Bad Cat is Bad: The best and worst of cat horror
My husband and I just purchased a house. Most people, when they become homeowners, look forward to the extra space, some enjoy the lack of reliance on a landlord. Me, I am looking forward to not having a "no pets" clause and finally getting a cat. In honor of that, I present the best and worst of cats in horror movies.
THE WORST: Cat in the Brain by Lucio Fulci. Don't get me wrong-the movie itself isn't that bad. A horror film director (played by Fulci) is worried he is going insane and murdering people, when really it's his psychiatrist (that's not a spoiler-it's told to us in the first twenty minutes). There's a good deal of tension, and Fulci delivers on just enough stylistic gore to keep fans satisfied without sending anyone out to the bathroom. No, the reason this tops the list is an extreme lack of cats. There's a puppet cat eating fake brains during the opening credits, and at one point Fulci wakes up from a blackout, and there's a kitten walking by. That's it. I bought this movie because of the title and the creepy looking cat on the DVD cover. There should be a law: if the title of the movie is Cat in the Brain then there should be a significant amount of cats. Because I feel used, cheated and mislead, this tops my list of worst cat horror movies of all time.
RUNNER-UP FOR WORST: Night of 1000 Cats. If these movies were being judged on quality alone, this one would have won out. A playboy likes to pick up women, take them to his mansion, wine and dine them, then kill them and feed their chopped up bodies to the thousands (it looked more like a couple hundred, but by the title I'm left to assume they want us to think there's more) of cats he keeps in the basement. This is almost all that happens in the movie. He meets a woman, kills her, feeds her to cats, meets another one, kills her, feeds her to cats again, rinse, repeat. The DVD edition is just over an hour long, and a good 55 minutes of it is that same basic story over and over again. When there are shots of the cats devouring the poor women, they look no more menacing than Fluffy at Grandma's house halfheartedly eating his Fancy Feast. "Cats have noms. Oooh, creepy." At the end the cats get loose and tear up the man, eating him instead of his newest girlfriend. I guess it's supposed to be scary, but these are fat housecats piled onto the man, most of them looking rather uninterested. From what I understand, there's a Greek version of this movie with an extra half hour of footage. That would be great if that footage was of, oh, I don't know...STORY. But from what I read it's simply extended sex and gore scenes. This movie was so horrible I needed a Maru chaser as to not lower my opinion of cats in general (if you are unfamiliar with the greatness that is Maru, check out this video...Go ahead. I'll wait).
RUNNER UP FOR BEST CAT HORROR MOVIE: Dario Argento's "Inferno". Inferno is the second in Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy, bookended by Suspira and Mother of Tears. There's a basic plot of a man travelling from Italy to New York to find out what happened to his sister, only to find her apartment building is being haunted by a witch. Cats are all over the place here: in the arms of the witch, running underfoot and tripping people, generally ever-present in the background. But one scene is the reason this movie made the list. It is the infamous "death by cat" scene in which a woman is murdered by a mass of angry cats flying at her. As with House of 1000 Cats, the animals used for this movie seem to be rather pampered felines, not savage feral beasts. It looked as if people were standing off-camera and tossing the cats at the poor victim. When she is trying to yank the cat off her face, you can tell she's really just holding it there, and it seems so uninterested in attacking rather than taking a nap. So what makes this sequence so good? For one, it just came up out of nowhere. She's walking down the hall and BOOM! cats are being thrown at her. Second is the sheer audacity. That goes with Argento's style-no one has ever accused him of holding back, and this movie is no exception. From the creepy electronic music playing as the cats float through the air to the jump cuts of her screams of terror and flying cats, for all its absurdity it's really quite effective. Big thumbs up.
WINNER FOR BEST CAT HORROR MOVIE: "House". Not the William Katt one from the 80s (although it would have been a great pun) or the Vince Vaughn travesty of the 2000s. This is the Japanese House from 1978 (many places use the translated word Hausu as the title, but this is incorrect. The movie was released in Japan with an English title to make it seem more exotic). I could just relate the plot-seven Japanese high school girls travel to visit the long lost aunt of one in a remote village, and the aunt turns out to be a soul-sucking vampire. But simply saying the plot doesn't do this movie nearly enough justice. There are the character names for the girls-Gorgeous, Fantasy, Sweet, Kung-Fu, Melody, Mac and Prof. There is the killer lampshade, the piano that eats girls, the floating decapitated head that bites a girl on the ass. There is some of the most whacked-out animation I have ever seen used in a mostly live-action movie, including flying and fighting severed legs, weird bleeding furniture, screaming paintings. There are the couple times where they randomly break into songs. House is a very strange movie. The DVD liner notes summed it up best by describing it as "Cinema-du-WTF". According to the director, he was assigned to make a movie like Jaws for Japanese audiences. So he asked his ten year old daughter (who is credited with "original story" what scared her. The result is this semi-linear thrill ride.
But enough about that. We're here to talk about cats. The cat in question for House is Blanche, a white Persian kitty. Blanche appears at Gorgeous' house every time a message comes from her aunt, shows up on their train, and turns out to be the aunt's pet. Just before anything sinister happens to one of the girls, Blanche gets the most oddly animated green glint to her eye (whether the live cat or one of the paintings of it). Is the aunt evil, or is she under the spell of the cat? That fact doesn't really matter-the fun in this movie is not trying to figure it out, but going along for the ride. And when you have an evil cat that can shoot blood from a painting of itself, the ride is a blast.
Is House scary? Not really. I don't know if it really intended to be. Yes, there are some great fright moments, but this was never meant to be a disturbing film that stayed with you and made you ponder the nature of your existence. No, House was intended for the same audiences as the American slasher films of that era, only it was made with much more style and a whole lot more fun. Because it was so incredibly original and plain old fun to watch, this totally overshadowed any missing horror from this horror movie.
Which brings up the next question-can a movie about evil cats be scary? I'm not talking larger members of the feline family, like leopards or panthers, but simple housecats. I don't think so. For one, the nature of cats doesn't induce the same emotions as other pets. There have been countless stories of dogs turning on their owners, occasionally tales of pet snakes eating babies, even the occasional news piece about killer pet monkeys. When was the last time you heard about a cat killing its owner? Secondly, is the trainable nature of a cat. Dogs can be taught to look ferocious, to growl and snap on command. Cats, you're lucky if you can get them to go from one place to another when you want. Hence, most of the time when cats are used for a scare it's either a jump-out-and-scare-you moment or a feeble attempt at tossing a cat through the frame and hoping it looks in the end like it's attacking. This will not stop me from watching any more cat horror. I like cats, and I like horror movies. I just won't expect much in the way of scares, but a fun ride with cute animals.
Unless Maru stars in a Godzilla remake. That could work.
WHERE TO FIND THESE MOVIES:
House was just released on Criterion DVD this past month and, believe me, it is well worth picking up.
"Cat in the Brain" and "Inferno" are both listed in questionable quantity from Amazon.com. If they're not available when you shop for them, they're readily available on the secondary market at reasonable prices.
"House of 1000 Cats" is out of print, but is readily available on the used market, and if you pay more than five dollars for it, you've paid