From Book to Screen: Cat’s Eye
Welcome back to another thrilling entry in the Stephen King Book to Screen series! Our last entry began a rise in quality for these movies. We continue that rise in quality with a film that serves as an adaptation of two different short stories: Cat’s Eye. Only one story has to be skipped this time, Strawberry Spring. That one has been made into short films, like many of the other entries in Night Shift, but has never gotten a feature despite a solid twist ending and a creepy atmosphere. For now, though, prepare to see the world through feline vision!
Cat’s Eye is an anthology horror film consisting of three loosely-linked segments, each telling its own story. Two of the stories come from King’s short story collection Night Shift, while the third – and the framing device of the cat – is original.
Unlike most of the stories contained within Night Shift, “Quitters, Inc.” was never published prior to appearing in the collection. It’s one of the better stories in the set, though, even if it’s a little too obvious. It follows a man who is trying to quit smoking and is recommended to the titular organization by a friend. He seeks out their help, but soon becomes disgusted by their extreme methods of ensuring that their clients succeed. Quitters, Inc.’s methodology serves as the crux of the story, so it won’t be revealed here.
Nevertheless, it’s an interesting consideration of the lengths people are willing to go, or not go, in order to stop their bad habits. Does King suggest that it takes such extremes in order for us to really break our bad habits, or does he use the shock of it to make us realize we all have the strength within to change on our own? Either way, the story has a nice startling ending and is the kind of pulpy fun that all horror writers ought to put out at some point.
The Ledge was originally published in a July 1976 issue of Penthouse. The premise is fairly simple: a man is caught cheating with a much richer man’s wife. The wealthy man gives his wife’s lover a very simple choice: participate in a certain challenge or die. The man obviously choses to participate in the challenge. He must navigate across the entirety of a narrow ledge that rings the wealthy man’s condo. The ledge is at the top of an enormous skyscraper with buffeting winds, mean pigeons, and the ever-present danger of falling to an unpleasant death. The man will earn his freedom and the ability to run off with richer man’s wife should he succeed.
It’s easy to see why producer Dino De Laurentiis felt like including this story in Cat’s Eye. Like “Quitters, Inc.,” it is very much rooted in a heightened version of reality. The tension as the man traverses the narrow ledge is immediate, and as with “Quitter’s Inc.,” the stakes are high for the protagonist. Unlike “Quitters, Inc.,” this story contains no obvious metaphors, or any kind of message at all, really. The characters aren’t developed or nuanced. The story is a simple thriller both for better and worse. It won’t leave you thinking, but it may not feel as obvious as “Quitters, Inc.”; it provides a nice little thrill and not much more.
Cat’s Eye debuted on April 12, 1985 to a solid box office and a decent critical response. The film came courtesy of De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, like many other King adaptations of the era. De Laurentiis enlisted King himself to write the screenplay, and the author weaved in two of his existing stories with a new one to create an anthology film. As mentioned in our previous article, Sometimes They Come Back nearly became a segment in Cat’s Eye until De Laurentiis decided it would be better as a separate movie. Cat’s Eye was the second King-penned horror anthology film, as his and director George Romero’s Creepshow had hit theaters three years previously.
Cat’s Eye opens with a short segment chock full of King references. Our guide through the film, a small tabby cat named General, is running away from a giant St. Bernard that resembles Cujo, the famous dog villain from another King book and film. Appropriately enough, director Lewis Teague was the director of Cujo. (Teague’s career began under the tutorship of Roger Corman, which certainly bolsters his horror credentials.) The reference-filled opening continues in knowing fashion as the cat is nearly run over by the Plymouth Fury “Christine.” The cat then hears a psychic plea from a young girl (Drew Barrymore) and rushes to aid her before being captured by Quitters Inc.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, the cat is the string that pulls the various parts of the anthology together. It features in some capacity in each segment. In Quitters Inc, it is used to demonstrate the punishment for failure to stop smoking. The protagonist of this segment is played by none other than James Woods, a great choice for the part. Woods captures the character’s cocksure arrogance and incredulity towards the threats of extreme punishment. He then seamlessly moves into fear and despair when he realizes how real the threat is. There’s a great scene where he is watching The Dead Zone and asks offhandedly who writes this crap (the answer, of course, is Stephen King.)
His foe (i.e., the man trying to help him quit smoking) is played by a gloriously hammy, grinning Alan King. King leers with delight throughout the entirety of the segment, making a wonderful antagonist for Woods. The segment captures the dark wit of King’s writing, an important part of the formula for successful King adaptations. In terms of quality and transferring the contents of the short story to film, Quitters, Inc. is the strongest of Cat’s Eye‘s three segments.
Our cat hero eventually escapes from Quitters, Inc. and takes us into our next segment, “The Ledge.” This one is a little weaker than Quitters, Inc., though not as weak as the final segment. The cat enters the proceedings via a short scene that wasn’t present in the text of “The Ledge,” though it is relevant to the theme of gambling: Cressner is a crime boss and casino owner who makes a wager about whether the cat will make it across a busy highway alive. Cressner wins and takes the cat home to his apartment where the setting of the short story takes place.
Cressner is portrayed by Kenneth McMillan, who is often casted to play characters of this type. Our hero is played by Robert Hays, who’s best known for his role as the pilot in Airplane!. While the acting is decent enough, this segment suffers a bit in the transition to screen. Teague doesn’t seem to capture the horror of the ledge task; it lacks tension and feels cheap and fake. Still, the strength of the writing and Hays’ acting keep it watchable.
The cat helps the hero by accidentally tripping one of Cressner’s cronies. It then winds up in the third segment of the story, which features Drew Barrymore in her child actor days. I won’t say much about this segment, since it isn’t based on any King story (though it is written by King), but it’s pretty silly. The cat is befriended by Barrymore and helps her defeat a small troll-like monster attempting to steal her soul… or something. It’s even cornier than Children of the Corn (heh) and seems to exist only to justify the cat’s presence throughout the film.
The Final Verdict
Cat’s Eye is a decent anthology film. While cheesy in parts and not quite as scary or tension-laden as the stories it is based on, it is still a somewhat iconic piece of 80s horror. The film’s cast features pretty good actors like Woods and Alan King, and it brings some of King’s dark wit to life in a way that few adaptations of King’s work manage. His humor, cynical nature, and rich characters are some of the reasons why King stands out from the masses of horror writers. Cat’s Eye numbers among the few films that do capture those qualities, even if its filmmaking isn’t quite as strong as some of the more renowned King adaptations.
Stephen King fans should make this a must-see, and general horror fans and film fans should give it a shot as well. Things sure are improving for our Stephen King Book to Screen series!
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