Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Film Review: CAT'S EYE (1985, Lewis Teague)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 94 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew:  James Woods (VIDEODROME, VAMPIRES), Candy Clark (AMERICAN GRAFFITI, THE BLOB), Drew Barrymore (E.T., GUNCRAZY), Kenneth McMillan (DUNE, RUNAWAY TRAIN), Alan King (CASINO, THE ALAN KING SHOW), Robert Hays (AIRPLANE!, FIFTY/FIFTY), James Rebhorn (THE GAME, INDEPENDENCE DAY), Charles S. Dutton (SURVIVING THE GAME, ALIEN 3), James Naughton (THE PAPER CHASE, THE FIRST WIVES CLUB).  Produced by Dino De Laurentiis.  Music by Alan Silvestri (BACK TO THE FUTURE, PREDATOR).  Cinematography by Jack Cardiff (THE AFRICAN QUEEN, THE RED SHOES).
Tag-line: "Through the eye of the cat, a twisted tail of macabre suspense from the author of CARRIE, THE SHINING, and THE DEAD ZONE."  That's a mouthful.
Best one-liner:  "YOU FLYING SHIT HOUSE!"

CAT'S EYE is an omnibus horror flick, which longtime fans of this site will note is one of the best horror subgenres to watch with friends on a Saturday night.  This genre brought us CREEPSHOW, CREEPSHOW 2, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE, TRILOGY OF TERROR, TWO EVIL EYES, THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, and plenty of lesser fare like TRAPPED ASHES, and several others that ought not even to be named (CREEPSHOW III– shit, I said it!).  Some years ago, back when I wrote reviews on Netflix, I chose to tackle the beauty and complexity of CAT'S EYE.

I had a limited word count, and it went something like this:

There's so much to say about this sprawling epic, but since I don't have a lot of space, I'm going to center my comments on two aspects  of the film which merit discussion: the cat's performance, and the closing credit music "Cat's Eye" by Ray Stevens of the Village People.  First off, the cat delivers a first-rate,  nuanced performance, the best in the film.  No small feat considering James Woods and Candy Clark are two of the cat's co-stars.  Now before you assume I'm joking, I challenge you to watch the movie and say otherwise– this cat is gonna blow your mind.  The cat is a veritable powerhouse.  And the cat is uncredited.  Nowhere on the internet can I find any information about this cat or its career, and words can't do justice with what the cat manages to do with a basically non-written role.  
Finally, Ray Stevens' closing credits music "Cat's Eye" begins with perhaps the finest intro to any pop song of the 80s.  There's no way that any song can live up to that intro.  And, of course, the song doesn't.  But it's still pretty damn good.  And the lyrics shed some light on a few of the more obscure plot points, so if you choose to reflect on the film you've just seen during the end credits, like I do, you'll find it a lovely counterpart to your post-film musings and ruminations.

Obviously, I didn't have enough space to properly discuss CAT'S EYE, but I certainly don't disagree with my past self.  In fact, now, with the benefit of screen captures, I can show you the exquisite nuances of the Cat's  (named "General" in the movie) performance.  Here, General demonstrates existential longing:

Here, General demonstrates curiosity and apprehension:
Here, General demonstrates making out with a pre-teen Drew Barrymore, which frankly makes me kind of uncomfortable.

Sure, it's presented as a Gotcha! moment where you're expecting the cat to crawl up and start stealing her breath or something, and then you're relieved to find out that it's only kissing her, but then again, I'm not sure that cat-kisses were necessarily the best-case outcome for a scenario such as this one.  I digress.

Director Lewis Teague made a career out of drawing terrific performances out of animals.  Cujo in CUJO, the alligator and alligator puppets in ALLIGATOR, etc., etc.  Hell, Cujo even makes a cameo appearance in this film:

As does Christine the Plymouth Fury, who's driven straight out of the John Carpenter film and now outfitted with bumper stickers that proudly proclaim "Rock n Roll will never die!"  and "Watch out for me.  I am Pure Evil.  I am CHRISTINE."
Before I get ahead of myself, let's talk about the film's structure.  The frame story concerns the eponymous cat and his journey from New York City to Atlantic City to Wilmington, NC [side note:  Wilmington was Dino De Laurentiis central (i.e., BLUE VELVET) and home to such King adaptations as MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, SILVER BULLET, THE NIGHT FLIER, and FIRESTARTER)] ostensibly in search of multiple-part playing Drew Barrymore who is in desperate need of his assistance.  On his way, he passes through– and plays a small part in– a few tales of mystery and imagination ("Quitters, Inc." and "The Ledge") before meeting up with Drew and starring in "The General."  It's not as good a frame story as Tom Atkins' EC-comic-hatin' father in CREEPSHOW, but I'm willing to go with it. 

Then the whole thing is shot by Jack Cardiff, one of the finest cinematographers to ever work in the medium– and the range of his credits is extraordinary.  He did Technicolor classics like THE RED SHOES and THE AFRICAN QUEEN and BLACK NARCISSUS and Hitchcock's UNDER CAPRICORN.  He shot big budget 80's muscle-bulging trashterpieces like CONAN THE DESTROYER and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II.  And then he directed films such as the madness that is GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE or the rough n' tumble actioner that is DARK OF THE SUN.  And here we got 'im on CAT'S EYE.  Pretty terrific.

Anyway, the first tale is "Quitters, Inc." from the first King story collection, NIGHT SHIFT.  Though published under King's name, it's more of a 'Richard Bachman'-style tale (King's pseudonym for a series of novels that were stripped down, grittier, meaner, and more nihilistic versions of King's mainline work).  Without giving too much away, this tale stars James Woods as a smoker looking to quit.  On the recommendation of a friend, he engages the shadowy corporation "Quitters, Inc." to assist him – without realizing to what lengths they'll actually go to make sure he kicks the habit.  
It feels a lot like David Fincher's 90s thriller THE GAME, and curiously enough, both co-star classic "that guy!" actor James Rebhorn.
Pictured here in a hallucination.

Anyway, since I don't want to spoil the major twists, I'll point out a few of my favorite things from this segment.

#1.  Smarmy James Woods.
Smarmy James Woods was really hitting his stride in the early-to-mid 80s.  Truly one of the great sleazemasters of his– or any other– era.  Even when he's our protagonist, you can still see the trails of slime he leaves behind.

#2.  The Kronenberg Konnection.
At one point, James Woods sits at home watching TV in a nicotine-deprived, scotch-soaked, glass-eyed stupor, and what is on television but David Cronenberg's adaptation of THE DEAD ZONE!  For the uninitiated, two years prior, James Woods starred in Cronenberg's VIDEODROME, a masterful showcase of smarmy Woods featuring mind-altering television programming.  Anyway, he briefly complains about the quality of the programming, and the entire moment warms the hearts of VIDEODROME die-hards everywhere.

#3.  Unnecessary violence toward golf bags.
While fearing that intruders have infiltrated his home, Woods grabs a bludgeon and whips open a closet door.  Out pops a bag full of golf clubs which lands on the floor with a thud.  After the bag has been fully visible and well lit for a good second or two, he begins pounding on it and lands two serious blows at a point when anybody shy of blindness would clearly see that it was an inert, harmless golf bag.   I found this to be hilarious.

#4.  Taunts from tray of deviled eggs.
'Nuff said!

#5.  The line "Forget the cat, you hemorrhoid!"  Gotta love Mr. King's occasionally misguided attempts at local patois.

The next tale is "The Ledge," also culled from NIGHT SHIFT.  This, too, feels more like a Bachman tale as it trafficks in sadistic gangsters rather than the supernatural.  It even features a henchman named Westlake, referencing the hardboiled writer Donald Westlake who wrote under the pen name Richard Stark (among others).  King references Westlake again in the novel THE DARK HALF (which deals with the emotional fallout after his outing as Bachman) with a writer character who pens pulp fiction under the name "George Stark."

Anyway, a gangster who loves to gamble (Kenneth McMillian, who played Baron Harkonnen in Lynch's DUNE)
catches his wife stepping out with a washed-up tennis player (Robert Hays of the AIRPLANE! series), and makes him a wager:  he'll grant the missus her divorce and let Hays have her if he can make his way around the entirety of the treacherous exterior ledge of his penthouse.  Otherwise, Hays will be set up on a bogus drug possession charge and go to prison for a decade.  The tennis player decides to give it a go, and there you have it:  straightforward stakes, a simple premise- a wiry potboiler with no ambition other than to land you a couple of mean-spirited, tawdry thrills.
The ledge effects possess a strange disconnect (filmed in a studio) which for me only amplifies their effectiveness.  Like all the segments, it's got an oddly-inappropriate-to-the-point-where-it-works sense of humor, and my favorite moments involve the dick moves perpetrated against our hero, like the douchey élan with which McMillan blasts Hays with a fire hose or distracts him with a bicycle horn
or this total asshole pigeon who peck-peck-pecks at your ankles just when you're at your most vulnerable.

Said pigeon also receives feathery and spit-take worthy comeuppance with a hearty kick and the poetry of:
Amen, Mr. King!

The final segment, "General," was written specifically for the film (and for the talents of the FIRESTARTER herself, Drew Barrymore).  It's your classic crowd-pleasing l'il creepy creature piece, drawing some degree of inspiration from Richard Matheson's brilliant "Prey," otherwise known as the Zuni Fetish Doll Segment from TRILOGY OF TERROR.

This segment is pretty spectacular, and it concerns primarily the efforts of a breath-stealing troll to terrorize Drew Barrymore.  General intercedes, but draws the ire of Mom (Candy Clark) and the exasperation of Dad (James Naughton) who believe the stray cat to be the cause of the late-nite shenanigans. 

The troll effect is terrific, employing SFX practical effects and occasionally a little person in a suit amid huge sets- it's in turns dreamlike and silly, and it works wonderfully.

Candy Clark gets to chew some scenery as she stuffs our hero cat in a cardboard box and exclaims "Your bird killing days are over, my friend!"
But the final showdown between General and the Troll is what truly takes the cake.  Crayons are hurled like javelins, backflips are employed, and a roller skate is used as a weapon and a mode of conveyance.  I also can safely say that I never in my life expected to see a cat dueling an evil gnome atop a child's record player as a terrible cover of The Police's "Every Breath You Take" plays in triple-time, chipmunk voices and everything!
It's also worth mentioning that this is the second time in the film that this particular Police cover gets a workout.  Way to be cost effective, Dino!

Anyway, the film ends, and then that majestic song, referenced earlier, washes over you as you contemplate the finer nuances of CAT'S EYE.   And because I could not find the lyrics poetry anywhere online, I shall print them here, for posterity:

I didn't know
I was under your spell
I couldn't know
There was no way to tell
I took a step
I slipped I fell
I didn't know whyyyyy

Deep in the dark it was too hard to see
That in the night it had come over me
Just stole my soul
Imprison me
With your cat's eye

Cat's eye
How you caught me unaware
Cat's eye
How you hold me in your stare
Cat's eye
Want to hide but tell me where
Cat's eye
You got me spellllllbound
 Cat's eye
How you stole my breath away
Cat's eye 
How you cut me night and day
Cat's eye
I can never get away
Cat's eye 
I'm spelllllllbound

It's like a dream only when do I wake
Can't even scream every breath that I take
Belongs to you what can I do
Why should I tryyyyyyy

I look around like a boy in a trance
You pull the strings I'm a puppet I dance
You're holding me eternally
In your Cat's eye

Cat's eye 
Took my heart with just a look
Cat's eye
Every stare is like a hook
Cat's eye 
Just one look is all it took
Cat's eye
Made me spelllllbound
Cat's eye 
How you stole my breath away
Cat's eye 
How you cut me night and day
Cat's eye
I can never get away
Cat's eye
I am spellllllllbound...

Four stars.

-Sean Gill


Buck Atwater said...

I knew I seen this before like 20 years ago as a kid but wasn't sure if I was confusing it with Tales from the Darkside or Creepshow or Nightmares or some other horror anthology, until you described the breath stealing troll from the last segment and it all came flooding back lol.

Pretty cool to see a Christine cameo, and I like the part where the shit hits the fan so to speak.
The description of slimey James Woods is right on too. ha.

Unknown said...

Wow, I had forgotten that Woods was in this.. continuing his run of sleaze-tastic scumbags of the '80s. Ah, memories.

I too have a fondness for horror anthologies and it's funny, this one tends to get overlooked but it certainly has its moments and, as you rightly point out, that cat is a helluva an actor. Way better than Morris the cat.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for another fun review and belated well-wishes on coming through that bastard hurricane unscathed! However, it pains me to say that I was actually let down by "Cat's Eye," although I can explain why. It seems that I had read the stories that the first two segments are based on way back at the impressionable age that most kids who are obsessed with Stephen King do, and that I found them legitimately terrifying. Unfortunately, the over-the-top, cartoonish treatment that the stories receive here just feels all kinds of wrong (the electrified floor being perhaps the worst offender). The irony is, this exact style worked beautifully in all-time favorite "Creepshow," however those stories didn't exist prior to the film so there was no legacy -- enhanced by teenage memory or no -- to live up to. Perhaps I should give "Cat's Eye" another shot, expectations properly lowered, and try to enjoy it on its own merits. After all, James Woods is always a delight and those troll effects you mentioned were pretty tasty. Speaking of Woods, I wonder if you've ever seen the movie "The Onion Field" -- it's a true crime drama from the late 70s -- and Woods is absolutely phenomenal in it. Depressing as hell, but worth seeing.

Sean Gill said...


Glad you enjoyed, and glad I could help you properly catalogue your CAT'S EYE memories! Always good to see Christine, too.


Yeah, the General beats the pants off of Morris the Cat! I think the major horror anthology that I haven't seen is NIGHTMARES, which I recall being extremely psyched by your review during the Henriksen blogathon. I'll pick it up one of these days!


Ah, thank you for the well-wishes. I can see why you'd be taken aback by the tone if you expected a serious adaptation (another great example of the tone being the silly bicycle horn closing image for "The Ledge"), I mean, the wraparound story is pretty confusing, and multiple plays of that cover of "Every Breath You Take" are a tad head-scratching, but it all sort of adds to the experience for me. I haven't seen THE ONION FIELD, but I'd like to- I see it also possesses some Ted Danson and Christopher Lloyd!

Unknown said...
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