Tagline: Follow the newest cat-and-creature game as played through Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye
Director: Lewis Teague
Writer: Stephen King
Starring: Drew Barrymore, James Woods, Alan King, Robert Hays, Kenneth McMillan, Candy Clark, James Naughton
15 | 1h 34min | Comedy, Horror, Thriller
Budget: $7,000,000 (estimated)
I often wonder about Cat’s Eye and how highly it ranks in the annals of horror anthologies. Until recently, I hadn’t seen it for quite some time, and 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 hold inside is in fact illusory, that the magic was fabricated early on and lives on as little more than rose-tinted fantasy. You sometimes wonder if it’s better to just leave them alone and embrace the faint watercolour of sentimentality.
From my conversations with VHS Revival readers, the consensus seems to be that Cat’s Eye was enjoyable if barely remembered, something that had spoken to them but lived on as little more than a whisper, and with an incredible 29 anthology films released during the 1980s alone, it’s hardly surprising. But Cat’s Eye is easily one of the best productions of its kind from 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.
One notable omission from such a who’s who collaboration was King himself, who was pretty much everywhere else in the horror genre during the 1980s. 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 based on three of his shorts, with others popping up all over the place. Matheson was a true innovator, his scientific 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 that would help redefine horror cinema during the 1970s. Like King, his short fiction was perfect for the anthology format — gripping and beautifully constructed with 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 the most expensive and successful. King may not have been quite as unique or as influential as Matheson, but he was a colossal talent and the undisputed king of horror for more than two decades, his name on a marquee enough to turn the heads of even the most casual horror fan. The movie was also in great hands, former Cujo and future Jewel of the Nile director Lewis Teague assured if not spectacular, and the perfect choice for what is essentially a filmic platform for ghost stories. This was the 1980s, so practical effects are at the core of this movie, particularly during the much more cinematic final segment, but crucially they never overwhelm. More important is the deftness of the tales and 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 movie’s first segment is arguably the best of all, and certainly my personal favourite. As a kid, I didn’t quite understand it’s 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 would 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, and the entire story hinges on his manic performance, but equally impressive is comedian Alan King as the firm’s owner, a borderline-mafioso with thugs for hire.
King’s Dr. Vinny Donatti is all business, promising his patients a service that he is hellbent on delivering. He’s also prone to fits of fancy and the kind of joviality that is never too far from stone-faced aggression. Quitters craving nicotine will sink to terrible lows in search of a hit. They’re liars, they’re untrustworthy, and sometimes extreme measures have to be taken. Donatti has spies monitoring Woods’ Dick Morrison at all times, and nothing is beyond the realms of indecency: breaking and entering, electrocution, mutilation — even rape — and no one is out of bounds, not even his slow-witted 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, and the movie’s twist is King at his most deliciously mischievous.
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 man’s dame, though the husband in question is so morally bankrupt we are 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 hostile character down to a tee, and his delight at seeing a stray feline — the same whose journey ties our three segments together — play chicken with some oncoming traffic, proves the kind of vile, everyday amusement that foreshadows The Ledge‘s fascinating cat-and-most plot.
Cressner’s other obsession comes in the form of his now estranged wife, and after kidnapping Hays and planting drugs in his car, he concocts his grandest wager yet. Cressner gives Hays 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 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 high winds, Cressner has a few devilish tricks up his sleeve, and when Hays somehow turns the tables things get truly interesting. The Ledge is a tense little thriller, beautifully executed and buoyed 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. Again, this is horror anthology at its finest.
The final segment, The General, is the most filmic of the three; a mini monster movie in the ‘kids in peril’ mode. Particularity impressive is a giant bedroom constructed for Carlo Rambaldi’s troll-like demon to navigate, a wonderful animatronic sometimes played by a midget 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, who becomes even more directly involved with proceedings as the youngster’s noble protector. The General is the most commercially calculated of the three. It’s pretty brutal at times but ends proceedings on a crowd-pleasing note that the first two segments are above, though that doesn’t make it any less entertaining.
As a child, The General was naturally my favourite of the three tales, and it’s unsurprising that it was the only segment written directly for the screen, the previous two adapted from King’s 1978 Night Shift collection. Narratively, it’s the weakest of the three, but its visual conception makes up for it and then some. The segment 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. 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 be given a PG-13 rating, and the final tale is very much aimed at a younger audience thanks to its peewee protagonist and conventional monster in the cupboard concept. It’s a popcorn segment, but hugely enjoyable, 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 majority of action featured in Cat’s Eye is of the adult variety, with grisly decapitations, blatant narcotics references and moments of gleefully sadistic torture that leave us questioning our own sense of decency.
As horror anthologies go, Cat’s Eye is easily 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 and allow the stories and characters to take centre stage, and that is certainly the case with Cat’s Eye. King is the most prolific horror writer in modern history, and though he has written some of the genre’s most influential and engrossing novels, 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 talents.
Cat’s Eye is fairly light in the kill department, but those that do occur are heavy in catharsis and rather macabre to boot. The pick of the bunch comes during The General’s climactic battle with Drew Barrymore’s uninvited room mate, one that sees our resident monster spin wildly on the girl’s record player before being deflected into a razor sharp fan with inevitably bloody consequences.
Cat’s Eye benefits from a levity-providing satirical streak synonymous with King’s work, and never is it more prevalent than in the movie’s opening segment Quitters Inc, which features everything from wives hopping around in an electric shock chamber to the sounds of rock n roll music to surreal dream sequences featuring dancing cigarette packets. Even with his family’s safety on the line, James Woods’ nicotine-starved patriarch can’t help but take a puff, something millions of people can relate to. Of course, health consciousness was on the horizon by the late 1980s, and this segment acts as a commentary on our newfound obsessions. For red-blooded, meat-eating Americans, such a future must have seemed like totalitarian madness, and once Woods’ character quits smoking he is tasked with maintaining a certain weight in order to avoid further retribution, the kind that a cute final revelation spells out beautifully. The notion that a legitimate business could treat their clients in such a way and get away with it is pure nonsense; real corporations are far less subtle.
True to the author’s playful nature, Cat’s Eye features several nods to other King stories. While watching The Dead Zone on television, James Woods enquires, “Who writes this crap?” in a cute moment of self-deprecation. The movie’s titular feline, pursued by a bloodied St. Bernard in a reference to Cujo, narrowly avoids death by dodging a red Plymouth Fury identical to that featured in Christine, the vehicle sporting a bumper sticker that reads, “Watch out for me. I am pure evil. I am Christine.” Finally, in The General, Amanda’s mother is seen reading a copy of Pet Sematary after shipping the unwanted feline off to the animal pound to be put to sleep. Lucky for her it manages to escape.