Thursday, May 14, 2020

Film Appreciation - Stephen King Trolled My Childhood

The 1985 anthology Cat's Eye traumatized Cody Hamman as a child, now he has Film Appreciation for it.

I was fascinated by scary stories from a very early age; I basically became a horror fan when I was a toddler. I spent my youth consuming as much horror as I could get my hands on, watching horror movies, reading horror novels, leafing through horror magazines. Most of these things just enthralled me, but I'll admit that I would occasionally come across something that would cause me some trauma. For example, Jaws gave me such a deep fear of sharks and oceans that I was plagued by recurring shark nightmares for years and didn't step foot into an ocean until I was thirty-four years old. Aside from Jaws, many of the things that really messed with my mind were found in the pages of Stephen King stories, or in films based on his literary work. King was on top of the world when I was a kid, and he still pretty much is, but the difference is that now he's sort of like friendly old Uncle Stephen. Back then, his work seemed dangerous, as he would delve into subject matter that was very dark and intense, and we were just experiencing for the first time the sort of horrific things he had to tell us about.

But the Stephen King story that messed me up worst of all isn't even that dark or dangerous when I watch it as someone who is in their late thirties but still fascinated by horror. The traumatic story makes up one-third of the anthology film Cat's Eye, and it had me convinced for years that little creatures lived in the walls of my home.

Directed by Lewis Teague, Cat's Eye is a unique anthology in that it follows a stray cat that just happens to wander its way into three Stephen King stories. King wrote the screenplay for the film himself, and two of anthology's segments are based on stories that were previously published and can be found in King's short story collection Night Shift - Quitters, Inc. and The Ledge. The third segment is a story King wrote specifically for the screen, and that's the one that made an impact on my childhood.

The film is packed with nods to other King stories and adaptations, and there are a couple right up front, as it begins with the stray cat having close call run-ins with Cujo the dog and Christine the car on the streets of Wilmington, North Carolina. To escape from Cujo, the cat hops into the back of a truck hauling a load of tobacco products and ends up being driven into New York City - where it is quickly snatched up and carried into the adaptation of Quitters, Inc.

Cat's Eye has a quirky sense of humor throughout that flew over my head when I was a kid because everything that happens in it is so terrible and weird. Now that sense of humor is very obvious to me, starting off with the premise of Quitters, Inc. James Woods plays Dick Morrison, a man who is trying to give up smoking cigarettes and seeks the help of the titular company, not knowing that they use "radical methods" to make sure their clients kick the habit. The implication is that the company is really a tax gimmick for the mob, but they do take their new business very seriously - and once Dick has set foot in their offices, he can't back out of the program. He is informed that he will be under constant surveillance, and if he is seen sneaking a cigarette, his wife and daughter will suffer painful consequences. The punishment for his first relapse will be that his wife will be abducted and locked in a room with metal walls and a metal floor - and while a golden oldie plays through speakers in the room, jolts of electricity will run through the floor.

The cat is brought into the Quitters, Inc. office so they can demonstrate to Dick exactly how that electric floor trick works, and Dick earns some points with the audience through his appalled reaction to the sight. If he cares about cats, he must be a good guy at heart.

For roughly 30 minutes, the film follows Dick as he deals with the intense paranoia of wondering whether or not people from Quitters, Inc. really are watching him, and then figuring out for sure that they are. He's so paranoid, and so consumed by the thought of cigarettes, that he even has a hallucination at a party that involves dancing cigarette boxes, James Rebhorn as a drunk businessman with smoke blasting out of his ears, and Quitters, Inc. boss Vinny Donatti (Alan King) lip syncing to The Police's song "Every Breath You Take" while wearing an Elvis jumpsuit. And yet my young self never realized just how humorous that was supposed to be.

Dick is trapped in his deal with Quitters, Inc., but the cat does escape from them and makes its way out of New York, ending up in Atlantic City, New Jersey. There it enters an adaptation of The Ledge simply by crossing the street, because it's spotted by criminal kingpin / casino owner Cressner (Kenneth McMillan) and one of his employees, and they make a bet on whether or not the cat will survive its journey across the busy road. The cat lives, Cressner wins the bet and takes it back to his apartment at the top of a high-rise building.

There the cat witnesses as Cressner makes a deal with Johnny Norris (Robert Hays), the man who Cressner's wife was running away with. Cressner has planted drugs in Norris's car and will have him sent to prison if he doesn't attempt to walk around the building on the five-inch ledge outside Cressner's apartment. If Norris survives, Cressner will divorce his wife and hand over some money so she can go off to live with Norris, happily ever after. 

The Ledge is very simple, it's just about Norris walking around the building, but getting all the way around the place proves to be very difficult, and Cressner pulls some maniacal tricks to try to get Norris to fall. Cressner is such a creep, we don't feel sympathy for him when we hear that Norris has been sleeping with his wife. We want Norris to survive and run off with her. McMillan's performance is memorably unhinged, and my fear of heights makes it easier for me to side with Norris as he traverses that ledge.

A train ride takes the cat back to Wilmington, which is apparently where it was meant to be all along, because at a couple different points in the movie it sees visions of a little girl played by Drew Barrymore, pleading for the cat to save her from some horrible thing. In the third story, which takes up the last 33 minutes of the 94 minute film (including end credits), the cat reaches the home of a little girl who is played by Drew Barrymore and needs it to save her. The third story is called General, because that's the name this little girl gives the cat.

It's odd that the movie starts in Wilmington and then circles back to Wilmington, and if you look at the license plates on the vehicles during the General segment you can see that Teague did not originally intend for it to be taking place in Wilmington. The cars have Connecticut license plates. That makes more sense. Apparently a prologue was cut that would have shown us why the cat was running through the streets in the beginning, and I'm guessing that involved another vision. Then fate carried the cat from North Carolina to New York, then New Jersey, and finally to Connecticut.

General is the segment of this film that traumatized me when I was a kid. Stephen King literally trolled my childhood. Barrymore's character Amanda needs the cat to save her from a troll that lives in the wall of her bedroom and comes out at night to suck the breath out of her body. For hundreds of years cats have been taking the blame for killing children by sucking the breath out of them, that old wives tale is even mentioned by Amanda's father Hugh (James Naughton) in this film, but here we have a cat trying to protect a child from a breath-sucker.

And that little breath-sucking troll is hideous, with his glowing red eyes and pointy teeth, wearing his raggedy little outfit with bells hanging off of it and a tiny knife in hand. As an adult, I can see that this creature is largely played for laughs, and of course it is - the idea of this thing is absurd. But it wasn't absurd or funny to me as a kid. This troll was one of the most horrifying things I had ever seen, and I was convinced that one of these trolls actually lived in the walls of my house. For years I lived in fear of disturbing the troll in my walls. I made sure not to bump the walls because I thought that would draw the troll out. Of all the things I witnessed in horror movies at ages when other kids I knew weren't allowed to watch horror movies, this troll is one of the things that disturbed me the most. My only solace was that we always had cats in the house.

The troll was played by 4'2" actor Daniel Rodgers in a creepy costume, and optical tricks and oversized props were used to make him look like he was a cat level size. Kudos to Rodgers, Teague, and the FX crew for bringing the troll to life in such a convincing fashion, and to King for dreaming this thing up, because they really got into my head.

General has been trying to reach Amanda through the whole movie to save her from this troll, but he has a rough time of it because Amanda's mom Sally Ann (Candy Clark) doesn't like the idea of having a stray cat in the house, especially after the troll frames him for the death of Amanda's pet bird. Sally Ann even takes General to the pound, where he's scheduled to be put to sleep. That aspect of the story always disturbed me nearly as much as the idea of the troll did.

But things work out in the end. This is a solid anthology that I will always have appreciation for because of the fear it put into me as a child. Some viewers would probably hate it for traumatizing them the way it traumatized me, but as a horror fan I have to give a smile and a nod to a movie that scares me the way this one did. That was the case even when I was a kid - I had a fear of the troll that carried over into my daily life, and yet that didn't stop me from taking in many viewings of Cat's Eye.

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