(AKA “That Movie Whose VHS Artwork You Always Noticed When You Went to the Video Store and Assumed That Little Monster On The Cover Was the Main Villain of the Movie”)
Stephen King is the American master of horror whose works have been adapted for the screen dozens of times to varying degrees of success. Cat’s Eye—an anthology film that adapts three King short stories into short films—is a good encapsulation of what works, and doesn’t, in King adaptations, highlighting the strengths and flaws of his characterizations and plots. It’s also 2/3rds of a good movie, with the closing story being a weak bit of fantasy when compared to the more grounded first two episodes.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around the wanderings of a stray cat that happens upon the main characters of the three tales, with the “cat’s eye” bearing witness to the various nightmares they must endure.
There’s also a flimsy “psychic cat” element to this, with Drew Barrymore’s character appearing to the cat in visions in a state of distress, yet confusingly she does not recognize or know the cat once they meet in the third story. But let’s leave that for the end and start at the beginning.
Story #1: Quitters, Inc.
The movie opens as we watch our pretty little kitty living for the city as it meanders through New York City (hello, Twin Towers!) until it chances upon the first story when it is taken in by members of the Quitters, Inc. organization for nefarious purposes. Starring James Woods, who looks like he just strolled off the set of Videodrome, the first story in this film is probably the best-known. It involves Woods’ character going to the aforementioned Quitters, Inc., an outfit that guarantees their client will quit smoking by threatening to electrocute, rape, and then kill your wife (in that order) if the client slips up. This is a strong premise for a horror story, and one that unfolds with a good mixture of tension and dark humor. It’s most successful in establishing incongruity between setting and action: while Woods sits in the clean, brightly lit waiting room of Quitters, Inc., a middle-aged man in a suit is openly weeping. After a few moments, a woman emerges from a back room, visibly distressed and beaten, to which the man rushes over to console her, only to be angrily beaten back by the woman. Then the waiting room attendant cheerfully announces that they’re ready to see Woods now. It’s unsettling, watching a roughed-up woman emerge from a back room into a clean, professional waiting room, and adds to the slow burn of menace and confusion that this story builds throughout.
Yeah, quitting smoking is hard on everyone.
This macabre incongruity of setting and action continues as the smiling brute who runs the outfit calmly lets Woods know what horrors they’ll unleash on his loved ones if they catch him smoking. Then they use our friend, The Psychic Cat, to demonstrate this point, by electrocuting the floor of a locked room it’s been placed in, and letting Woods know that the first time he smokes another cigarette, that’s what’s going to happen to his wife.
Pictured: Not Cool.
The first story in this film is strange because of the healthy doses of humor it interjects into an increasingly paranoid story-line; the humor undercuts the horror, such as in one scene where Woods sneaks around his own house in the night during a lightening storm. It’s a lightly comedic moment for a story that in 10 minutes’ time will feature Woods’ wife having to do the old electric floor shuffle. Similarly, a surreal sequence where Woods has a major breakdown at a house party where everyone is smoking is also funny, in a 1980’s Tylenol commercial sort of way.
Comedy, Circa 1985.
Something that the first story (and the second one) in this film accomplishes is that much of the “horror” is derived from attributing an air of menace to the commonplace, where the passenger in the car next to yours in a traffic jam may be watching you, with devastating consequences if you break the cardinal rule of the program (“constant supervision” is one of their promises, after all). However, it is also a self-inflicted horror, albeit somewhat unintentional on Woods’ character’s part. Like vampires, Quitters, Inc. need to be invited into your life before they can do any harm.
Of course, he slips up, and this leads to the most remembered scene of the film, where Woods’ wife is put into the electrically charged room to dance to the tune of ? and The Mysterians’ “96 Tears,” in a scene that could serve as the definition for “grotesque.” Hearing such a poppy tune over the shrieks and pops of a spouse being electrocuted in front of her husband as two goons laugh about it is a nightmare scenario for any caring partner to even consider, and it works to great effect as a horrifying scenario to witness.
The story wraps up with a cut to a future visit to Quitters, Inc. with Woods, apparently having quit smoking successfully, laughing off the threat that if he gains any more weight, they will cut off his wife’s pinky. Cut to a dinner party with friends, who all toast to Quitters, Inc. His friends’ wife nervously raises her glass, and we see that she’s missing her pinky finger oooo!
-The cat gets away from these goons and a hobo feeds it a hot dog. I wish the story ended with a spinning newspaper on the screen with the headline, “HOBO FEEDS CAT HOT DOG!”
– One of the goons decidedly avoids cursing, saying, “oh, fiddleysticks!” instead. I wonder if he is also a client of Quitters, Inc. for cursing.
Story #2: The Ledge
In keeping with the idea of “self-inflicted horror” and “hell is other people” that the first story elucidated, our second story involves a man who crossed the wrong crook and is forced into a ludicrously dangerous game that vertigo sufferers won’t appreciate.
After The Psychic Cat gets away from one set of murderous goons, it alights upon another set of murderous goons who gamble against its ability to cross a street without getting run over. After getting back to his luxurious penthouse suite with The Psychic Cat in tow, our antagonist sets about his nasty business of dealing with his wife’s lover, who had just stolen a great deal of money from the man and was about to run away with his wife before the antagonist’s goons intercepted him at the bus station. So the man in the penthouse, being a gambler, offers our protagonist a choice: walk around the narrow ledge of the building, and if he survives he can have the money and his wife, or be hauled off to jail for planted drugs in his car. Our protagonist sees no other option, so off to the ledge he goes.
Taking place on the narrow ledge of a wind-swept high-rise apartment building, the terror is visceral, and the potential danger is nerve-wracking to watch. No matter the protagonists’ back story, almost any viewer can instinctively relate to the imminent danger the man has been placed in, and as a basic setting for a horror story, it’s a sure-fire premise. The Psychic Cat certainly doesn’t like any of this, especially as the antagonist gleefully runs around his apartment to various windows attempting to shake our protagonist off the ledge.
Like the first story, the horror here is in the everyday being subverted; something as common as a high-rise building becomes much more terrifying when the action takes place on its narrow ledges. Although our protagonist is a thieving adulterer, when we take into account how terrible his tormenter is, we can’t help but feel sympathy for his plight, especially when we see how much delight he’s taking in tormenting the man on the ledge.
By the time our protagonist is hanging off a giant light-up letter that had come untethered to the building, my wife just muttered, “Oh my god oh my god oh my god,” while conveniently leaving the room until the tense moment passed. The fear of heights is such a primal, instinctual fear in us that any depiction of a human trapped at a perilous height will evoke terror in our hearts.
As usual with horror movies, the protagonist survives and takes his revenge, but to what gain? His lover’s head is delivered to him in a suitcase of cash, he makes the antagonist play the same game on the ledge (he quickly plummets to his death), and that’s the end of this story. Nobody ever seems to win in horror movies…except for The Psychic Cat.
- Continuing with the “Every Adult Is A Gross Monster” theme, nearly everybody (save our protagonist) shows themselves to be negative, greedy, lustful jerks. Just like in lifey!
- My wife declared that she would rather be shot than go out on a ledge of a building like that. I agree.
Story #3: General (AKA “Portuguese Gremlins”)
After a few ghostly appearances to The Psychic Cat throughout the film, a young Drew Barrymore shows up to star in the third segment of Cat’s Eye. My only question is, why?
Don’t fight! You’re both pretty.
Easily the weakest story of the three, it diverges so heavily from the “self-inflicted horror/Hell is other people” theme the first two stories ably used as their thesis statement, instead providing a weak fantasy segment in its place.
Taking place in 80’s Suburbia (*cough* Poltergeist, Gremlins, *cough*), The Psychic Cat shows up at Drew Barrymore’s family’s house (featuring a proto-Harry Shearer as her father and the woman who posed for Deb’s glamour photography business in Napoleon Dynamite as her mother), and—as mentioned at the beginning of this review—confusingly doesn’t recognize the cat that she’d been psychically linked to the entire movie. The shoddiness doesn’t stop there, as this segment unfolds like it was directed by Steven Spielberg’s Mexican equivalent.
The mother—who is an insufferable jerk—immediately hates the cat and makes it her mission to get rid of it as soon as possible. Not remembering this segment very well (I watched this movie off and on whenever it aired on television when I was younger, but never straight through on its own), I thought this negative aspect of her character was going to lead to something interesting, like the mother actually being a witch or devil worshipper or something and wanting to use her daughter in a sacrifice, but that would have been possibly too interesting, so instead we get a half-baked story featuring a tiny monster who’s trying to take Drew Barrymore’s soul(?) while she sleeps, and the cat being her protector against this monster.
Pictured: Porteugeuse Gremlin.
First off: what? It doesn’t set up this supernatural element in any way, instead playing up the “parents are clueless” aspect. I suspect they lightened the tone of this segment to appeal to kids, but who would let their kids watch this movie? This is the concluding segment, so it’s not like parents would pop in the tape and just let their kids watch the first two segments to get to this. I suspect this segment was included to capitalize on Drew Barrymore’s fantasy/horror fame at this point, but the material it drew from wasn’t fully realized enough on screen to make it truly scary or menacing. In fact, after reading the Wikipedia of this movie, I found out that this story wasn’t from a previously written Stephen King story (the first two were from his collection Night Shift), but was exclusively written for this movie. It shows.
Anyway, the gray little monster is dressed up like a jester and has a million tiny sharp teeth in its mouth and is about to do something to Drew Barrymore, but the cat stops it before a misunderstanding from the awful mother character fucks the whole thing up, and my interest wanes in the story once again.
As a cat lover (I currently have six), the nicest thing I can say about the mother character is that she’s a hateful, one-dimensional shrew. With her disproportionate response to the death of the family’s pet bird (which the monster killed, but she blames the cat), she cruelly traps The Psychic Cat and sends it off to be terminated, all while displaying a look of spiteful joy on her face. From where I’m sitting, the mother is the most horrifying character in this story.
As far as aesthetics go, the monchichi monster is visually interesting to watch in parts, mostly due to the use of gigantic sets for forced perspective that succeeds in giving the monster an air of authenticity on-screen. However, is any of this actually scary? Or, was the reality of making an anthology movie (always a financially risky proposition in filmmaking) such that they were hoping to bank on the then-current popularity of Drew Barrymore in horror/fantasy films? Judging by the weakness of this concluding segment against the others, methinks this was the case.
The climactic battle between the Portuguese Gremlin and The Psychic Cat occurs at night in Drew Barrymore’s room, with a record player being the instrument of death for the monster (the cat ramps up the speed of the record player, which then flings the monster into a box fan(?), which rips it to shreds, somehow). Speaking of which, why does Drew Barrymore have a vinyl single of The Police’s “I’ll Be Watching You?” cued up on her record player?
The climactic battle between a cat, a monster, and a turntable. There’s a Beck song somewhere to be found in this scene.
The monster get chopped up into bloody action-figure pieces, her mom shuts her yap when presented with evidence of the monster, and our cat friend/protagonist gets a new home! To continuing murdering tiny monsters for these ingrates! Just like in real life.
- The Psychic Cat looks like one of my cats!
- The last shot of this movie is The Psychic Cat giving Drew Barrymore kisses to wake her up, which is one of my favorite ways to be woken up by my cats.
Cat’s Eye was an easy softball pitch of a horror film to start off this 31 Days of Horror conceit. It’s not terribly scary, but the first two segments are unsettling because they are grounded in reality and the horrors that other human beings can inflict on one another, if they are so inclined. Between the fear of harm coming to your loved ones because of your own actions and the instinctual fear of heights that is hardwired in all humans, the first two stories are effective pieces of horror in the tradition of Edgar Allen Poe. The third segment’s a flimsy bit of sub-fantasy mid-80’s weak tea that nakedly apes better, similar fare from this era. When Stephen King’s shorter pieces are adapted to horror, they can either be effective bits of mousetrap plotting or half-baked messes. Cat’s Eye exemplifies this in a way that other, similar King anthologies (Creepshow chiefly among them) don’t, mostly because they’re either wholly successful or uniformly awful.
When King’s characters (or rather, caricatures and archetypes, as he tends toward broad strokes of characterization rather than specificity) work, they are successful stand-ins for entire groups of people (Woods’ harried family man from the first segment is a good example). But when they don’t, they come off as more monstrous than the actual monsters (as the mother character in the third story does). As horror, Cat’s Eye doesn’t scare as much as unsettle, but when it works, it works; when it doesn’t (and this happens often with King’s works, such as the dismal TV Movie The Langoliers), it comes across like Portegeuse Gremlins directed by Stefán Spielbergo.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 Porteugeuse Gremlins. It’s two-thirds of a good horror anthology movie. Not scary, but unsettling. Watch the first two, then lean back and imagine your own story for the concluding segment.