Killtoberfest #35 was Cat’s Eye, but I will not be reviewing it. Instead, a guest reviewer has requested that I post this here for him, as he has trouble with keyboards. Please treat him with respect.
Noted human author Stephen King is best known for his novels, but he’s also a prolific writer of short fictions, including such classics as “I Am the Pet-Door”, “Suffer the Little Kittens,” and “The Cat From Hell”. In 1985 MGM decided that what had worked for Creepshow three years earlier–taking several of King’s short stories and putting them together in a theatrical anthology–would surely work again. Once again King would write the script. This time, though, instead of an emphasis on the visual style of pulpy human horror comic books, the stories would be aligned by a single charismatic protagonist. He would play a chief role in the first two stories, then take center stage in the last. But before that third act tale of heroism and inspiration, he would observe some of the worst excesses of human nature.
The first short story to be adapted was King’s “Quitters, Inc.” As with many early King short stories, it doesn’t develop much beyond the premise, a ghoulish little what-if idea. It’s so hard to quit smoking on your own, but what if you had a little help? Human person James Woods finds out when a friend gives him a card for the titular company. Once engaged, Quitters, Inc. promises Woods that men will follow him everywhere, ever vigilant. If he ever has another cigarette, his wife will be kidnapped and subject to brutal torture, trapped in a room with an electrified floor and made to ‘dance.’ We first see this torture through the eyes of General, the film’s main character. His terror and frustration are palpable within the scene. Indeed, General’s performance throughout is truly a tour de force. It’s a shame that the Academy not only gave away his award that year to William Hurt, but also refused to nominate even a single feline actor. This is a problem that continues to plague the industry as a whole. Just look at how many movies fail the Flufftel Test (features at least two feline actors who maiow at each other about something other than a human). Clearly we need more representation in the Hollywood power structures, more cats as producers and executives as well as writers and directors, if we are ever going to get our due.
Anyway, the film got a little boring after that, so I don’t remember much about this story. I did like the unique tension of Woods’ addiction battling his love for his family. I also seem to remember some sort of nicotine-withdrawal-infused dream sequence, but surely nobody would film something that stupid, even in the 80s. I noticed the climax of the story, though, because it involved General’s fantastic escape from the evil human company. This same scene was in the short story (minus General, of course): Woods has weakened and smoked a cigarette, but his relief is immediately replaced by terror as he realizes he was seen. His wife undergoes the same tortures that General had to go through, and afterwards her reaction is surprisingly positive. Maybe, she suggests, it’s worth it, if only he’ll stop smoking. It’s a powerful moment in the story, taking the baroque externalized villains (ex-mobsters) and turning them into a metaphor for the brutality a will must exert on itself in order to escape the mental trap of addiction. In the film, however, instead of playing out the scene for us, we see the mobsters watching it silently on TV, cynically pointing out what’s happening. It not only prevents the conventional emotional catharsis, but it also robs from the twist ending, which is originally there to remind us that a necessary evil is still an evil. Without that moment of “maybe it’s worth it” that ending falls flat, and it already feels tacked on because General has moved on. Ultimately what I took from “Quitters, Inc.” is that humans will hurt themselves and those around them in many ways. Some of us know better. You’ll never see a cat smoking.
Cats love to make bets, though, which is why I looked forward with interest to the next story, “The Ledge.” It’s King in hardboiled crime story mode, a style he almost never indulges at novel length. At its best, this type of King story can be like an icepick to the throat: sharp, cold, and fast. Once again the ending is a miscalculation, however, lasting just long enough to remove the original’s chilling ambiguity. The journey is still pretty good, though. The script dispatches with the preliminaries in rapid order–an affair with the wife of a scheming hood, a tennis pro with a record, blackmail, the allure of money–in order to get to the real meat of the story. The hood, Cressner, has shown his willingness for extreme gambles by betting on whether or not General can cross a busy street in front of a casino. Of course, our hero’s determination and faith carry him through, but his only reward is to be kidnapped by Cressner and brought to witness another deadly game of chance and will. Cressner offers the man in love with his wife (Robert Hays, who I only knew from his very different role in Airplane!) one option: traverse around the entire building on a concrete ledge a few inches wide and return safely, or have his life destroyed. This is a great concept, full of tension and details, like the hateful pigeon who pecks at Hays until he finds enough footing to give them a vicious kick. I’ve never been more jealous of bipedalism.
Eventually, of course, General escapes, in pursuit of mission to save the human girl who begs for his help in a series of psychic visions. He finds himself in the third story, “The General.” As the name implies, General must go from being a wanderer to living up to his militaristic moniker, in order to save the girl (a cute but one-note Drew Barrymore, fresh off the atrocious Firestarter) from a hideous troll who lives in her wall and comes out at night to steal her breath. As you may be aware, this is an act of folk tale revisionism. Breath-stealing has historically been falsely attributed to cats by our enemies, so by making it a cat who must stop a breath-stealer, King sets the record straight while giving us a bit of symbolic revenge. Overall, this third story, the only one original to the film, feels a little strange after two completely non-supernatural stories. But it still manages to be great, in my opinion.
A human might consider this third story to be ludicrous trash, one of King’s few real clunkers. He or she might complain, for instance, about the irrationality of the mother’s deranged hatred towards General, which includes secretly dropping him off at the town pound. But I see the harrowing tale of a brave and noble cat, forced into a cage and slated for execution thanks to the mother’s anti-felinic sentiment, a bigotry all too common in my own experience. That human might call the design of the troll creature and the special effects wizardry used to depict his battle with General a ridiculous failure that leaves the viewer cold. It’s impossible, they might say, to be scared of such a small and absurd creature. But to my eyes that little troll was at least the size of a bird, and armed with a knife–truly a formidable foe even for a large cat, let alone one like General. A human might say that, unlike most of King’s work, the story has no thematic resonance, that it suffers from the lack of a clear perspective. But it’s obviously about the titanic struggle between good versus evil, and the importance of trusting your child’s protection to the one species proven to never give up hope.
In the end, Cat’s Eye is an inspiring fable for felines everywhere. Life is full of those taller, two-legged beings whose capricious schemes and selfish desires determine the shape and substance of our lives. The film argues that we must prove our value–not as the victim of torture or the subject of degenerate gambling, but as the hero who earns his place in a family, no matter what the cost. I give this fine, inspiring film Four Paws out of Four.
Many thanks to our guest reviewer, Charles Foster Kat.