Full disclosure: I’m not a cat guy. Sorry! Nothing against them, but I’ve always preferred the company of dogs. However, I’ve always admired a cat’s sense of self, and their stubborn refusal to do anything at all unless it’s on their own terms. According to The Uncanny (1977), that would also include murder, as these kitties claw and bite their way to vengeance, and leave it to Severin Films to give them a brand spanking new Blu-ray litter box to play in.
A co-production between Canada’s Cinévidéo and the UK’s The Rank Organisation, The Uncanny was shot in Quebec and England for less than a million dollars. One may presume that a solid portion of the film was spent on acquiring Donald Pleasence, Peter Cushing, Ray Milland, John Vernon, and Samantha Eggar for the wraparound and the three individual segments. It certainly wasn’t used for some less than stellar special effects. But no matter; like with any portmanteau, The Uncanny rises and falls on the stories and the actors who bring them to life.
We start with the wraparound in Montreal, as conspiracy author Wilbur Gray (Cushing) visits his publisher Frank Richards (Milland) with his latest manuscript, but this time his focus isn’t ancient pyramids, but rather cats. Wilbur believes that cats are planning to take over the world, and he has proof from three specific cases that he shares with Frank:
London 1912 – A rich old lady (Joan Greenwood) is about to kick the bucket, but before she does she wishes to amend her will and leave everything to her coterie of cats instead of her nephew (Simon Williams). He and the maid (Susan Penhaligon) decide to steal the will, but Mama Warbucks catches on and the maid snuffs her out with a pillow. Needless to say, the kitties do not take kindly to their mistress being extinguished…
Quebec Province 1975 – A little girl (Katrina Holden Bronson) and her cat go to live with her aunt’s family after her parents are killed in a plane crash. No one takes to the cat, especially her cousin (Chloe Franks) who, not allowed to have a pet of her own, makes life hell for her new housemate and her cat. A pity she didn’t get to know her better, what with her interest in witchcraft and all…
Hollywood 1936 – A hammy B-actor (Pleasence) kills off his co-star wife so he can have his ditzy girlfriend (Eggar) take her place. Things take a turn for the worse when he kills his dead wife’s cat’s litter, but forgets to off the mom, and hell hath no fury like a mother scorned, human or feline…
Omnibus films, even the best ones, can be a bit of a mixed bag; good story followed by bad or indifferent, there’s very few that hold up all the way through. England’s Amicus certainly has the best track record, with Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and Asylum among some of the finest efforts. The Uncanny tries to replicate the formula (Amicus’ Milton Subotsky is even on board as a producer) with uneven results, unfortunately.
Perhaps part of the problem is that cats aren’t particularly scary; they’ve been a part of horror lore forever, but as more of a harbinger of evil, or quite often, a guardian of good. While it is interesting to see them in more antagonistic roles, they are essentially the good guys here, righting wrongs. So it is that the stories live or die on how they are used, and if they’re true to the EC Comics methods.
Many people claim that the first story is the strongest, but I think it’s the weakest. The production values are the best, to be sure, but the story is a simple case of retribution without a hook to hang it on. The second and third stories are far more interesting; the second takes a welcome turn towards the supernatural with a fun game of cat and mouse, and the third has very funny and lively performances from Pleasence and Eggar (Vernon as the director gets some smiles, too). So there is variety in the tales, it’s just that with only three you can’t afford to miss with any (Amicus would always do at least four to better the odds). But again, this is subjective; you may love the first and third, hate the second, etc. Canadian director Denis Héroux (a former erotic auteur) and writer Michel Parry (story credit on Xtro) do try their hardest to bring some sense of dread to the proceedings, even if the cats are closer to cute than cutthroat. The Uncanny isn’t essential, but there is fun to be had for omnibus completists.
Severin Films did well by rescuing this obscurity; it looks like the negative was in pretty poor shape, but it’s been cleaned up as best as possible while retaining that ’70s grit. Besides the trailer, there’s only one feature with actress Susan Penhaligon, who gives some insight into the production as well as other genre fare she’s been involved in, like Patrick.
If you’re a cat fancier and a fan of anthology horror, The Uncanny is most definitely for you; if your feline attachment is less severe, it will still offer up some smiles and strong performances. On a scale of one to nine lives, I’ll nudge it towards a six and give it a saucer of milk.
Movie Score: 3/5, Disc Score: 3/5