Cat’s Eye

Cat's EyeSynopsis: A wandering supernatural feline’s adventures provide the linking story for Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye, a dead on trilogy scripted by King and directed by Lewis Teague (Cujo, The Jewel of the Nile). First up: the staff at Quitters Inc. promises to help nicotine fiend Dick Morrison (James Woods) kick the habit. If not, someone in Morrison’s household might get smoked… because QI is run by a very persuasive mob family. Next comes a cliffhanger. Or a ledgehanger. Either way, a luckless gambler (Robert Hays) is into a bet involving a stroll around the building- on the five inch ledge encircling the 30th floor. Finally, our wayfarer kitty rescues a schoolgirl (young Drew Barrymore) from a vile, doll sized troll. Meowvelous!

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Cat’s Eye 6.75

eyelights: Quitters Inc, The Ledge. its tongue-in-cheek quality.
eyesores: Cat’s Eye. its cheesy score. its special effects. its tongue-in-cheek quality.

“We’ll be watching you.”

When I discovered Stephen King, back in the mid-’80s, I totally lost it. I was in grade nine at the time, when I picked up ‘Firestarter’. I had never read anything like it before. It wasn’t horror so much as it was parapsychological terror. I loved it. I loved it so much, in fact, that I picked up more Stephen King.

Lots more Stephen King.

I read everything that my library had and even started buying his novels when they came out. But my favourites often ended up being the short story collections. What was great about them was that there was so much variety in them. They weren’t all horror, but they always displayed a delectable imagination and originality.

‘Night Shift’ and ‘Skeleton Crew’ were the best. I’ll never forget “Battleground”, “The Mist”, “The Monkey”, and “The Raft”, which left indelible impression on my young mind. Many of these short stories have been adapted to the small and big screen in short or feature film format, and I’ve tended to watch all them.

…even though the quality assurance is never very high.

‘Cat’s Eye’ is a 1985 anthology motion picture based on Stephen King’s works. Directed by Lewis Teague, who had adapted ‘Cujo’ to great effect only two years prior, it features “Quitters, Inc.” and “The Ledge” from ‘Night Shift’, as well “General”, an original story that King wrote especially for the picture.

“General” also serves as a wrap-around story, taking its lead, a cat, and introducing it into the other two shorts as a connecting thread. It gives the cat a quest right from the start: to find a little girl who has been appearing in its recurring vision. She tells the cat that only it can save her from danger.

1. The first story begins with Dick being dropped off by his friend at Quitters, Inc., to help him stop smoking. Though he’s reticent, his friend tells him “it’ll change (his) life” and he goes to his scheduled appointment. When he walks in, he finds intimidating posters and a nervous, weeping man in the waiting area.

The man had been waiting for his spouse, who comes out a wreck, disheveled and shaky – and clearly frustrated with the man. Dick gets the jitters but, before he can slip out the door, a stern-looking man comes out to meet him and takes him to his office – which he promptly locks electronically after they settle in.

What I found stunning about the original story was that it poses the question “How badly do you want to quit?” and takes it to its natural extension. It amplifies the pressure that one feels to quit smoking, the desire to quit quitting, the paranoia that can develop when you feel watched, and actually builds up tension.

What the movie does, though, is to play up the campiness of such a conceit, with subtle humour being injected into it and a mildly campy performances from James Woods and the supporting cast. It’s certainly the only possible approach given that cinema is a visual medium and Dick’s terror is entirely psychological.

In any event, it plays well and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s well-anchored by a sinister turn by comedian Alan King as the manager of Quitters, Inc., giving the part the necessary gravitas; he completely sells the notion that the organization is mob-run. Though the novella is superior, this has its moments too.

2. The second story finds Johnny, a former tennis pro, being kidnapped and framed for drug possession by Cressner as revenge for having an affair with his wife. Cressner has him taken to his penthouse suite and makes Johnny a deal: if he walks all way the building’s ledge, he’ll be released, cleared, and paid a fortune.

And he’ll get the girl.

Having had trouble with the law in the past due to prior drug problems, Johnny would likely be jailed for decades, so he feels that he has no choice other than to take the bet. But first he confirms with Cressner that he never hedges on his bets. He doesn’t, but little does Johnny know that the man never plays fair.

This is another one that worked better in short story format, because it got into Johnny’s head, much in the same way that King did with Raymond in ‘The Long Walk’. There’s a small attempt to do so here, but watching a man walk around a ledge isn’t exactly riveting stuff – though there are a few traps along the way.

Robert  Hays is actually rather good as Johnny. I questioned his acting chops in the ‘Airplane!‘ movies, but he plays it straight here, displaying on his face all the tension inherent in the situation. Sadly, Kenneth McMillan plays Cressner a bit too goofy for my taste, stripping away some of the sense of risk.

At least this one has a nicely twisted ending, much like “Quitters, Inc.” did. This is what I always liked about Stephen King’s short stories – they didn’t always have a fully happy ending, even when our protagonists survived their ordeals. King had a dark sense of humour that I very much relished – and still do.

3. The film falls apart with “General” which finally brings the cat, who had been used as a guinea pig in “Quitter, Inc.” and a pet in “The Ledge” to the home of the little girl it had seen in its visions. After hopping aboard various vehicles, it makes its way there and actually sneaks in while the family is outside.

When Amanda sees the cat, she wants to keep it. Her mom is wary of bringing a tomcat in, but the little girl convinces her. Still, she can’t convince her mom to let the cat sleep inside, which may be partly due to her grandmother’s belief that cats sit on children’s chests while they sleep and steal their breath away.

Amanda is adamant that the cat, whom she names General, is not a threat, and even claims that the nightmares she’s had of creatures lurking in the shadows have gone since General has arrived. And, in fact, there is something behind the wall of Amanda’s room – but it’s kept at bay whenever General is in the house.

Too bad her mom decides to take the cat to the pound.

The reason why “General” unravel the picture is not because it’s not good. It is. But it feels more like a Jim Henson story than a Stephen King one; it’s clearly more fantastical, kid-friendly, though it has a mildly creepy side to it. It’s so tonally at odds with the other two that it just doesn’t make any sense.

Still, it is quite good on its own: the cast (which features Drew Barrymore in an early role) is excellent and the short eschews the campy quality that weakened the other two. It also has a terrific troll, whose facial articulations were surprisingly expressive. Still, it’s totally designed for younger audiences.

I don’t know who came up with the idea of tying it to the other stories, but it was a terrible idea. The contrived ways in which they involved “General” in “Quitters, Inc.” and “The Ledge” was weak glue to say the least. It’s clear that it would have been much more impactful had it been a stand-alone short.

The picture would also have benefited from a much better score, to amplify the eeriness of the moment. Instead, Alan Silvestri’s score is cheesy-sounding synth composition that emulates some of the themes from fare like ‘Back to the Future‘. It’s one of the worst score I’ve heard, being totally wrong tonally.

So, ultimately, though ‘Cat’s Eye’ has its moments, it’s put together in such a strange way that it fails spectacularly where it should have succeeded: the humour makes a joke out of nerve-wracking situations, the music defuses the tension, and the bits don’t come together. Stephen King certainly deserved better.

So did his fans.

Story: 7.0
Acting: 6.0
Production: 7.0

Chills: 3.0
Gore: 1.0
Violence: 2.0

Date of viewing: September 10, 2016

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