Written by: Stephen King
Directed by: Lewis Teague
Starring: Drew Barrymore, James Woods, and Alan King
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
" Forget the cat, you hemorrhoid!"
Stephen King’s output is so prolific and prodigious that, in a perfect world, we’d be inundated with anthologies based off his short stories. For a while, it looked like that was exactly where we were headed, as, after the success of Creepshow, Warner Brothers apparently wanted to keep that gravy train rolling with Cat’s Eye, another omnibus inspired by the mind of horror’s reigning literary king. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis, directed by Lewis Teague (neither of whom were strangers to King adaptations), and based off of a screenplay written by King himself (comprised of adaptations and one original story), it makes for something of an all-star team for this sort of thing. As such, it’s no surprise that Cat’s Eye is a solid little collection, mostly because it represents King at the height of his prowess culling from some of his best work. To be frank, it’s hard to fuck with that, even if this particular trio of stories doesn’t quite jell into tonal or thematic coherence.
Still, just try not to delight in it, especially when it opens on the titular cat being chased by a very familiar-looking dog. As he darts through the streets (careful to avoid a familiar-looking car in the process), he’s urged on by the disembodied spirit of a young girl (Drew Barrymore) who is in some obvious peril. Before he can track her down, he hops a delivery truck bound for New York, where he slinks down the streets, eventually crossing paths with the characters from the film’s opening segment. It’s perhaps among the most arbitrary of anthology frames (it doesn’t help that WB cut an illuminating prologue), but it does set the sort of playful tone Cat’s Eye mostly thrives upon once its trio of macabre tales begins to unfold.
After strolling down the streets of New York, the cat is scooped up by the employees of Quitter’s, Inc., a firm specializing in helping clients overcome cigarette addiction. Dick Morrison (James Woods) is a veritable cigarette fiend desperate to find a solution, though his willingness and limits are tested immediately, as sinister counselor Vinnie Donatti (Alan King) explains that his firm’s methods involve stalking clients and threatening physical harm upon their loved ones if they’re caught in the act. What ensues is a suspenseful bout of tension and paranoia, one that’s compounded by Dick’s nicotine fits that have him seeing cigarettes and stalkers everywhere.
Teague’s direction ranges from playful subversion (there’s a great scene where Dick’s convinced someone’s in his closet) to capturing full-fledged freak-outs, complete with skewed lenses a menacing instance of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Woods fantastically reacts to the madness unfolding before him, wryly sneaking glances as he furtively takes a drag he believes to be out of anyone’s sightline. He is of course wrong, and viewers are eventually able to glimpse Quitter’s Inc.’s unconventional methods before King treats them to one final, ghoulish reminder that underscores the menace on display here.
More menace is in order as the cat scurries away from these proceedings and manages to skulk down to New Jersey, where aging tennis pro Johnny Norris (Robert Hays) crosses Cressner, a mob boss with a gambling problem (Kenneth McMillan). Unbeknownst to Norris, the gangster is aware of the affair he’s been carrying on with his wife, so he abducts him to his top-floor penthouse and makes a bet with lethal stakes: if Norris can circumnavigate the entire building’s narrow ledge, Cressner will remove the drugs he’s planted in his car and let him marry his wife. If he can’t…well, I think that result speaks for itself.
My favorite of the three Cat’s Eye segments, “The Ledge” is one of those great little demented yarns that reminds you of how well King can capture an unhinged, vengeful mind. Like Creepshow’s “Something to Tide You Over,” it flourishes on just how screwy it is, and there’s a breathless sort of suspense here to boot. King cleverly scripts in several obstacles around which Norris must navigate, including Cressner’s own distractions. Not content to stop there, King indulges the premise further and twists it into a nasty revenge tale. McMillan is a delight as Cressner, one of King’s shitball goons who deserve the worst possible comeuppance. Thankfully, the master knows when to oblige.
For the final segment, the cat makes his way back to sleepy Wilmington, N.C., far removed from the hustle and bustle of big city life. It’s no less harrowing, though, as the young girl glimpsed throughout the interludes is being terrorized by an unseen force each night. Her mother (Candy Clark) suspects it’s her cat since old southern lore insists that felines take the breath of children as they sleep. The truth is somehow worse, as a demonic gremlin reveals itself as the culprit, with the cat providing the last line of defense.
An out-of-left-field capper to Cat’s Eye, “The General” (which takes its name from the cat) is another blast of fun, albeit in a different manner from the previous segments. Where the others hinge on the maniacal psyches of madmen, this one goes full supernatural as it summons a wicked creature designed by Carlo Rambaldi. Between the diminutive troll (it stands knee-high to the cat) and the manic, screwy energy, this segment feels like the closest we’ll ever come to a Full Moon adaptation of Stephen King. Obviously, that makes it a sight to behold, especially since the effects are seamless: over 30 years later, the showdown between The General and the troll is an impressive effects display that climaxes with a gruesome outburst (but not so gruesome as to sully the PG-13 rating, the first for a King adaptation).
On its face, that PG-13 rating feels like an affront that couldn’t possibly do King justice, yet Cat’s Eye is able to capture that demented spirit that guides his work. It’s fucked-up but undeniably fun, very much in the same spirit of the Creepshow films—these are essentially pulp comics brought to the screen. Teague and company do so in sort of slapdash fashion—aside from the cat prowling through, there’s not much to connect the three segments and unify them. The first two have a shared preoccupation with sadistic madmen, but the third feels like it swoops in from another plane altogether, undercutting the thematic coherence in the process.
On the one hand, it results in a random cross-section; on the other, it is a bit reflective of King’s own short story collections, which house all manner of sordid tales varying in tone and theme. As far as anthology films inspired by King’s work, it’s the slightest, and I suppose it’s appropriate that history has tucked it between Creepshow and its sequel, a couple of landmarks that cast a long shadow. Cat’s Eye does its best to scurry out of it, but comes off as a bit of an also-ran instead.
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