I’ve often wondered about Cat’s Eye and how highly it ranks in the annals of horror anthologies. The film was a huge childhood favourite, but there’s always the question of nostalgia and how it affects our judgement. There are plenty of movies, particularly in the horror genre, that don’t hold up too well and were probably never very good to begin with that seem to hold a special place in our hearts because they happened to come into our lives at just the right time. Revisiting such movies, there’s always the fear that the joy you cling to is in fact illusory, that the magic was fabricated early and lives on as little more than rose-tinted fantasy. You sometimes wonder if it’s better to leave them well alone and embrace the faint watercolour of sentimentality.
Though I rarely put much stock in IMDB ratings from a critical standpoint, when it comes to determining a film’s universal popularity it’s certainly the most reliable resource, so you can imagine how disheartened I was to discover that in the realms of horror anthology, Cat’s Eye comes in at a lowly 63. With an incredible 29 anthology films released during the 1980s alone, it was certainly up against it in terms of sheer numbers, but 63?! Really?!!! If there are 62 better horror anthology films out there I certainly have a lot of catching up to do.
Despite the internet’s consensus, Cat’s Eye is easily one of the best productions of its kind of any era, and my absolute favourite of all horror anthologies. It doesn’t have the seminal qualities of 1945 Ealing Studios blueprint Dead of Night. Nor does it have the novel, EC Comics appeal of the Creepshow series or brand recognition/pedigree of 1983‘s Twilight Zone: The Movie, a big-screen upgrade of the hugely influential TV series that featured contributions from the likes of Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Joe Dante and George Miller, but what it has in abundance is a sense of campfire fun and the cynical wit of one of horror’s true literary giants.
King, who was central to the wonderful and hugely successful Creepshow just two years prior, was a notable omission from Twilight Zone: The Movie‘s who’s who collaboration. Instead, Spielberg and co recruited fellow horror author Richard Matheson, who already had 16 episodes of The Twilight Zone under his belt as a TV writer. Matheson’s back catalogue was just as impressive, adapted works such as the wholly fantastic, yet despairingly futile sci-fi classic The Shrinking Man having already made it to the big screen. Matheson’s dark, intelligent fiction had also proven its anthology worth elsewhere, 1975‘s Trilogy of Terror, which bears something of a resemblance to Cat’s Eye on occasion, based on three of his shorts, with others popping up all over the place. Matheson was a true innovator, his approach to the supernatural laying the groundwork for novels such as Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, soon-to-be-adapted works which would help redefine horror cinema during the 1970s. Like King, Matheson’s short fiction was perfect for the anthology format; gripping and beautifully constructed with plenty of gallows humour and a knack for shocking twists/revelations, the kind that are essential to such bite-sized segments.
Twilight Zone: The Movie was also one of the better anthologies of the era, and with Spielberg and Llandis producing, it was also the most expensive and successful. Cat’s Eye doesn’t have the same impact from a commercial standpoint, but it has a lot going for it beyond King’s obvious talents. The film is in dependable hands from a directing standpoint, former Cujo and future Jewel of the Nile director Lewis Teague assured if not spectacular ― the perfect choice for what is essentially a filmic platform for literary ghost stories. This was the 1980s, so practical effects are also at the core of this movie, particularly during its much more cinematic final segment, but more important are a series of top-notch performances from some very familiar faces, all of whom seem to relish in King’s wonderfully acerbic horror universe.
The film’s first segment is arguably the best of all, and certainly my personal favourite. As a kid, I didn’t quite understand its cute blend of horror and satire, but even then it left me spellbound with its ironic moments of cruelty and delirious dream sequences. Quitters Inc. is the most adult tale of the three, the kind that kids might struggle to relate to, but behind the wry social commentary of a man attempting to quit smoking is an immensely effective little horror/thriller that could easily have been expanded into a feature-length picture. The segment begins with a typically edgy James Woods marvelling at a broken patient in the Quitters Inc. waiting room, a woman who looks like she’s just exited the Nakatomi Plaza one fateful Christmas. Woods has a frenetic energy that leaves you in a constant state of unease, the entire story hinging on his manic performance, but equally impressive is comedian Alan King as the firm’s owner, a borderline-mafioso and corporate bigwig with an entourage of thugs at his disposal.
King’s Dr. Vinny Donatti is all business, promising a service that he’s hellbent on delivering. He’s also prone to fits of malice, projecting the kind of patronising joviality that is never too far from stone-faced retribution. He’s a straight-up bully who’s one part sadistic, one part earnest, a troubling persuasion to say the least. He’s at least cruel for a reason. Quitters craving nicotine will sink to terrible lows in search of a hit. They’re liars, they’re cheats, they’re untrustworthy, and sometimes extreme measures have to be taken. Donatti has spies monitoring protagonist Dick Morrison’s every move. Nothing is beyond the realms of decency it seems: breaking and entering, electrocution, mutilation, even rape, and no one is out of bounds, not even his learning-disabled infant daughter, played by a young Drew Barrymore, here cast in multiple roles at the very height of her fame. Woods is already hopping nervous from withdrawal, but it turns out that cravings are the least of his problems. Suddenly everyone is a potential stooge, the movie’s twist King at his most joyfully mischievous.
Quitters Inc. has a wicked satirical streak that sets it apart from the film’s other segments, working as a commentary on Reagan’s health-obsessed America at a time when the dangers of smoking, red meat, and a dozen other habits that had long-been overlooked, ignored or consciously hidden from society were suddenly coming to the fore. It’s deliciously dark-humoured and oh so relatable, a jolt of horror for anyone who continues to overlook the hazards of vice, which, quite frankly, is every last one of us.
The second instalment, The Ledge, is equally macabre and enthralling, enlivened by King’s borderline-sadistic sense of fun. Here, the writer gives us a much more conventional and believable tale, with a brilliantly desperate turn from Robert Hays as a philandering ex-tennis Pro who messes around with the wrong feller’s dame — though the husband in question is so morally bankrupt we’re still able to get behind our protagonist wholeheartedly. The segment begins with a gambling-obsessed crook making a wager. Cressner, portrayed by an irresistibly malevolent Kenneth McMillan, is a ruthless millionaire and the vengeful husband in question. By that point in his career the silver screen veteran had the ostentatiously hostile character down to a tee, his delight at seeing a stray feline — the same whose journey ties our three segments together — playing chicken with some oncoming traffic the kind of vile, everyday amusement that foreshadows The Ledge‘s fascinating cat-and-mouse plot.
Cressner’s other obsession comes in the form of his now estranged wife. After kidnapping Hays and planting drugs in his car, he concocts his grandest wager yet, presenting the love cheat with two options: make it all the way around the ledge of a big city hotel or spend a chunk of his life in the slammer. If he makes it he gets to keep his wife and a large sum of money, if not then SPLAT! But this is Stephen King we’re dealing with, and things are never as simple as they seem. As well as natural obstacles such as persistent pigeons and ferocious winds, Cressner has a few devilish tricks up his sleeve, but it’s when Hays somehow manages to turn the tables that affairs become truly interesting.
The Ledge is another tense little thriller, beautifully executed and further elevated by a shock revelation that you don’t see coming (at least I didn’t). It’s one of those instant karma pay-offs that brings out the worst in its audience, that leaves us baying for blood after spending most of the segment on the other side of the moral fence. As well as tapping into universal phobias such as vertigo, it presents us with something of an ethical grey area, urging audiences to root for a man who isn’t exactly blameless in the equation. Like the best horror stories, it gives us a character who’s conflicted beyond the context of his peril, one who deserves to be punished to some degree, who runs a gauntlet that’s absolutely befitting of his misdeeds. Again, this is horror anthology at its finest.
The film’s final segment, The General, is the most filmic of the three; a mini monster movie in the ‘kids in peril’ mode that’s redolent of Steven Spielberg’s 80s commercial boom. Particularity impressive is a giant bedroom constructed for Carlo Rambaldi’s troll-like demon to navigate, a wonderful animatronic sometimes played by a small person in a costume who wears a cable-activated face. Triple Oscar-winning special effects artist Rambaldi, best known for his work on Alien, King Kong and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, creates a truly vicious specimen who lives behind the bedroom wall of Barrymore’s Spielberg-esque Amanda. Amanda’s home is the fated destination of the film’s titular feline, christened The General after the segment’s title, a stray who becomes even more directly involved with proceedings as the youngster’s noble protector. The General is the most commercially calculated tale of the three. It’s pretty brutal at times but ends proceedings on a crowd-pleasing note that the first two segments are above.
As a child, The General was naturally my favourite of the three tales, the only segment written directly for the screen; the previous two adapted from King’s 1978 Night Shift collection. In hindsight, it’s the weakest of the three narratively speaking, but its visuals make up for it and then some. The segment also features some unnerving POV shots that scale and navigate the little girl’s room, the monster’s hunting ground, which were really quite ingenious for the time. From a technical standpoint it’s certainly the most impressive of the three segments, letting Teague off the creative leash. The General absolutely terrified me as a kid, especially when the monster attempts to suck the breath out of Barrymore, a crime that superstition has attributed to felines, making The General enemy number one with Amanda’s unscrupulous mother.
Cat’s Eye was the first King movie to receive a PG-13 rating, which had been founded the previous summer at the behest of Spielberg in order to accommodate the darker tone of family-oriented movies Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The General is certainly aimed at a younger demographic despite its horror indulgences, its conventional, monster-in-the-cupboard concept the stuff of pewee nightmares. It’s a popcorn segment, one that’s still hugely enjoyable and pretty damn macabre at times, particularly when the tables are turned (quite literally) on our demon via a record player and the unforgiving blades of a precariously positioned fan. But The General notwithstanding, Cat’s Eye features stories that are very much geared towards adults, sporting grisly decapitations, blatant narcotics references, and moments of gleefully sadistic torture that leave us questioning our own sense of decency.
In many ways, the cat segments that tie the whole thing together seem tacked-on to appeal to a younger demographic, which makes Cat’s Eye a somewhat misguided experience commercially (filmmakers were no doubt still getting to grips with the PG-13 rating back in its infancy). The studio would also go against director Teague’s wishes by cutting an opening prologue explaining the titular cat’s motivations and relevance to the three segments, which left audiences of all ages feeling just a little confused. Ultimately, Cat’s Eye falls into something of a commercial grey area, but such a tonal misfire has made the movie age particularly well, making it arguably even more enjoyable through adult eyes. As horror anthologies go, Cat’s Eye is still one of the finest. Teague directs with a sure hand without ever overwhelming events, and some of the best King adaptations ― Stand By Me, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption ― understand the writer’s power, allowing the stories and characters to take centre stage. King is the most prolific horror writer in modern history, producing some of the genre’s most popular and engrossing novels, but I’ve always felt that the short story format is more suited to his inimitable brand of ironic horror and knack for devilish twists, and Cat’s Eye provides the perfect cinematic platform for one of the genre’s most influential mainstream talents.