unanswered question about the film, however. In the credits, both director Rene Cardona, Jr. and star Hugo Stiglitz are credited as associate producers on the film. According to the estimable John August, an associate producer credit goes to "someone who performs a key function in getting the movie made, but who doesn’t have the power or clout of a producer or executive producer." Why would the director and star of a film take an associate producer credit? This is a mystery that will, perhaps, never be solved.