Written by: Michel Parry
Directed by: Denis Héroux
Starring: Peter Cushing, Samantha Eggar and Ray Milland
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
A trilogy of feline terror!
In horror movies, cats are generally used as false scares, a technique that was pioneered by Val Lewton’s Cat People (though, ironically enough, the fake scare didn’t involve a cat). You know these scenes: they typically involve someone (usually girl, though clothing is optional) stalking around some darkened house where a maniac (or something else) is also lurking about somewhere. So they round a corner or approach a window, then something leaps out (often to high strung orchestral accompaniment), and everyone gasps before realizing it’s just a cat. Then we’re all at ease because felines are cute and furry and couldn’t possibly harm us. Well, 1977’s The Uncanny says otherwise and instead insists that we should be deathly afraid of cats because they’re actually evil beings who actually rule the world.
Yes, this is what Wilbur Gray (Peter Cushing) actually believes, and he’s so sure of it that he’s written an entire book on the subject. Because the fate of the free world hinges on his evidence, he needs a publisher, so he visits Frank Richards (Ray Milland) in Montreal and lets him sample three excerpts that prove that cats are indeed sinister creatures who often plot the deaths of their masters. We watch as cats thwart plots to steal inheritances, connive with little girls to exact revenge on a tormenter, and, finally terrorize an old Hollywood movie production.
If these cats really are on the verge of conquering the world, they sure are working on a small scale, as all of these tales are quaint, intimate numbers that’d be well-suited for a campfire. As an anthology, it’s a little one note since the punch lines for each story are essentially the same, and we know they’re the same pretty much from the outset, leaving little room for any inventive twists or turns. “The cats did it” is the obvious refrain here, though they’re tucked away into some tidy little stories. This is especially true of the first and third segments of the film, neither of which offer much in the way of inventiveness. The opening story is standard revenge stuff, as an old cat lady on the verge of death wills everything to her feline companion, literally leaving her only nephew with enough money to pay for a nice meal. Such indignation doesn’t sit well with the nephew’s mistress, who also doubles as the old lady’s maid, so she attempts to destroy the will. But the cats will have none of it, so she’s terrorized by the little bastards for a prolonged, draggy sequence that’s full of jumps and even features a mangled corpse or two.
The final sequence is similarly straight-forward, tough a little more star-studded, as Donald Pleasence shows up as a hammy actor whose production is being sabotaged by some killer props gone awry. Apparently, the film in question is a knock-off of one of those old Universal Poe adaptations since there are numerous torture devices, including the giant bladed pendulum that kills Pleasence’s wife during filming; it’s no accident, though, as he’s staged this in an attempt to get his girlfriend (Samantha Eggar) the prize role formerly inhabited by his wife, whose cats are dismayed at this turn of events. This final tale is a little bit more lively than the first and is injected with some morbid humor and an unhinged performance from Pleasence, whose Kinski-style hysterics are delightful. If you’re used to him portraying dignified good guys, his turn as a conniving sleazeball is a bit revelatory.
However, the real gem of The Uncanny is the middle chapter, which also happens to be the only one that deviates from the “cats chew up assholes” formula. Don’t worry, there are still assholes, and they come in the form of a family of three who take in their recently orphaned niece, Lucy (Katrina Holden Bronson). Her cousin Angela (Chole Franks) is especially bitchy and actually teases her about her parents dying in a plane crash, going so far as to actually assaulting her with a model plane. Oh, but Lucy also has a cat named Wellington who is not amused, especially when Angela wants to claim him as her own. Her parents actually hate the cat, and only let Lucy keep her out of sympathy (which prompts Angela to conclude that she, too, could have a cat if they also died in a plane crash). This is all astonishingly trashy and outrageous, with a little hint of a Euro vibe (probably because Lucy seems to be voiced by the same actor who supplied Bob’s voice in House by the Cemetery). Best of all, it has an awesomely inventive payoff and ends on a twisted howler of a line.
One might argue that this middle segment might deserve a better movie, and maybe that’s correct. The Uncanny is certainly predictable and rote more often than it’s not, even right down to the frame story’s ending (Milland is surrounded by cats, so you can guess how that goes). Still, Cushing is giving his all to the absurd role of a man who is unusually spooked by cats and truly believes them to be an insidious cabal that runs the show (given the rise of Lolcats, he might have been onto something). Though this certainly looks like it could be an Amicus title, it was actually produced by another British studio, The Rank Organization, alongside Cinévidéo, a Canadian house. Despite this jumbled DNA, it actually feels much more like a Canadian film due to its pallid, washed-out production values, so it’s kind of like Amicus on a CFDC budget. The result of this union isn’t quite something that could be described as uncanny, and this film still toils in obscurity, leaving Cat’s Eye to be the definitive feline anthology. Still, this isn’t a bad take and could use a DVD release to spruce it up a bit. If that day should ever come, Rent it!
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