Welcome to “Second Glance,” a bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note (thanks to an anniversary, a connection to a new release, or new disc or streaming availability) that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, timed to its Blu-ray debut (along with the TV miniseries adaptations of Salem’s Lot and It), we look at the 1985 Stephen King anthology film Cat’s Eye.
The anthology format is ideally suited for Stephen King’s works, which have proved oddly difficult to adapt into satisfying motion pictures; his novels frequently lost their psychological and emotional heft by being boiled down into scare-fests, while his short stories expanded into features (like Children of the Corn and Maximum Overdrive) proved too thin. His novellas were often about the right length for solid film adaptation – see The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Apt Pupil, and others – while short stories made for fine short films, and segments of longer pictures like Cat’s Eye.
It’s easy to forget just how ubiquitous King movies were in the 1980s and, to a lesser degree, the 1990s, since the results were so mixed, and since the pace of feature film adaptations of King books and stories has slowed so considerably as of late – only four in the 2010s, by my count, and only one of those (the 2013 Carrie remake) particularly high-profile. Yet in those earlier decades they were so familiar, particularly their villains cut from the cloth of everyday life, that Cat’s Eye nabs a few easy laughs with winking callbacks to other King movies and books. In its opening sequence, our feline protagonist is chased by a Cujo-like rabid St. Bernard (Cat’s Eye director Lewis Teague also helmed that adaptation). During that chase, the animals are nearly run over by a red Plymouth Fury, aka Christine. In the first segment, James Woods watches the film adaptation of The Dead Zone; in the third, the mother curls up in bed with a copy of Pet Sematary. These are winking in-jokes, yes – though they are also a snapshot of a moment in pop culture when it felt like everyone was reading or watching Stephen King.
There’s one more key connection, as well; a year earlier, E.T. star Drew Barrymore played the title role in Mark L. Lester’s rather unappreciated adaptation of King’s Firestarter, and here, billed as “Our Girl,” she is one of the connective threads between these otherwise unrelated King short stories. The other connection is the kitty of the title, who is an incidental player in the first two stories and the hero of the third, and he’s drawn to Barrymore in various forms – she appears in the face of a mannequin and the guise of a child actress on a cat food commercial with the Leia-like plea, “You’ve got to help me. You’ve got to stop it.”
If this sounds like a thin thread, it is, but we must allow these movies their framework. Cat’s Eye is modeled less on the aforementioned King novel adaptations than Creepshow, his 1982 collaboration with George A. Romero, which adapted two of his previous short stories and three new ones into a tribute to the horror comic books of the 1950s.
Cat’s Eye’s first section is based on his 1978 story “Quitters, Inc,” first published in his collection Night Shift. It starts a smarmy James Woods as a chain smoker who goes, on a friend’s recommendation, to the support group of the title, run by a surprisingly menacing Alan King (no relation). There he’s told that he’ll be under constant surveillance, and that if he’s caught smoking, there will be… consequences.
“Quitters” is unquestionably the weakest of the three stories – or, at the very least, it’s aged worst, thanks to the goofy overuse of fisheye lenses, heavy echoes, and similarly hack devices, particularly in a faux-funny party scene in which Woods is wound up by everyone else’s smoking pleasure, a scene that goes off the rails before King shows up in a silver disco suit, boogeying and lip-syncing to a cheapo cover of “Every Breath You Take.” But it does have its moments: Woods in his shades, crouched down in traffic enjoying an illicit cigarette, the gleefully nasty chuckling henchman administering the “therapy,” King and the henchman taking bets after as to whether the poor sap’s wife will leave him. And it’s got a delicious closing shot that makes clear the story’s debt to The Twilight Zone – a debt shared, and one-upped, by the story that follows.
“The Ledge,” a story King first published in the July 1976 issue of Penthouse (an issue that makes a conspicuous appearance in the film) and bound in Night Shift, concerns a wealthy casino owner and non-stop gambler (Kenneth McMillan), who discovers his wife is about to run off with her lover (Robert Hays). So he has his men kidnap his rival and plant drugs on him before offering up a friendly wager: he can either wind up broke and in jail, or he can make off with the wife and a healthy dowry. He just has to complete a full circle, at sky-high penthouse level, around his Atlantic City skyscraper on the five-inch ledge.
It’s an ingenious premise, albeit not for those who suffer easily from cinematic vertigo, worked through with logic and efficiency by King’s script; he imagines all possible diversions, distractions, and dangers, while Teague masterfully builds tension, and releases it with laughs. (Any New Yorker of any reasonable length will enjoy the payoff to the pigeon bit.) And there’s more than a dash of Harold Lloyd in it, particularly by the time Hays is hanging off the building via a quickly-breaking sign. And once again, the final turn is satisfyingly, fiendishly clever.
The third story, “General,” is one King wrote specifically for the film. The villain here is first revealed in a heavy-breathing, fast-moving point-of-view shot, which almost comes off like a parody of the then-inescapable slasher movie aesthetic – a parody because the monster here is a tiny, nasty troll who lives in Barrymore’s bedroom wall and tries to steal her breath at night. The delayed reveal of that creature is one of Teague’s smartest touches; heard before he’s seen, we’re prepared for a nasty, scary little fucker, and that’s what we get, thanks creature creator Carlo Rambaldi. His previous credits included designing aliens in Close Encounters, Alien, and hey, look at that, E.T., and King’s script similarly echoes the warm family dynamics of Barrymore’s breakthrough film (assisted ably by the inspired, funny performances of Candy Clark and James Naughton as the parents).
Cat’s Eye is a film I’ve always held special affection for, due in no small part to timing – its PG-13 rating meant that I could see it when it came out, as a ten-year-old with a serious crush on my contemporary, Ms. Barrymore. And it was one of the first movies we owned on VHS, at an age when I had a lot of free time. Revisiting it for the first time in at least a decade, I found it holds up pretty well; while “Quitters” suffers from the mentioned datedness, and both it and “The Ledge” play into a pretty nasty women-as-collateral-damage trope, the performances are strong, the cinematography (by Jack Cardiff!) is evocative, and Alan Silvestri (later the purveyor of twinkly themes for the likes of Forest Gump and Contact) turns in a solid Carpenter-imitation synth-heavy score. The list of films that genuinely capture the spirit of Stephen King – the darkness, humor, and cleverness that made his books and stories so irresistible – is surprisingly short. But Cat’s Eye deserves a place on that list.