The King of Wilmington - Cat's Eye (1985) Lands on Its Feet
Today is the last day of the month, and that also means it’s the last entry in The King of Wilmington. I must admit when Greg, the reader who requested this feature, asked me to do it I was hesitant. While I’ve read some King on and off through the years, I had mostly stayed away from the movies as they had a reputation for being uneven at best. So imagine my surprise when after a month of King movies, I not only found myself wishing I had time to see more, but also picking up a novel or two to read as well. While the films I’ve viewed this month had various degrees of success achieving their cinematic goals, they all had a common thread, Stephen King’s storytelling. There’s no better example of this than today’s film, Cat’s Eye. While it was not the first of King’s stories to be shot in Wilmington (that distinction goes to Firestarter), it was the first produced by Dino De Laurentiis at the studio he had just built there after the success of the first Stephen King/ Drew Barrymore pairing.
That pairing also directly lead De Laurentiis to commission this film in the first place. In the commentary to Cat’s Eye, director Lewis Teague (who had previously adapted King’s work to the screen with Cujo) recounted how the producer asked King to write a film specifically as a vehicle for Barrymore. What King came up with combined an adaptation of two stories from his collection Night Shift along with one original story written specifically for the screen. Unlike most other anthology films, the stories would not be bridged by a “crypt keeper” type narrator, but rather by subtle appearances by Barrymore and the cat that was searching for her. Originally, the film began with a prologue that laid out the cat’s mission to begin that story arc, but in the final edit De Laurentiis and Teague determined that sequence to be too over-the-top and it was cut. Instead the movie begins with a couple of references to King’s other films with the cat evading a Cujo-like St. Bernard and almost getting run over by “Christine”. This sequence not only invites the viewer into King’s world, but it also sets the tone for the movie’s macabre humor.
The cat is soon caught by a man who takes it into a high rise building just as Dick Morrison (James Woods) is being dropped off by his friend at the door to Quitters, Inc. Morrison desperately wants to quit smoking, and his friend assures him that the company will do the job. What his friend didn’t tell him is that the company is lead by Dr. Vinny Donattii (Alan King), a mobster who takes the task of making smokers quit very seriously. Morrison soon finds himself in the program against his will, and Donattii makes the consequences of backsliding quite clear. First offence, they shock Morrison’s wife with an electrified floor while he watches. Second offence, it will be his daughter. Third offence means that his wife will be raped, and the fourth offence, well, it’s hard to keep smoking if you’re dead.
Quitters, Inc. has long been one of my favorite King short stories (Night Shift was the first King book I ever recall reading.), and as an ex-smoker, I am so glad that I just went cold turkey and didn’t get involved in a four step program where one of the steps is rape. The interplay in this story between Woods, always a favorite of mine, and comedian Alan King was priceless, and even the minor performances such as Tony Munafo (at the time one of Sly Stallone’s bodyguards) as Donattii’s henchman make Quitters Inc a solid opening. This section also features a couple of wonderful pop music cues, something I always find missing from King adaptations as pop and rock songs are so often referenced in his writing. The first of which, “Every Breath you Take”, fits in perfectly with the story’s anti-smoking theme. The song will strike most viewers as sounding a little strange. Unable to pay for the actual song by The Police, De Laurentiis paid for the publishing rights and hired a sound alike group to re-record the single. The second cue comes after Wood’s character slips for the first time. While his wife hops around on an electrified floor, the entirely incongruous song “99 Tears” by Question Mark and the Mysterions plays. This piece of 60’s pop both lightens the mood of what could be a very tense scene and at the same time gives it a sinister edge.
The next story, “The Ledge” is also culled from Night Shift, but before it begins, the cat, on the loose once again, sees Barrymore speak to it through a TV commercial for Gobbler’s cat food. From there the cat falls into the possession of Cressner (Kenneth McMillan), an Atlantic City millionaire and degenerate gambler. It seems that his wife is trying to run off with washed up tennis pro Johnny Norris (Robert Hays), and after Cressner has his goons shanghai Norris, he makes a bet with him. If Johnny can make his way around the 5 inch ledge of Cressner’s penthouse apartment, he gets money, his life, and Cressner’s wife. The alternative is falling to his death. Even though Norris worries that the millionaire will welsh on his bet, he has no choice but to accept the wager.
“The Ledge” is the shortest of the three tales in Cat’s Eye, and in my eyes, the weakest of the three. Teague did a good job of giving Norris’ predicament the proper suspense and tension creating a real sense of height within his Wilmington, N.C. studio, but the problem is that very little happens in the sequence. It seems far too predictable that Norris will make it around the ledge, and despite playing off of the fear of heights, this feeling of security for the character kind of defeats any tension that is built. The redeeming factor here is Robert Hays, who I always will associate with Airplane!, no matter where else he’s appeared. Hayes and character actor McMillan give solid performances, but the story just doesn’t add up too much. There also was another inspired performance by a goon, this time by Sal Richards as Cressner’s right hand man Westlake, sporting a very small Donald Duck shirt.
The last story of the film “The General” was the portion which King penned specifically for Barrymore. The cat, having made its way from New York and Atlantic City, finally meets up with Barrymore’s character Amanda. She wants to take in the stray cat to protect her from nightmares she’s been having, but her mother (American Graffiti’s Candy Clark) forbids her to do so. Amanda’s father, Hugh (James Naughton), is more sympathetic and believes there might be something to the story of a troll who lives in his daughter’s wall. The only one who really believes her is the cat who Amanda names The General. However when the troll in the wall frames The General in the killing of the family’s bird Polly, Amanda’s mom packs the cat off to the animal shelter, leaving her daughter at the mercy of the child killing troll.
Cat’s Eye was Drew Barrymore’s seventh movie role, and for a ten year old actress, that is staying pretty busy. Barrymore still maintains a modicum of the cuteness she showed off in E.T. as Gertie, but her performance hints at the depths the actress would be able to plumb later in her career. (Apart from appearing in this last segment and as vision to the cat, Barrymore also appeared as James Wood’s daughter in "Quitters Inc." and as the first girl who gets menaced by the troll in the aborted prologue sequence.) De Laurentiis conceived of this project because he had a feeling that Barrymore would be a star, and I can’t say that I can fault his vision at all. While she is clearly still a child, there is a a poise to her performance that most kid actors don’t seem to grasp. Candy Clark and James Naughton turn in solid performances, but they are really merely background players in the story of Barrymore and The General.
This last sequence also features the most effects shots of the film. As Teague was working on a limited budget, everything that could be done as an in camera effect was. Under the guidance of special effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi (Deep Red, Dune), the combination of animatronics, makeup effects, and oversized set decorations gives the story both a sense of wonder and a firm enough foot in reality so as not to turn the story into a cartoon. I also want to take a moment to mention the cinematography in the entire film. Teague chose to work with legendary lensman Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes, Rambo: First Blood Part 2), and one of the most important things in an anthology film is to give each story some originality but still maintain a narrative and visual thread. Thanks to King’s clever script, Teague’s careful direction, and Cardiff’s skill behind the camera, that is exactly what Cat’s Eye delivers.
Before I start wrapping this up, I need to take a moment for this features other namesake, Wilmington, N.C. The story both begins and ends there, but in actuality it never leaves. Wilmington was made to double for New York in “Quitters Inc.” (which was primarily successful save for the bridge scene which looks like the Southern low country that it is) and for Atlantic City in “The Ledge” (though there are a few location shots involved here). Primarily most of the film was shot on Dino’s newly built Wilmington soundstages. Oddly, “The General”, the only story set in Wilmington, features the least outdoor locales and hence the least amount of Wilmington and the surrounding area. After watching five weeks of King films set in Wilmington, I’m starting to think that I need to make a trip there and see if I can spot any of the locations used in these films.
That brings us around to the conclusion of The King of Wilmington, and I once more would like to thank my reader, Greg, for throwing this suggestion out there. I hope he and the rest of you fine folks have enjoyed the past few weeks as much as I have, and I feel certain that this won’t be the last time we see Mr. King around the Lair. However, this coming month I have lots of great things lined up. For those of you that don’t know February is Women in Horror month, and I will be featuring a number of films that focus or feature some of my favorite horror actresses, and near the end of the month I have something really special planned. So I hope you come back and join me for all the fun in February. Until then I want to leave you with one of my favorite Stephen King quotes about horror, “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”