“Persian Ed Wood” Tony Zarindast’s 1978 melodrama Cat in the Cage needs more love
For the past decade, irony-addicted cinema hipsters have been making major sport of would-be auteur Tommy Wiseau’s slipshod melodrama The Room, a film that was made all the more fascinating because of the sincerity and fearless narcissism of its director, writer and star. But along the way, when people found out just how much fun it was to giggle en masse in movie theaters screening the film. Wiseau went along with it and pretended that The Room was indeed intended to be a comedy. It’s like when Paul Rubens falls off his bike in front of the cooler-than-thou teens in Tim Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and, upon flipping and recovering, says “I meant to do that…”.
Well, Pee Wee didn’t mean it. Neither did Wiseau. No, The Room was supposed to serious. And it’s annoying that people have blotted out the fascination with Wiseau and his magnum opus and replaced it with cheap, bourgeois sniggering. It’s also annoying that Wiseau didn’t stand up and tell all the jeering goons who guffaw at his movie to go f**k themselves.
Perhaps James Franco’s upcoming cinematic tribute to Wiseau and The Room will right some of these wrongs. And perhaps the (hopeful) success of the film will lead to a renewed interest in other “bad” film visionaries, specifically the guy often labelled “the Persian Ed Wood,” Tony Zarindast. The once prolific (now, sadly passed) Iranian actor/writer/director and producer had blasted his name on multitude of movies over the past half century (his 1996 direct to disc bomb Werewolf is a favorite for genre fans to kick around) but for my money, his boldest, most histrionic, most ambitious and most delightfully batsh*t movie ever is 1978’s deranged and sexed up Iranian/American psyche-noir Cat in the Cage.
The film stars actor Behrouz Vossoughi as Bruce, heir to his dad’s millions and who has just left the confines of a mental institution to return home… or what’s left of home, at least. His beloved mother had passed away the previous year and his charming dad Rachid (Frank DeKova) has married her sensuous young nurse. Said nurse is played by iconic Austrian cult film Goddess Sybil Danning, who is at her most alarmingly gorgeous here. Danning has long been a major screen presence in strange cinema but she needs to suit the material. Here, under Zarindast’s wild-eyed direction and saddled with his manic script, Danning, well… loses her mind entirely. Here we have one of the most climb-the-walls, scenery-chomping performances of ’70s B cinema and that’s saying something. See, Danning’s nurse, Susan, is in fact a scheming murderess. She poisoned and offed Bruce’s mom in order to seduce his dad and, so blinded was the old man to her ladybits, he refuses to see the truth. Susan is in fact shagging the otherwise reliable chauffeur, Ralph (Mel Novak) and they have been plotting to kill Rachid and run away together. It’s all so dirty and predictable and overheated and shrill and awesome.
But that’s not all.
Bruce’s cat Samson prowls the halls endlessly and the beast loves his master. But he hates Susan. Big time. Some of the most astonishing cinema I’ve seen comes in the endless sequences of Bruce laughing while Samson “attacks” Susan. But Zarindast, God bless him, has no idea how to effectively stage such mania. Instead, he just chucks the friendly cat at Danning and she cuddles it and screams while stock sound effects of a screeching, crazed kitty (you’ve heard this particular sound effect in countless cartoons and horror movies) blare on the soundtrack. And the cat’s mouth remains closed the entire time!
Later, Bruce’s mysterious brother shows up who may or may not be the human manifestation of the cat. Oh, and super-pretty cult starlet Colleen Camp (Battle for the Planet of the Apes, The Seduction) also shows up to add sizzle and flex her often-employed vocal chords by singing the film’s awesome theme song.
I love Cat in the Cage because it’s serious. It’s trying hard to deliver a complex thriller and it’s infected by an exotic flavor that I have never tasted in any other exploitation film of the period. And there are these incredible, almost transcendent moments. The scene where Novak takes the dignified DeKova out on his yacht and announces that he’s going to kill him, giving him the choice to either take the bullet or try his luck jumping overboard is sad and tense and feels authentic. It’s punctuated by a gorgeous soliloquy where the broken-hearted old man opts for the latter fate and says goodbye to the world before letting go. It is further proof that Zarindast was committed to this film. He wanted it to mean something. There’s a kind of poetry here.
It’s so easy to make fun of movies like this and sure, it’s fun to laugh when filmmakers make such gross miscalculations that they make themselves targets for ridicule. But guys like Wiseau, Wood, Boll and Zarindast aren’t your typical hacks. They’re operating on a level that is their own, with a point of view that is unique and more of a passion for the medium than many of their A-list Hollywood counterparts.
I urge you to seek out Cat in the Cage. I still have my cropped-clamshell Celebrity Video VHS (pictured above), but you can probably find it on YouTube or some other pirated source. Once you get past the cross-eyed rhythm and risible narrative and otherworldly performances of the piece, I insist that you see what Zarindast was trying to do and the very distinct way he was saying it. Laugh, sure. but love too and look deeper. Always look deeper…