Here’s a confession: I’m not really a cat guy. I have nothing against the critters, and I do get why a lot of people love them; loyalty, beauty, etc. I’m just a dog person. I’m assuming the lead character of Eye of the Cat (1969) is too, because he has one lulu of a cat phobia in this sly and amusing thriller.
Ailurophobia is the exact term for an extreme fear of cats, and I won’t use the word again because it’s a bitch to spell and I ain’t no fancy lad neither. Eye of the Cat was released in June by Universal with the tagline “Terror that tears the screams right out of your throat!” This would not be true unless you also suffer from a debilitating fear of felines; but what you do get is a solid little mystery with a lot of twists, a heaping of psychosexual melodrama, and a wonderfully charming performance from Michael Sarrazin (The Reincarnation of Peter Proud).
Our film opens with a wealthy yet ill woman (Eleanor Parker – The Sound of Music) in San Francisco being chauffeured to her weekly hair appointment. As she sits in her usual chair, she has an emphysema attack that nearly kills her. Post credits, we’re introduced post coitus to Wylie (Sarrazin), a freewheeling playboy, as he’s beckoned by Kassia Lancaster (Gayle Hunnicutt – The Legend of Hell House) to come with him no questions asked. So he does, back to the very shop where the ill woman collapsed, and she gives Wylie a full makeover. When he queries why, she tells him that the sick woman is his aunt, near death, and desperately wanting Wylie back in her life. If and when she dies, she would leave everything to Wylie (it’s amazing what secrets you can learn from a hairdresser). Kassia’s plan is for the long lost nephew to move back in with Aunt Danny, get him on the will, and then Kassia will kill her by shutting off her oxygen supply. As a go with the flow-er, Wylie complies.
There are two problems right off the bat as Wylie returns: first, his younger brother Luke (Tim Henry – Masters of Horror) is already living in the manor and taking care of Danny, and second, Danny has about 100 cats surrounding her. Wylie agrees to move back in if Danny gets rid of the cats, which she does. But as the song goes, ‘The Cat Came Back’, and how…
If you’re coming to Eye of the Cat looking for an Animals Attack film, that’s really not what you get. (I’m right there with you.) Yes, they do pounce quite a bit during the finale, but it’s more to do with the relationships between the four leads and Sarrazin’s crippling hysteria in regards to the kitties. The latter is a Hitchcockian maneuver employed by Joseph Stefano, which makes total sense seeing as how he wrote the film version of Psycho. (Not that it’s employed there specifically, but Hitchcock was a fan of putting his leads at a disadvantage, whether physically or mentally.)
But Eye has more in common with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and others of its ilk – Danny being terrorized in her wheelchair, or the mind games that Wylie plays with her – than Hitchcock’s work. Having said that, Stefano’s screenplay is very witty, which is something a lot of filmmakers paying homage forget about Hitch’s films: the humor. And this one has plenty.
Truth be told, the idea for this would have fit comfortably on an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits (Stefano wrote 12 episodes in the first season); there is a fair bit of padding in Eye of the Cat at 102 minutes, including a fun yet useless scene at a San Francisco hippie den, and repetitive interactions between Wylie and Kassia slow the story down. But frankly, I didn’t mind because the script turns the screws and upends the story in the third act in genuinely surprising ways that I did not see coming (but probably should have). It’s a strong finish.
Don’t judge director David Lowell Rich only by his IMDB page (The Concorde…Airport ’79 and Chu Chu and the Philly Flash – yikes), as he stages enough great sequences – the split screen opening, a wheelchair careening down a hillside, the cat laden finale – to compensate for any slow spots. As for the psychosexual tone, it should be noted that Danny is not the boys’ aunt, but rather was their father’s mistress before, during, and after their mother’s death; Wylie exploits this knowledge even as she makes a play for him (she really wants him to stay) giving the story some depth beyond “steal the old coot’s money”.
By the way, “old coot” Ms. Parker was only 46 years old when this was released, was still quite fetching, and pitches her performance at the perfect level. The whole cast is solid, and one gets the feeling Hunnicutt would be hard to turn down whatever the proposition. But this is really Sarrazin’s film, and he’s terrific; his nonchalant attitude mixed with a boundless energy provides an antagonist you actually root for. Or is he the protagonist? You’ll have to judge for yourself.
Eye of the Cat is largely lost in time and thought of as a lightweight thriller without anything to add to the genre; it is indeed light, but that’s part of its charm. And if you’re an owner or fan of those purring pals, that charm will draw you in like catnip.
Eye of the Cat is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: EYES OF A STRANGER (1981)