In the lacklustre Milton Subotsky production The Uncanny, Peter Cushing plays a man desperate to expose a sinister cat conspiracy against the human race: ‘They prowl by night… lusting for human flesh!’ Seemingly laughable… but an idea that possibly strikes home more than a similar theory about, say, dogs? For cats have always had a singularly spooky quality to them that has seen them both revered and reviled throughout history.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped cats as gods: to kill one was punishable by death and if yours was killed then the owner would shave their eyebrows in honour! On the other hand, in the middle ages, cats were often seen as demons or devils. Thought to be the familiars of witches (by virtue of often being the only companion of the poor old wretches who would be accused of witchcraft), many unfortunate moggies were hung, burned and stoned to death.
Undeniably, cats are odd creatures, at least by domestic standards. Independent and aloof, they often seem to stare at their owners’ inscrutably, almost contemptuously, before disappearing into the night. Their amazing athletic abilities and disturbing nocturnal cries only add to their aura of mystery. And there remains something strangely sexual about the image of the cat. Many films have used the word “cat” to conjure up images of the exotic and the mysterious, whether it be the sexy and seductive Catwoman, arch nemesis of Batman, or the outer space cuties of Cat-Women of the Moon. It’s no surprise then that horror filmmakers have found them to be a rich source of inspiration.
The earliest “cat” chillers didn’t, in fact, feature a cat at all. 1919 saw the German film Unheimliche Geschicten, an omnibus collection directed by Richard Oswald that included a story based on several Edgar Allan Poe tales, including The Black Cat. The first of many films to use either the title or the plot (rarely, oddly enough, both together) of Poe’s tale, it was remade by Oswald as a comedy using the same title (renamed The Living Dead for English speaking audiences) in 1932.
The Cat and the Canary – first filmed in 1927, and remade in 1939 and 1978 – was an archetypal “Old Dark House” film, where an escaped lunatic (known as The Cat) may or may not be responsible for a series of murders.
In Paul Leni’s 1927 movie, giant superimposed malevolent moggies (representing greedy relatives) are briefly shown terrorising a rich old uncle.
1934’s legendary sideshow shocker Maniac first brought genuine feline fright frolic to the screen. Again “inspired by” The Black Cat, this ‘ghastly-beyond-belief’ cheapie from Dwain Esper threw in every shock image it could think of, including a scene where a cat’s eye is seemingly gouged out.
The same year saw a rather more intellectual adaptation of Poe’s story. Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat saw the first teaming of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in a whacked-out, Bauhaus-infused, expressionist nightmare that, brilliant as it was, had no connection with the original story (at one point, a black cat runs across a room and is killed by Lugosi, presumably as a token gesture justification of the title).
Poe was even less present in the next version of the story, made in 1941 by Albert S. Rogell. A passable attempt to cash-in on the success of Bob Hope’s comedy chillers (started, ironically, in 1939 with The Cat and the Canary), it also featured Lugosi, alongside Basil Rathbone and Gale Sondergaard. The Case of the Black Cat, made in 1936 had even less connection to the story, being a Perry Mason mystery.
For a while, it seemed that cats were only good for movie titles. Then, in 1942, Val Lewton’s Cat People appeared. Here at last was a movie that fully exploited the sensual and supernatural aspects of felines. Making use of chilling atmospherics and suggestion, Cat People is ambiguous in its approach: we never see the heroine/monster transformation, and the film never explains if she really could become a cat, or if in fact it was all a mental delusion. The film was popular enough to spawn a sequel, Curse of the Cat People (1944), which despite its lurid title was a gentle fantasy with little connection to the original film.
Most cat-themed horror films were rather less subtle than Lewton’s poetic tales, though. The Catman of Paris (1946) was a Lewton-inspired twist on the popular werewolf theme, and is more murder mystery than supernatural horror film, while Erle C. Kenton – who had brought us the humanimal Panther Girl in his 1932 version of The Island of Dr Moreau, Island of Lost Souls, made The Cat Creeps in 1946 (unrelated to the 1930 film of the same name, which was another Cat and the Canary remake), from the same year had a cat possessed by a dead girl… a theme that would crop up in more than one future pussycat production. Indeed, the strongest theme of cat movies is the idea of the feline avenger, persecuting and punishing those responsible for its owner’s death.
A variation on this possession theme – mixed in with a claw-back of Cat People – cropped up in the entertaining British shocker Cat Girl (1957), in which Barbara Shelley, resplendent in a black shiny mac, was cursed with a psychic link to a leopard, causing her to have sporadic attacks of possession when aroused!
Barbara Shelley obviously enjoyed feline thrills, and returned in 1961’s The Shadow of the Cat, an effective John Gilling chiller in which the cat of a wealthy murder victim causes no end of trouble for the killers. Gilling keeps things relatively ambiguous: it’s never clear if the cat is actually taking vengeance, or if its presence simply adds to the guilt of the murderers and drives them to madness and death.
1966 saw another version of The Black Cat, once again showing only few connections to the Poe story. Rather, this was a gore shocker, featuring axes in heads and violence, ala H.G. Lewis, albeit in black and white.
Roger Corman also tackled the story in his Poe anthology Tales of Terror (1962), playing the story as black comedy, with Peter Lorre as the cat’s persecutor/victim. Cats also featured in another Poe-inspired Corman project, The Tomb of Legeia (1964), in which Vincent Price’s dead wife returns as a cat.
1969’s Eye of the Cat was a textbook “vengeful cat” movie, directed by David Lowell Rich and scripted by Psycho writer Joseph Stefano. Michael Sarrazin and Gayle Hunnicutt play a scheming couple who do away with a wealthy aunt, only to fall victim to her hordes of cats. The implausible plot is given a slight twist by making Sarrazin a cat phobic.
Cats have played a role in Japanese horror cinema, most notably in 1968’s classic Kuroneko, in which the ghosts of two women brutally murdered return to take vengeance, assuming the form of a cat at times.
Also from Japan, bizarre Hausu (1977) features supernatural cats amongst its series of strange events and genuinely surreal visuals.
Cats made their way into the Italian giallo thrillers in the 1970s. While Dario Argento’s The Cat O’Nine Tails and Antonio Bido’s The Cat’s Victims might not have actually featured feline killers, 1972’s The Crimes of the Black Cat had the novel idea of featuring a cat as a murder weapon: a mad old woman has poisoned the claws of her pet with curare and induced it to cause mayhem and mischief when irritated by dousing yellow scarves – sent as gifts – with an irritant!
Human beings became unwilling cat food in Ted V. Mikels’ The Corpse Grinders (1971), in which unscrupulous pet food manufacturers add corpses to their cat food mix! Before long, cats are attacking people on the street and in their homes… Although the original has some macabre merit, Mikels went on to make a forgettable and entirely unnecessary belated shot-on-video sequel in 2000.
Cats with a taste for human flesh cropped up in Rene Cardona’s Mexican schlocker Night of a Thousand Cats (1972), where a mad killer women feeds his victims to his half-starved pets; inevitably, the tables are turned in the grisly end.
The Cat Creature (1973) was a slightly above-average TV film, directed by Curtis Harrington (Night Tide; The Killing Kind; Ruby) and written by Robert Bloch (Psycho screenplay). Despite the stifling restrictions of American TV at the time, the film is a fairly solid story of the reincarnation of an Egyptian cat goddess.
Sergio Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, aka Excite Me (1972), was another retread of The Black Cat, staying slightly closer to the original tale than most others, and starring Edwige Fenech as the eye-gouging, walling up villainess.
Another Italian production, directed by horror veteran Antonio Margheriti, was Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eyes, a bizarre late entry in the gothic-style tales of the 1960s involving a Scottish castle, a family curse and a gorilla! As the title suggests, whenever a murder is in the offing, the omnipresent cat is in attendance. The film’s eccentricities make up for its defects (chiefly its languid pace, a trait from the Sixties) and there are some memorably absurd images.
In Britain, Ralph Bates fell off the deep end through a combination of sinister feline activity and a domineering mother (Lana Turner) in Persecution aka The Terror of Sheba (1973). It was the first production from Hammer wannabes Tyburn, and the only one that was actually worth watching.
Más negro que la noche (“Blacker than the Night”) is a 1975 Mexican gothic horror about four women that move to a creepy house, inherited by one of them from an old aunt; as a condition, they must take care of the aunt’s pet, a black cat.
Once the pet is mysteriously found dead, a series of bizarre murders begins…
The Uncanny (originally titled Brrr during shooting!) was produced by Milton Subotsky in 1977, shortly after the demise of Amicus and using the same tax shelter deals that made many Canadian productions possible. It was another compendium film, obviously designed to follow in the footsteps of previous Subotsky winners like Tales from the Crypt. Unfortunately, thanks to the dull direction of Denis Heroux, and a change in public tastes, the film was a total disaster. Each story dealt with spooky cats taking revenge on generally bad eggs, something that didn’t quite gel with the linking theme of cats wanting to take over the world. Subotsky had also featured an evil cat in his earlier Amicus anthology Torture Garden in 1967.
Good Against Evil (1977) is an American ABC TV pilot written by Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster about a writer who teams up with an exorcist to battle Satan and a group of devil worshippers. A risible effort from Paul Wendkos – director of the superior 1971 film The Mephisto Waltz – the highlight is a cat attack midway through.
A white cat, whose human form is Nurse Adams, was up to mischief in the low budget British film The Legacy (1978), which tried to emulate The Omen with a series of bizarre deaths (including The Who’s Roger Daltrey choking to death on a chicken bone!), but failed to ignite the box office – although the paperback tie-in was a surprise best seller.
An unlikely space traveller was Jones the cat in Alien (and briefly also in Aliens) but he was a feline friend not intergalactic foe.
In William Fruet’s Canadian horror movie Funeral Home (1980) the young female protagonist, played by Kay Hawtrey, is briefly menaced by a black cat that won’t stop following her…
Lucio Fulci, on a cinematic roll with gore-drenched surreal horrors such as The Beyond and House By the Cemetery, made his version of The Black Cat in 1981. Shot in England, this take on Poe’s tale stars Patrick Magee and David Warbeck, and, although generally considered to be a minor addition to the director’s canon, is actually one of his best films, with the emphasis on supernatural atmosphere rather than gore for once.
The film also managed to incorporate a few elements of the original Poe tale into its plot, including the walling up of cat and victim (interestingly, Fulci had also used a similar idea in his 1975 thriller Murder to the Tune of the Seven Black Notes). In Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980) Janet Agren’s character is attacked by ferocious feline and they would return (hilariously as obvious puppets) to haunt the Italian director for his self-referential Nightmare City (Cat in the Brain).
Director Paul Schrader updated Cat People with a glossy 1982 remake, but despite lashings of blood and eroticism, and the screen presence of Natjassia Kinski and Malcolm McDowall, the film doesn’t work as well as it should, coming across as little more than an expensive retread of the popular werewolf shapeshifter films of the previous year.
Far better, and considerable more honest in their treatment of the erotic aspects of cat mythology, were The Cat Woman (1988) and Curse of the Cat Woman (1991), two adult movies from actor turned director John Leslie. While Cat Woman is merely above average, Curse… is quite startling, with unsettling but potent erotic scenes as it delves deeply into the world of the cat people.
Somewhat less classy than Leslie’s film was Luigi Cozzi’s incredibly clumsy version of The Black Cat (1990), which attempts to bring Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy to a close. Filmed as a tribute to Argento (the plot concerns a film-makers attempts to make a sequel to Suspiria!), the film has nothing of Poe, and little of Dario Argento either. Argento himself, oddly, was also filming The Black Cat around the same time, as his contribution to the Poe film Two Evil Eyes. It was far from vintage Argento, despite a suitably deranged performance from Harvey Keitel, but it did follow the original story fairly closely, and benefited from being paired with George A. Romero’s truly awful The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.
Romero also produced Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, a feature film based on the lacklustre TV series. Nevertheless, this three story anthology was better than it should have been due to a great cast (Deborah Harry, Steve Buscemi, Christian Slater, Julianne Moore, New York Dolls frontman David Johansen) and some superior tales, including one about ‘The Cat from Hell’, a vengeful moggy that leaves a trail of victims in its wake.
Evil Cat arrived from Hong Kong in 1986, the tale of a cat demon that possesses human bodies and has to be killed every fifty years by a member of the same family. Cheerfully trashy, it’s a fun horror romp. More deranged is 1992’s The Cat, directed by Ngai Kai lam, which features a cat from space and features – as far as I’m aware – the only dog-cat kung fu battle ever captured on film!
Greydon Clark’s amusing Uninvited (1987) features a mutant cat on the loose aboard a cruise ship, where it terrorises horny teenagers and gangsters, to no great effect. 1991 TV movie Strays tries to make a house full of killer cats seem scary, but fails miserably, and has human characters so dull that you are actually rooting for the cats by the end.
Stephen King has been attached to a handful of cat related horrors. As well as the underrated 1985 film Cat’s Eye – a trilogy of stories linked by a heroic cat, and directed with style and fidelity to the original stories by Lewis Teague (Alligator), there was the 1989 Pet Semetary, which sees a zombie cat brought back to life after being buried on cursed ground, and 1992 saw Sleepwalkers, a gory and sexy retread of the Cat People theme based on a somewhat incoherent King screenplay. Mick Garris’ film tells the story of demonic cat people (who fear real cats!) and is ludicrous enough to be throwaway fun.
At the climax of TV movie Amityville: The Evil Escapes (1989), a possessed lamp (!) is smashed on a rocky Californian beach, only for a freeze frame to suggest that the demonic influence from Long Beach may have now transferred into the family’s cat, Pepper! That said, this creepy cat theme was not continued in subsequent Amityville sequels…
More recently, in 2011, Korean film The Cat featured a feline that was the only witness to a murder, a ghostly child and possible demonic possession, as bad things start to happen to the woman who is looking after the titular cat.
The aforementioned 1975 Mexican movie Más Negro Que La Noche (“Blacker Than the Night”) has just been remade in 2014, in 3D, as a full-blown gothic Spanish production with a focus, like the original, on murders that occur once a cat has been killed.
Meanwhile, Alexandre Aja’s produced The Pyramid (2014) pits a group of archeologists against hairless cat-creatures based on the Ancient Egyptian Anubis mythology.
It seems certain that cats will continue to provide a steady flow of ideas for film-makers looking for sinister ciphers. Only Alien and Cat’s Eye has shown cats in a particularly positive light within the context of the horror film. Other than this, the best they could hope for was to be witches familiars in the likes of Bell, Book and Candle or I Married a Witch. This might seem like an outrageous slander against this innocent animal. But, even if the feline population were made aware of their sly image in the cinema, one imagines that they would simply stare at you for a while, yawn disinterestedly, and then walk away. Cats have better things to worry about…
David Flint, Horrorpedia