Welcome to SCARED IN SEGMENTS, a monthly column devoted to horror anthologies big and small. If you don’t know what an anthology is, it’s a film that includes a collection of short stories or segments (self-contained or connected). As for anthology television, series can be episodic or seasonal, but the former will take precedence here. Now, in each edition of this column, you’ll get background info as well as insight on the monthly pick. If you’re ready for some short-form horror, pull up a seat as I’ve got a story for you…
Every single day, we go to great lengths to hide something about ourselves from other people. Yet when it’s just us and our pets, our guards are down. Animals surely don’t care about our shame over natural bodily functions or whether or not we cheat on our spouses. Although it’s the fact that they know that could be a problem. Take for example, the common house cat. Your average, domesticated felid has seen us at our best as well as at our worst. And if they really have nine lives, you can bet they’ve witnessed some crazy stuff go down. Thank goodness kitties can’t talk, right?
One particular feline that fits the bill of knowing all our secrets is Stephen King’s General, the linking element in the 1985 anthology Cat’s Eye. This scrappy tabby finds himself traveling along the east coast in this trinity of terror. It’s not until the last piece, though, that he learns of his true destiny — rescuing a girl from a malevolent troll that feeds on children’s breath.
“[Cat’s Eye is] plucky, sundry, and downright amusing. One might even go so far as saying it’s the cat’s meow.”
After previously directing Cujo, Lewis Teague teamed up with producer Dino De Laurentiis (Evil Dead II) for another movie based on the works of King. This time around, they drew from the author’s Night Shift omnibus instead of sourcing a whole novel. King — who wrote the script for Cat’s Eye — adapted his shorts “Quitters, Inc.” and “The Ledge” while also providing an original story for the denouement.
Much of the movie takes place in big cities, but filming was primarily done in Wilmington, North Carolina. Shooting Firestarter there helped the local economy so De Laurentiis was given tax breaks and incentives to continue working in Wilmington. He even built a company there called De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.
Cat’s Eye was released by MGM/UA Entertainment Company in nearly 1,500 U.S. theaters on April 12, 1985. It made roughly $13 million total against a $7 million budget, which made the film a modest success. Reviews in general were positive, too. Roger Ebert stated the anthology was King’s “most effective film;” Vincent Canby of The New York Times claimed this was the “best screen adaptation of any King work since Brian De Palma’s Carrie.”
Lewis Teague hesitated when approached to do an anthology. He worried audiences simply didn’t want to become attached to one set of characters and their situation, and then have to repeat the process. There’s some truth to his concern, but the stories in Cat’s Eye aren’t so consuming that viewers can’t spread their focus elsewhere. Nonetheless, this handful of tales centered around fears is consistently pleasurable thanks to King’s imagination and the filmmakers’ know-how with practical effects.
The Framing Story
A stray cat later named General nearly meets his maker before he winds up in New York City via a delivery truck. He’s then picked up by an employee of the enigmatic Quitters, Inc.
Lewis Teague’s Cujo was a serious film through and through with no room for laughs. That of course isn’t the case with Cat’s Eye as things are whimsical right off the bat. In the very beginning, our whiskered champion is being chased by a familiar Saint Bernard — one of the actual nine dogs used in the making of Cujo, by the way — before they’re each almost run over by that infamous Plymouth Fury.
The prologue was longer before the studio intervened. Teague said that the introduction began with General living with another family in Wilmington, where the daughter — also played by Drew Barrymore — is found not breathing. Her irate mother suspects her family’s new pet was responsible, and she starts to blast the house apart with her husband’s gun in an attempt to kill the cat. The higher-ups’ reasoning for trimming the opener was that it was “over-the-top;” the director eventually saw where they were coming from and agreed. As a result, the opening sequence begins with General‘s run-in with Cujo and Christine immediately following the domestic shoot-up.
Unlike Creepshow or Tales from the Crypt, Cat’s Eye lacks a narrator to verbally introduce each story. Rather, we have only General acting in an incidental capacity before he’s upgraded to protagonist in the finale. We immediately become attached to him because he’s abused, homeless, and he’s just not having a very good life so far. General‘s journey to contentment is within reach, but he’s got a ways to go before that happens.
Story 1 — “Quitters, Inc.“
In his quest to give up smoking cigarettes, Dick Morrison (James Woods) seeks help from a controversial clinic called Quitter’s, Inc. He soon learns the hard way why their methods are so successful.
General doesn’t have a huge role here, but James Woods makes for a good seat-filler in the meantime. His nervous, spry energy in the face of danger compliments the occasional bout of surrealism. Alan King’s point-blank performance alongside Woods is positively underrated. The suspense felt throughout “Quitter’s, Inc.” is often undercut by the segment’s overall absurdity. That’s not to say there isn’t tension. One can’t forget the looming threat hovering over Dick if he doesn’t abide by the clinic’s austere rules.
Other than using a pressure blower to get General to jump off the “electrified” floor, there isn’t a significant reliance on special effects. At least in comparison to the next two installments. Instead, “Quitters, Inc.” is a succinct thriller garnished with perfect amounts of dread and dark humor.
Story 2 — “The Ledge“
After escaping Quitter’s, Inc., General ends up in Atlantic City. There, he’s scooped up by Cressner (Kenneth McMillan), a casino owner whose wife is cheating on him with former tennis pro Johnny Norris (Robert Hays). The vindictive, wealthy man with a penchant for gambling then forces Norris to walk around the ledge of his penthouse’s high-rise building. If he succeeds, Norris wins a large sum of money and Cressner‘s wife. If he fails, he’ll plummet to his death.
The aim for a low-cost production had a silver lining for Lewis Teague when it came to “The Ledge“. Very little of this short was filmed in Atlantic City; it was mainly shot in De Laurentiis’ studio using sets and miniatures. For externals, Wilmington stood in for the streets of America’s Favorite Playground. The need for practical effects over optical meant there was no degradation in quality. For instance, there was no need to match the lighting between the actors and the miniatures like you would with mattes in post. It was a very “first-generation” type of shoot that gives the segment a more seamless mien.
Even if Robert Hays was never in harm’s way as he performed that nerve-tingling walk around the skyscraper, the audience can’t help but watch with bated breath. Every turn and spill his character makes leaves unaware viewers on edge. People’s fear of heights isn’t explored with frequency in cinema. So Teague does a magnificent job translating that antipathy to film without forgetting to entertain.
Story 3 — “General“
General returns to Wilmington, North Carolina where he’s taken in by a family with a young daughter (Drew Barrymore). As night falls, the cat battles to save the girl from a troll hiding in her bedroom wall.
The final entry in Cat’s Eye is a fan-favorite for people because of the visuals and set pieces. Rather than using animatronics for the villain, Lewis Teague found a stunt actor of the smallest stature possible to play the troll. He then juxtaposed him with oversized furniture and fixtures to give the appearance of diminutiveness.
Teague admits that the troll’s demise was an improvisation; they didn’t have the money for any of their other ideas. Since they had already built so many giant props, the director repurposed the fan and record player as weapons of minuscule destruction.
“General” plays like a modern fairy tale — there’s a damsel, a hero, and a monster — filtered through the eyes of Stephen King. It won’t frighten any adult, but it’s an exciting finisher that stands as a testament to people’s appreciation for tangible, hands-on effects.
Most anthologies follow a very specific formula, or they incorporate tropes intrinsic to the sub-genre. What boxes does Cat’s Eye check off?
Host / Narrator … ☒
General travels through each story, but he doesn’t narrate.
Framing device … ☑
Basically. We return to Wilmington, North Carolina at the very end.
Multiple directors … ☒
Lewis Teague is the only director.
Crossover / Hyperlink quality … ☑
General is a common element among the stories.
Based on an existing work … ☑
“Quitters, Inc” and “The Ledge” are based on Stephen King shorts found in the author’s Night Shift collection.
Was Richard Matheson somehow involved? … ☒
Stephen King’s trademark ingenuity isn’t hampered by the anthology format. He’s proven with Creepshow that he can do a lot of damage in thirty minutes or less. And Lewis Teague’s direction on top of that leaves little room for disappointment. Some might regard this movie as somewhat negligible in the whole of Stephen King adaptations, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, Cat’s Eye deserves more than an honorable mention when citing either King films or anthologies from that time period. It’s plucky, sundry, and downright amusing. One might even go so far as saying it’s the cat’s meow.