The Daily Dark: Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye
Echo’s rating: 3 out of 4 Changs
Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye is an absolute product of the 80s. Every little detail of it is so true to the time period that it dates itself almost immediately. There are cheesy covers of Police songs, Alan King hamming it up, and a scene where James Woods brings his daughter a Cabbage Patch Kid doll and takes the time to describe which kind it is. None of that matters though because Cat’s Eye is a blast from beginning to end. I’ve always enjoyed anthologies, especially in the horror genre, and this one gets extra points for tying its crazy stories around the collar of a wandering tabby cat.
In the 1980s Stephen really was king. Almost every middle-class American home would have a copy of Carrie or Cujo sitting on a rack in the bathroom hall or laying askew under a coffee table. By the time 85 had rolled around many of King’s most notable works had already been adapted for the big or small screen: only a few trickier novels like The Stand, or The Gunslinger were still available. So, following the lead of Creepshow (also an anthology) and Children of the Corn, Cat’s Eye drew from King’s short fiction. What they dug up were two short stories from the King collection Night Shift , and then with the maestro’s help, they knit these tales rather loosely to a frame-work that led into the movie’s final and best chapter.
Cat’s Eye is a fast paced and rather comical piece of work when you get right down to it. Once the opening coda passes, where a spunky cat named General runs away from Cujo and hides under the back tire of Christine, the film gets weird. For one thing, this cat sees visions—of Drew Barrymore. Drew seems to be afraid of something. She keeps saying “It’s after me. You have to help.” Assuming she doesn’t mean Tom Green, the cat sets off into the city, seemingly knowing just how to get to the girl.
Does any of that make a logical sense? No, but it works as an appealing idea. In my opinion, the strength of Stephen King is that underneath all the horror and nastiness, there is a skilled painter of melodrama. Like Dickens before him, King will go just about any place for a strong emotional beat. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I believe it works here. We like that idea of the cat scrounging its way across country to locate a child in peril who it hasn’t even met yet. If that bit of story doesn’t work for you, it won’t matter much as the film puts it on hold and doesn’t explore the implications of it until the last act.
The first act story is an adaptation of King’s short piece Quitters, Inc. James Woods plays Mr. Morrison, a man who enters the offices of Quitters, Inc. on what he thinks will be a routine lark: he wants to give-up smoking. He doesn’t count on the program being run by certifiable nut-job Dr. Donatti (Alan King) and he never considers that Donatti’s methods might encompass more than just himself. Alan King really plays it up here as a likely criminal who is obviously not a real doctor and whose methods go way beyond unconventional. Donatti assures Morrison that there will be swift retribution if he takes even a single drag of a cigarette. He shows Morrison an electric cage, and he demonstrates it with General; the electricity get’s turned on, the music begins, and the cat starts jumping frantically as sparks fly from the cage floor. Mess up once, your wife goes in the cage, mess up twice your daughter goes in the cage, etc. After the third offense, Donatti explains that the company gives up on you. At this last bit, he shows Morrison a gun.
There isn’t much straight-forward horror in this section, and in my opinion it’s the weakest bit. However, there are some priceless moments involving Woods nicotine slave trying to catch a drag when Donatti’s goons aren’t around. The episode cultivates some fun paranoid elements without pushing the premise too far into the tasteless. Morrison finds the motivation he needs long before scenarios 2 and 3 ever need come into play, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a price to be paid here.
The second story, entitled The Ledge, ratchets up the tension with Airplane’s Robert Hays playing a man whose affair with a crime-lord’s wife places him in a harrowing situation. The jilted husband is Cressner (Kenneth McMillian) and he forces Hayes at gunpoint to climb onto the ledge of his towering apartment building. If Norris(the Hayes character) can make it all the way around Cressner will give him money, his wife and Norris’ freedom. However, Cressner isn’t going to make the trip an easy one, and if the extreme heights, whipping wind and bothersome pigeons don’t do Norris in, it’s possible Cressner might kill him anyway.
I love this sequence. It’s a straightforward bit of schlock that benefits from keeping it simple. The first story isn’t that intense because we know that there is only so far the darker elements can go. We don’t want to see Woods family tortured, and we know it won’t happen in a PG-13 movie. With The Ledge, we are never sure of what will happen to Norris. He may fall, he may not. After awhile, it doesn’t even seem to matter if Cressner shoots him at the end; we just want to get back inside the building and away from the dizzying heights. The film’s special fx are dated now, but they work perfectly here. King and the filmmakers have taken a pretty standard phobia and crafted a nail-biter piece around it. The image of a persistent pigeon pecking away at Hayes bloody ankle is still burned into my brain to this day.
Once the film closes out the first two sections, it returns to General’s POV and we see him make his way from Las Vegas to Wilmington, N.C. where he finds the girl , Samantha, who has been trying to contact him all along. The odd thing is when the cat finds her, it’s clear she has never seen him before. So who was sending the messages? Stephen King?
Before General shows up we see an ominous, low to the ground POV as something scurries through the bushes, across the yard and into Samantha’s house. Shortly after, General comes running up the drive way and Samantha instantly falls in love with the cat, despite her mother(Candy Clark) who insists that having one in the house is a bad idea. Clark plays Sam’s mom as a well meaning but overbearing parent, and she works well in the role. One of the most frequent objections she uses against General is that her mother told her as a child that cats suck kid’s breath. When her husband teases her on this, she looks as though she believes it.
Turns out, her fears aren’t completely unfounded. That night, the wall in Sam’s room opens up and a strange little creature dressed in diminutive warrior’s garb and a jester’s cap climbs out and wreaks havoc. The monstrous little troll wants to suck Barrymore’s breath, and when he tries, General comes to her aid and chases him away. The rest of the episode becomes a battle of wits as the creepy little intruder tries to nullify the cat as a threat so it can be left alone in the room with Drew. Everything culminates in a truly epic, cheesy showdown between the cat and the troll that spans the entirety of Barrymore’s room and includes a helium balloon, a record player and a fan. Good times.
I’ve heard several people praise the early installments of Cat’s Eye and criticize the third because of its inherent goofiness and hair brained plot. I understand this sentiment, but I don’t agree. The last segment is the main attraction. It’s so wacky and energetic, and some of its thrills so unusual that I couldn’t imagine the movie without it. There’s a zany quality to the whole picture, and Cat’s Eye comes off like the horror movie equivalent of training wheels. It feels designed for a younger audience. Yes, the earlier segments take place in the adult world but they present it as a troubled, frantic and dangerous place where the stresses of “grown-up” life land the main characters in harrowing scrapes. Donatti and Cressner are so over the top and cheerfully diabolical as the villains that they seem like storybook ogres themselves. And then, we have the third segment which feels like the wish fulfillment of a child—the loyal family pet shields the youngster from some horrible monster, the child turns out to be right while the parents are misinformed and clueless, and in the end the child has their sense of peace and security restored thanks to trusty ol’ General. He’s really quite a cat.
If you decide to give Cat’s Eye a spin, be sure to hang out for the entire theme song that plays over the credits. Its 80’s-tastic.