Released: 12 April 1985
Director: Lewis Teague
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Budget: $7 million
Stars: James Woods, Alan King, Robert Hays, Kenneth McMillan, Candy Clark, and Drew Barrymore
A stray tabby cat (latter dubbed “General”) is beset by visions of Amanda (Barrymore), a young girl in mortal danger. However, to reach her, he must travel across the United States, where he’s picked up by a former mobster who goes to extreme measures to keep his clients from smoking, a crime boss who offers a wager to his wife’s lover, and finally must defend Amanda from a viscous little troll (Daniel Rogers) looking to steal her breath!
In 1982, George A. Romero, the grandfather of zombie horror, collaborated with my favourite writer, Stephen King, to write and direct Creepshow (Romero, 1982), a horror anthology movie that was praised for its blend of comedy and scares and became a cult classic. Potentially because of its $21 million worldwide gross against an $8 million budget, Creepshow led to the development of a similar show, Tales from the Darkside (1984 to 1988) and, no doubt, further interest in adapting King’s work for Cat’s Eye, which featured two segments based on stories from King’s Night Shift collection (King, 1978) and a third story King crafted specifically for the movie. Twelve different cats were used throughout the production, with handler Karly Lewis Miller alternating between the kitties when they were full from the treats they earned from performing, and director Lewis Teague stressed that none of them came to harm thanks to using air pressure hoses to simulate electric shocks and split screens to show the cat racing across a busy road. This was also an early role for young Drew Barrymore, who had starred in another Stephen King adaptation, Firestarter (Lester, 1984), the year before, and the film reaped a commendable $13.1 million at the box office. A favourite of mine since I was a child, Cat’s Eye was met with positive reviews that praised King’s focus on exploring phobias, the presentation and performances, and I’m pleased to see that it’s generally regarded as a forgotten gem of its era and genre. Cat’s Eye was so influential on me as a kid that I couldn’t imagine a better homage, or title, for my horror novella of the same name; as this releases next week, I figured now is as good a time as any to revisit Cat’s Eye and share my thoughts on it.
Since Cat’s Eye is an anthology film made up of a framing narrative and three short horror stories, this review will be structured a little differently from my usual ones as I’ll look at each section in turn before giving my final thoughts. Cat’s Eye is a little unique from other anthology films I’ve known, however, in that the framing narrative kind of feeds into the final segment, so I’m going to tackle the detours General takes first and then circle around to talking about his journey and the framing story when I get to the final segment.
General begins the film wandering the streets aimlessly until a rabid dog chases him; taking shelter in a delivery truck, General winds up in New York City where, after being enthralled by a vision of Amanda begging for help, he’s picked up by Junk (Tony Munafo), one of Doctor Vinny Donatti’s (King) many underlings. Donatti heads up Quitters, Inc (which is the name of our first segment), a company so dedicated to stopping its clients from smoking that it uses intimidation and coercive techniques carried over from Donatti’s days in the mob. A habitual smoker with a wife (Cindy; Mary D’Arcy) and child (also Barrymore), Dick Morrison (Woods) is recommended Quitters, Inc by a friend and impressed to learn that they have a 100% success rate thanks to their uniquely persuasive method of having their clients constantly monitored by their thugs and subjecting the client to increasingly harsh penalties every time they stray from the plan. Morrison is horrified when Donatti demonstrates one such punishment by subjecting General to electric shocks in a wire cage, and even more terrified to learn that Cindy and his daughter will face the cage if he slips up, then Cindy will be raped and, finally, Morrison will be killed if he cannot stick to the program. Agitated by the threats and the lack of nicotine, Morrison struggles to keep it together for his family; he’s alarmed to find one of Donatti’s men in his house, and that they know where his daughter goes to school, but manages to resist lighting up even when the pressure causes him to have nightmarish hallucinations at a work function. Morrison’s resolve falters for just a second when stuck in a traffic jam, however; he finds a lone cigarette in a battered packet and, thinking he’s safe, enjoys a quick drag only to spot Junk watching him from a nearby car. Racing home to find Cindy gone, he’s forced to watch her endure the electrified cage but, much to Junk’s dismay, she forgives his infraction and they reconcile after he reveals the truth to her. The segment ends some time later; Morrison has successfully kicked the habit but started to gain weight, so Donatti “prescribes” him some dodgy diet pills. Though Morrison has built up a good-natured rapport with the two mobsters, he’s aghast to find that Donatti’s threat about cutting off Cindy’s finger should he not hit his target weight all too true when he spots his friend’s spouse is missing her pinkie!
When Morrison lashed out in a rage during Cindy’s torture, General managed to slip out of Quitters, Inc and hitch a ride to Atlantic City, where he’s eventually adopted by crime boss and casino owner Cressner (McMillan) in “The Ledge”. An arrogant and powerful figure, Cressner will wager on anything and sees General as a lucky talisman after the cat successfully dashes across a busy road without injury. Cressner is also an extremely dangerous and vindictive man and, after finding out that his wife has been having an affair with former tennis pro Johnny Norris (Hays), has his henchman, “Ducky” (Mike Starr), plant incriminating drugs in Norris’s car and forcibly bring him up to Cressner’s penthouse for a confrontation. There, Cressner offers Norris a wager: if he (as in Norris) cane traverse the narrow exterior ledge of the penthouse without falling to his death, the drugs will be removed, Norris will be given a big cash sum, and he will be allowed to leave with Cressner’s wife. Facing either a lifetime in jail or a death sentence at Cressner’s hands, Norris has no choice but to take the bet and gingerly shuffles around the building trying not to slip, being buffeted by whistling wind, and pecked at by a particularly annoying pigeon. While Cressner asserts that he doesn’t welsh on his bets, he does make sure to make the ordeal as difficult as possible, blasting an air horn in Norris’s face and setting a high-pressure hose on him. However, even when Norris manages to overcome all of this, Cressner screws him over by gifting him his wife’s head in a sickening twist; pushed to the edge, Norris manages to overpower Cressner, shoots his henchman dead, and then holds the gangster at gunpoint. Despite being tempted at a multi-million dollar payoff, Norris forces Cressner to endure the same trial on the penthouse ledge, but Cressner is unable to get past the pigeon and plummets to his much-deserved demise as General looks on.
This brings us to the final segment, fittingly titled “General”; an excised prologue would’ve shed a bit more light into exactly why our kitty protagonist has been seeing visions of a young girl but, as is, the film presents the idea that Amanda (or, at least, some disembodied spirit taking her form) is in mortal danger and General is compelled to journey to Wilmington, North Carolina in order to keep her safe. Amanda is overjoyed to discover the cat, gifting him his name and insisting that her family adopt him; however, while her father, Hugh (James Naughton), is perfectly happy with this, her strict and cat-hating mother Sally Ann (Clark) doesn’t want the cat around, much less sleeping in Amanda’s room. Sally Ann’s animosity towards the cat is only exacerbated when they find Amanda’s pet parakeet, Polly, mauled to death following a late-night struggle, and insists that the cat is to blame despite Amanda’s claims that the bird was killed by a “monster” that lives in her bedroom walls. While Amanda is at school, Sally Ann lures General into a box and takes him to an animal shelter to be put down but, thankfully, the wily cat is able to escape and race back to Amanda’s aid right as a vicious little troll tries to suck the breath from her body! What follows is a battle between the cat and the little critter that is both amusing and horrifying; the troll is a disgusting, slimy, horrifying little ghoul in a jester’s hat who wields a pint-sized dagger that he uses to wound General’s shoulder. However, General is able to block the troll’s escape and send it flying into Amanda’s box fan, shredding it to bloody ribbons, much to Hugh and Sally Ann’s stunned shock. Finally, after overcoming many hardships and a long journey, General is gifted a large fish and is allowed to sleep on Amanda’s bed, though the film can’t resist teasing that Sally Ann’s fears about the cat’s malevolent intentions are true.
I like to think that there’s a lot of appeal in Cat’s Eye; not only does an adorable little kitty take centre stage as the primary protagonist and framing device, but the film tackles a variety of all-too-relatable horrors in a relatively grounded format. Anyone who’s been a lifetime smoker will know how hard the habit is to quit, and how self-destructive it can be weaning yourself off those cancer sticks; Morrison is almost immediately stressed at being denied his nicotine fix and his mental stability is only further frayed by the very real danger posed by Donatti and Quitter’s, Inc. If you’re anything like me, you’d absolutely crash and burn if forced to shuffle around a narrow ledge like Norris is; heights really aren’t my thing at all and the film does a great job of showing Norris constantly on the edge (pun intended…) of cracking and just plummeting to the street below. Finally, what child hasn’t been afraid of the monster under the bed or in the wardrobe? The decision to frame some of “General” from the troll’s perspective really adds to the sense of dread surrounding the creature and this segment always freaked me out the most as a child since the troll was such a horrifying little thing and, even now, I hesitate to dangle my feet out of the bed in case some nasty little critter like that is lurking in the dark.
Cat’s Eye utilises a very tense, haunting, and ominous score courtesy of Alan Silvestri that never fails to send a chill down my spine when some of the more nightmare-inducing sequences are happening. There’s a constant sense of dread surrounding Morrison, who jumps at every shadow and feels as though Donatti’s eyes are always on him; when at a work function, the stress, fear, and desire to smoke all become too much for him and he suffers from a horrifying (and amusing) hallucination in which everyone present (even the children and canapés!) are smoking, demonic pictures are glaring at him, and Donatti himself is tormenting him with a rendition of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take (I’ll Be Watching You)”. This surreal scene always stuck with me for how ominous it is and it really helps to sell the panic and strain Morrison is under; for him, it’s nothing compared to the realisation that he screwed up and his wife has to pay the price for that, but he ends the segment happy to be free from his addiction and even grateful for Donatti’s extreme measures since they’ve benefitted his family. That final gut-punch of seeing that severed finger, though, never fails to send a shiver running through me and is an effective way of reminding Morrison (and the audience) that his nightmare may never end. Norris is put through the wringer as well; barely able to keep his balance and with next to no handholds on offer, he’s constantly teetering on the precipice of death and it’s only through sheer force of will that he’s able to overcome Cressner’s obstacles (and such inconveniences as a massive neon sign) to complete his monumental task. As gruelling as the horror of this task is, though, “The Ledge” delivers its own gut-punch when Cressner spitefully kicks over a bag and his wife’s head comes rolling out! Hays’s horrified scream of “Jesus!” really sells the impact of this moment on the character and it makes Cressner’s fitting demise all the more cathartic as he’s unable to beg or buy his way out of Norris’s uncharacteristic wrath and ultimately pays for his abusive and sadistic ways.
Of course, the true star of Cat’s Eye is General himself. A resourceful and adaptable little kitty, General finds food where he can and crosses vast distances by hitching rides and stumbling into the lives of these other characters, all in his quest to get to Amanda and defend her. General certainly endures a lot throughout his journey; he’s electrocuted, nearly gets run over, gets tripped over, and watches others suffer only to be met with hostility from Sally Ann when he finally finds the girl who’s guided him this whole time. Sally Ann’s antagonism towards him seems to be based on a number of factors: one is she’s just a strict, overbearing mother who doesn’t want to give in to her daughter’s every demand; another is a concern for Polly’s welfare; and a third, as so inappropriately related by Hugh, is based on her mother’s wild belief that cats creep into the bedrooms of children to steal their breath as they sleep. Because she’s so pragmatic, Sally Ann has little time for Amanda’s flights of fancy about monsters living in her walls but she couldn’t be more wrong; the troll skitters over from the nearby woods and takes up residence in Amanda’s bedroom, coming and going through a hole in the wall and slaughtering Polly simply for the sadistic pleasure of it. Brought to life using a combination of forced perspectives and camera trickery, the troll is an unexpectedly horrific exclamation mark on what was a pretty intense horror/thriller up to that point. Seeing it shuffle about the bedroom, tittering away, and brandishing its little knife with glee may be an amusing sight but its glowing red eyes and mouthful of razor-sharp teeth make this frog-like monstrosity a pretty horrifying creature even with its little jester outfit. I really enjoy that we never learn what the troll is or where it came from; it’s simply this fantastical creature that intrudes on a normal, everyday family and tries to suck the breath from a little girl’s mouth and I recommend anyone who hesitates to let their cat or dog sleep with their children to just take a second to consider that one of these little fuckers could be lurking in the shadows!
I’ll be the first to admit that my opinion and appreciation for Cat’s Eye is deeply rooted in my nostalgia for the film; I watched it as an impressionable youth, when I was still struggling to get into horror, and was deeply affected by some of the more terrifying sequences and moments in the film. Morrison’s hallucination, the visual of that severed head bouncing across the floor, and just the idea of this malicious little troll living in the bedroom’s walls all had a lasting impression on me and I think the film does a great job of delivering on some surprisingly impactful, nightmarish concepts. Cat’s Eye also features some pretty terrific character actors that help boost its appeal; I’m not really a big James Woods fan but I enjoyed him as a tense, increasingly paranoid family man desperately trying to quit an addictive habit and cope with Donatti’s extremist ways, Robert Hays is always a treat to see and does a great job of portraying Norris’s absolute, abject terror when out on that ledge, and Drew Barrymore is suitably adorable as the little girl in peril. The real star are the cats used to bring General to life, of course, and it’s really enjoyable seeing him take centre stage for the finale and go paw-to-claw with that horrible little troll. While some of the shots and effects haven’t aged too well and the film’s maybe not quite up to the standards set by Creepshow, Cat’s Eye is a fun and memorable horror anthology that I fear has kind of been largely forgotten. However, I maintain that it’s well worth your time if you’re a fan of Stephen King and this genre, and might even leave more of a mark on young viewers than you might expect thanks to its exploration of timeless horrors and phobias.
Have you ever seen Cat’s Eye? Which of its segments was your favourite and what did you think to the filmmaking techniques used to bring their horrors to life? Did you enjoy seeing a cat take the lead role and which of the stories could you see expanded into their own feature? Were you creeped out by that little troll, and have you ever struggled to quit smoking? How would you rate Cat’s Eye against other horror anthologies? Are you a fan of anthologies and would you like to see more? Have you picked up my horror novella of the same name and, if so, could you please rate and review it? Whatever you think about Cat’s Eye, leave a comment by signing up or visiting my social media, and be sure to check back for more horror anthology shenanigans later in the year.