Stephen King’s second produced screenplay is, much like his first (which would be Creepshow), an anthology film whose stories are all linked by the plot device of a stray tabby cat. The first story, Quitters, Inc., tells the story of Dick Morrison, a smoker who’s referred to a clinic with some unconventional–and dangerous, and horrific–methods to help their clients kick the habit. In The Ledge, washed-up tennis pro Johnny Norris accepts a strange bet: if he can walk around an entire high-rise apartment on a narrow, five-inch ledge from the top of the building, he can walk away with a large sum of money, a gangster’s wife…and the gangster won’t frame him for cocaine possession. And in General, the titular cat must save a young girl named Amanda from the diminutive troll who menaces her–but can he save himself from Amanda’s suspicious mother?
Like any anthology film, the end result is a bit of a mixed bag. The Ledge is the strongest of the three: it’s the leanest and tensest, with an excellent (and somewhat unexpected) performance by Robert Hays (Ted Stryker of Airplane! fame) as Norris and character actor Kenneth McMillan (who’d been in everything from The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three to Dune, but since we’re talking Stephen King here, let’s mention he played Constable Gillespie in Tobe Hooper’s miniseries adaptation of Salem’s Lot) as the segment’s antagonist, Cressner. (All you have to do is forget that the story’s second-string villain is named Ducky.)
General is also pretty good: Drew Barrymore’s (who plays Amanda) natural charm makes up for her lack of acting skill and some overly-precocious dialogue, and the troll effects still hold up pretty well today (although there are a few obvious compositing lines–not a big deal, even the original release of The Empire Strikes Back had those–and it’s pretty obvious how it was actually done). Quitters, Inc., while not bad, is definitely the weakest. James Woods (as Morrison) gives pretty much the same performance he always gave in the mid-’80s, which isn’t bad but it’s clear he could have done better. And Alan King, best known as a comedian and comic actor, overacts a bit too much as the segment’s antagonist, Dr. Donatti. (Although, it should be noted, the character seems to be written to be a bit more over-the-top than he should have been.)
As I’ve mentioned at least once or twice in the past, the biggest problems with films made from Stephen King’s screenplays is Stephen King himself. He’s capable of writing excellent dark and scary stories when he’s working in prose (the stories that inspired Quitters, Inc. and The Ledge, both in his early collection Night Shift, are testaments to his skill as a horrorist), but when writing for the screen, he seems determined to downplay the darker elements in favor of broad comedy and whatever’s fashionable in horror cinema at the time. And the constant self-references (in the first three minutes of the film, the cat is chased by a rabid St. Bernard and nearly run down by a 1958 Plymouth Fury; later on, James Woods says “I don’t know who writes this crap” in reference to a clip from Cronenberg’s adaptation of The Dead Zone and Amanda’s mother reads Pet Sematary–you know, the one about the zombie cat). Lewis Teague’s direction is competent and efficient, but not particularly inspiring, although the (obviously Evil Dead-influenced) troll’s-eye-view shots in General are amusing.
And the soundalike remakes of popular songs (including “Every Breath You Take”) are just awful.
Criticism aside, Cat’s Eye is a solid if not exceptional King film of its vintage–it doesn’t stand at the top of the heap, but it seems to be somewhat forgotten nowadays and it really doesn’t deserve to be. It isn’t as scary as it could (and probably should) have been, but it’s still a lot of fun.
My rating: 7 of 10.
94 minutes. Directed by Lewis Teague. Starring Drew Barrymore, James Woods, Alan King, Kenneth McMillan, Robert Hays, Candy Clark, James Naughton.
Thanks to Victoria.