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Thursday, July 2, 2020

Ordinary Fears: Stephen King’s Horror Anthology ‘Cat’s Eye’ at 35

As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of horror movies, but I would always hover in the horror section of our local video store, partially because that’s where the most interesting cover art dwelled. I was most intrigued by the VHS packaging for movies like Halloween II, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the Friday the 13th series. But something about the cover of Cat’s Eye, with half of a cat’s face dominating the image and a vicious little troll breaking through the lower corner, always gave me a pang of longing to see what this movie could possibly be. As was often the case, I saw it for the first time at my friend’s house. My initial response was the first two stories were pretty cool, but the third, which featured that cat and troll most prominently, was just okay. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate this little gem in the Stephen King catalogue so much more than I ever did as a kid.

The idea was originally presented to King by Dino De Laurentiis as a vehicle for Drew Barrymore, the young star of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and De Laurentiis’s previous King adaptation, Firestarter. King, fresh off the success of the anthology film Creepshow, proposed adapting two stories from his Night Shift collection and adding a third original story that would feature Barrymore prominently. He would unify the stories with a frame narrative about a cat that would wander in and out of all three segments. Lewis Teague was brought on to direct the film and was overjoyed to work with King, legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and up and coming composer Alan Silvestri (who would go on to score most of Robert Zemeckis’s films), among other notables in the cast and crew.

The opening credit sequence sets the tone for the whole film. In it, a grey tabby cat is being chased by a dog; not a particularly odd occurrence, except this dog happens to be the star of Teague’s previous film, also based on work by Stephen King, Cujo. Dog and cat run down the sidewalks and through the streets as they narrowly escape being hit by a red and white 1958 Plymouth Fury along the way. Finally, the cat escapes Cujo by climbing aboard a cigarette truck bound for New York City, where he is caught by the employee of the radical addiction recovery firm, Quitters, Inc. All of this to show us that we’re in for a fun ride rather than the relentless, serious terror of previous King adaptations like Carrie, The Shining, and Cujo.

Teague has commented that the most effective horror films tap into ordinary fears, which is why the first two stories work as well as they do. “Quitter’s Inc.” taps into one of Stephen King’s most personal fears: how addiction can lead to the harm of others, especially one’s own family. King’s struggles with addiction and recovery are no secret and have been a continuing theme of his work throughout his career, most notably in The Shining and Doctor Sleep. While those novels and the films based on them take a more serious look at the issues involved, “Quitters, Inc.” is a Twilight Zone style romp through dependency and paranoia with a little kick in the shins at the end to cap it off.

The story follows James Woods as Dick Morrison, a long-time smoker who wants to quit for the sake of his wife and daughter (played by Drew Barrymore in a brief cameo in this segment). A friend drops him off at the office of Quitter’s Inc., a firm he soon discovers has rather extreme ways of helping clients quit smoking. Alan King as the firm’s president, Dr. Vinnie Donatti, is unforgettable and often very funny. Still, Teague builds real tension and a sense of paranoia throughout the story as Morrison is faced with the feeling of being constantly watched. This again taps into real and relatable fears—who hasn’t had that feeling of being watched? Woods and Teague are also able to create the intense feeling of “the craving” through performance and direction in this segment. The party sequence, appropriately accompanied by a cover of “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, becomes increasingly surreal as Morrison’s desire for a cigarette grows. The over the top nature of this scene sets up the reality of the next as Morrison finds a forgotten pack of cigarettes in his glove compartment and sneaks a drag as he waits in traffic. Then, the panic sets in when he realizes he has been caught and races home to find that his wife is missing. Though I now find all three stories effective, “Quitter’s Inc.” remains the strongest and most terrifying of the three.

The next universal fear the film tackles is the fear of heights in “The Ledge.” The setting shifts from New York to Atlantic City where our grey tabby has followed the call of a mysterious girl calling for his aid through various visions. The cat ends up in the possession of compulsive betting man and millionaire Mr. Cressner, played with glee and gusto by Kenneth McMillan. Cressner has discovered that tennis pro Johnny Norris (Robert Hays) has been having an affair with his wife. Being a betting man, Cressner gives Norris a wager. If he can walk the perimeter of his high-rise building on the narrow ledge, he can live and run off with his wife. If Norris refuses, he will kill him outright. Again, it is a great set-up for a story that is rife with tension; “The Ledge” does not disappoint. 

One of the more interesting elements of this segment is how it was made. Because the film was produced on a very tight budget with little money for optical effects, almost everything was done in camera using miniatures and forced perspective. Using this method, everything is shot at once rather than being put through multiple generations of film, which so often make opticals in 1980s films look unnatural. And in my opinion, the majority of the effects still work well after all these years. 

The sequence written for the film, “The General,” is usually cited as the weakest of the three. Teague feels there are a couple of reasons for this. The first two stories deal in real and relatable fears—addiction, family harm, heights, while “The General” deals in childhood fantasy fears (cats stealing children’s breath, trolls) that most people tend to outgrow at a relatively young age. The other reason is that there was a prologue cut from the film by the studio that sets up this sequence. In that prologue, we find the grey tabby living with a different family, the daughter also played by Barrymore, and it is established from the very beginning that the troll has stolen the girl’s breath and the cat has been blamed for it. The girl’s mother chases the cat out of the house with a gun before it is spotted by Cujo and picks up where the film now does. It also established the “troll POV” that we see in the beginning of this story.

Though I still am not completely on board with this episode, it has grown on me over the years. When my children were babies, we had a device for their cribs that could monitor their breathing and an alarm would sound if it didn’t sense any movement for a certain amount of time. This segment works better for me now as a parent because I have experienced the terror of that alarm going off in the middle of the night. I am also a big fan of Candy Clark, who is wonderful as the mother, and James Naughton gives a memorable performance as the father. As a kid, I struggled to relate to Drew Barrymore as Amanda, though she does a great job in the role. Today, I see her as a girl very much like my daughter: a creative, sensitive, animal lover. Now that I see the story through a parent’s eyes, it has a much greater effect on me.

Cat’s Eye was not much of a box-office success back in ’85 but found its fans through the home video market. Part of the hazy nature of its success has to do with it being slapped with the new PG-13 rating, which people were very uncertain about at the time. It is likely that it was considered too adult for children (especially with Stephen King’s name attached) and too much of a kids’ movie for its target audience. Cat’s Eye may never be considered top tier King, but over the past 35 years, it has found a place in the hearts of many, including my own.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3622240/ordinary-fears-stephen-kings-horror-anthology-cats-eye-35/

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