Tuesday, October 22, 2019

King Week: Stephen's cat

In which Halloween-related marathoning has resulted in reviews of several spooky movies from the mind of the world's favorite horror author, Stephen King.


Directed by Lewis Teague
Written by Stephen King (based in part on King's short stories from Night Shift)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Cat's Eye is easily overlooked, and that's too bad.  Of the several films I've seen this week based on Stephen King stories, it's by far the best.  Admittedly, to be the best all it needed to do was just be better than somewhat terrible.  Stopping at just "not terrible" would be doing Cat's Eye a disservice, though, since it's very good—even excellent, if you're not comparing it to movies generally, but grading it on the curve established by horror anthologies instead.  Not that you should do that, but Cat's Eye has the distinction of being a horror anthology (or, let's not be mean to horror, and say "an anthology movie of any kind") where every single segment is at least worthwhile: if they're still not all equal, at least what you're dealing with here is only okay vs. good vs. great, rather than okay vs. why vs. kill me.

Maybe it helps that it's an anthology motivated by a single author's short stories (two from King's collection, Night Shift, plus one original written for the film), rather than the usual case of several wildly divergent filmmakers.  (It shares this quality with its precursor, 1982's Creepshow, King's collaboration with George Romero.)  In any event, Cat's Eye also has only one director, Lewis Teague, returning to King immediately after Cujo; and it has only one screenwriter, too, once again King himself.  It likewise has one cinematographer, and Teague managed to get ahold of one of the all-time greats, Jack Cardiff.  Best known for his work with Technicolor under the Archers in films like A Matter of Life and Death, Cat's Eye was his next-to-last picture—and a fine piece of photography in its own right, doing things with shadows and expressionistic color lighting that a movie in this weight class never strictly had to.  It had one composer, as well, Alan Silvestri, working the last bits of 80s synth-cheese out of his system before he retrenched into the orchestral mode that he was probably better at (and which we like him better for), though it's still fun to hear what he was doing in his early days, when he was still behaving like film scores were just longer versions of his scores for episodes of CHiPs.

But forget about those primates.  Cat's Eye succeeds by binding its three stories together with the journey of a certain magical cat, whom we meet as he undertakes an odyssey down the eastern seaboard in response to a young girl's psychic call for help.  And thus Cat's Eye features loads and loads of one of my favorite things, which is cute-as-fuck animal acting, courtesy of the twelve tabbies who played its feline protagonist (with some assistance from their famed trainer, Karl Lewis Miller), though we ought not overlook the contributions of one truly extraordinary pigeon.  Also a pretty good parakeet.

The first segment finds our cat captured, and used to demonstrate the atypical methods of "Quitters, Inc.", an unorthodox non-profit that specializes in helping smokers kick the habit.  It's with this goal in mind that Dick (James Woods) enters their offices, and by the time he changes his mind, it's too late.  As Dr. Donatti (Alan King) patiently but menacingly explains, he'd best quit, or else.  Or else what?  Well, on his first slip, they'll throw his wife (Mary D'Arcy) in the same electrified cage they put the cat in.  On his second, his daughter (Drew Barrymore).  And on his third...

To the extent Cat's Eye is regarded in the first place, "Quitters" is usually regarded as its best short.  To some extent I can see why: it's the only one that was built around a movie star, with Woods simultaneously playing both to and against his type as an oily scumbag; and, obviously, it's an intriguingly macabre extension of the brutality of cold-turkey rehabilitation programs.  But I submit it's really Cat's Eye's weakest, and the only one that comes anywhere close to being unsatisfactory.  It has great bits, clearly: Woods does a fine job sweating under pressure as Dick navigates (and fails to navigate) Quitters' implausible panopticon; Alan King is a fun kind of vile; and Dick's thirst for nicotine in the midst of a parody of a 1980s party erupts into a ludicrous and very funny fantasy setpiece.

Where it runs aground is with the organization's punishment protocols, which seem designed to alienate half the audience, graduating from abusing the women (exclusively women) in its client's lives to (you guessed it) straight-up raping them.  The broader objection, however, is that "um, sexual assault, I guess?" is just such a boringly unimaginative solution for an organization already this off-the-rails and weird, especially considering that Quitters' resort to violence is, at least in part, a satire of real-life anti-smoking zealotry—traditionally, a liberal pastime.  But more damning still is that "Quitters" doesn't even have the courage of its sleazy convictions, and so its examination of the disgusting selfishness of the addict just gets tossed aside when the bleak and misanthropic ending it's clearly been setting up isn't actually the ending it's going to run with.  (It's altogether baffling, considering there has never been any actor better suited to lighting up with a faux-bashful shrug while his wife and daughter are tortured than the one Cat's Eye has.)  Still, its concept alone is easily enough to carry it across its twenty-odd minutes. (6/10)

Our cat escaped halfway through "Quitters," and this brings him to "The Ledge."  Now things get unambiguously good, with Cat's Eye's best segment.  "The Ledge" is defiantly simple, despite feeling the most like it could have had a feature built in front of it, a neo-noirish little near-masterpiece of forbidden romance, sadistic men, and even more sadistic birds.  We meet the villain first, Cressner (Kenneth McMillan), an Atlantic City casino magnate whom we learn prefers to gamble with lives, as when he spies our tabby attempting to cross the road and makes a bet on whether he'll survive the passage.  Recently, Cressner's become aware of an affair between his trophy wife and her tennis instructor, Chris (Robert Hays—it's an open question whether this surprisingly funny thriller is more or less effective due to the presence of the star of Airplane!, though, in true Ted Stryker fashion, Hays plays it commendably straight).

In retaliation, Cressner has a huge bag of drugs planted in his car, and then has him kidnapped so he can explain that he's going to be framed and sent to prison for a very long time.  But Cressner is willing to give his adversary a fighting chance, and offers him a wager: if Chris can circle the five inch ledge around the penthouse apartment of his casino, without plummeting to his death, then he'll let him go, no hard feelings, and he can even keep Cressner's wife in the bargain.  Chris doesn't have much choice but to accept.

And that's the show, watching Chris defy death above Atlantic City in a scenario that gratefully (and gratifyingly) acknowledges its debt to Harold Lloyd, and which (just as Safety Last! before it) commingles its genuine thrills with the giddy absurdity of every obstacle Chris faces on his perilous circumnavigation of the building—above all a terrifyingly angry pigeon, whose insane dedication to killing Chris with the only means it has available (repeated pecking) is both heart-poundingly thrilling and, possibly, the funniest damn thing ever.  "The Ledge" effectively places its viewer in Cressner's position, hoping you'll have as much fun watching Chris repeatedly almost die as he does.  It concludes, however, with a pair of well-judged reversals, and it gets awfully mean-spirited in the end.  I wouldn't have it any other way.  I thought I might have to knock a point off for its unwillingness to cough up a credible severed head gore shock, but Cat's Eye is only PG-13; you can't have everything(9/10)

So our hero, having borne witness to the cruelty of men, seeks out the company of a little girl instead, whereupon he is at last granted a name, "General."  The girl is Amanda (also Drew Barrymore, who appears in all three segments; you can spot her on TV in "The Ledge").  She's the one who called him here, all the way down to Wilmington, NC.  You see, Amanda is plagued by a little gremlin (voiced, inevitably, by Frank Welker) who lives in her wall and comes out at night, hoping to suck out her life's breath while she sleeps.  Naturally, nobody believes her, not her dad (Russell Horton, named "Mr. Milquetoast" in the credits), and certainly not her frankly harpyish mom (Patricia Benson).  General, on the other hand, who hates all creatures smaller than he (as attested by his treatment of an innocent bird in the Milquetoasts' yard), eagerly accepts the job of Amanda's protector.  Unfortunately, Amanda's cat-despising mother is having none of this "General" business, promptly dropping him off to be euthanized and, in the starkest bit of visual storytelling on offer in Cat's Eye—a pan up to a portentously smoking chimney—unceremoniously incinerated.  But the thing is, this tabby is Amanda's only hope.

"General" is just plain fun: it's undeniably simple-minded, even on its chosen level of unserious kid's adventure, and its biggest idea, besides monsters-under-the-bed and parents-just-don't-understand, is the contrast between the succubus-like gremlin and the folkloric concept of the feline as a force of evil that squats on babies' chests and steals their souls.  (Which leads to the tensest moment of the whole film in its epilogue—along with most adorable final shot you've ever seen.)  But execution is what counts, and, if you like cats, and finely-tuned cat acting, "General" is an embarrassment of riches.  That acting is pretty finely-tuned indeed: besides General being a shockingly believable cat-of-action, one of those twelve tabbies was capable of essaying genuine emotional states, like a recognizable resignation in the face of death, followed by the renewal of his determination to live and the hatching of a clever scheme.  It's fantastic.

So is the staging, which sells the illusion using a combination of giant sets and astoundingly good special effects for this era and this budgetary level—the shots of the gremlin pinching Baby Barrymore's nose shut are seamless.  It is, of course, very funny, the closest Cat's Eye gets to overt, goofy comedy rather than amusing nastiness, but that certainly fits here; one of "General's" finest moments is when the gremlin believes he's achieved a Fairbanksian swasbuckling escape (I suspect Teague likes old movies, a lot), but all he's actually accomplished is a short ride on some birthday balloons that aren't even sufficient to bear him aloft.  Carlos Rambaldi built the creature (he was played in the "giant set" shots by a game and apparently anonymous stuntman), and Rambaldi designed him with a lot of fine loving detail: little dagger teeth and crinkly rotten skin and a jaunty wee jester's hat that, I'm afraid, renders him even sillier than he needed to be.  But who knows: maybe Rambaldi's creation doesn't even work without the outfit.  It certainly still works with the outfit, and "General" is such a blast precisely because it's also such an avowed frivolity. (7/10)

Cat's Eye deserves more love than it's gotten, and despite its self-conscious disposability, it's damned-near great.  The worst you can say about it is that it's a fairly attenuated brand of "horror," and that the way it ties its stories together might not be objectively solid.  I'd contend it finds a certain tonal unity (all three segments are, essentially, violent comedies), but I'll readily admit they barely share the same genre otherwise (one's a blatant Twilight Zone riff, another's the climax to a crime thriller we didn't see the rest of, and the last is a cat-centric side-story to Labyrinth).  But it was surely a relief in the midst of this mini-marathon.  Cat's Eye carves out a place below CarrieChristine, and The Shining in the middle-tier of Stephen King adaptations, which, I fear, puts it in pretty rare company in the grand scheme of Stephen King adaptations.

Score: 8/10

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