Peter CushingRay MillandDonald PleasenceJohn Vernon
The Uncanny
Medium: film, anthology
Year: 1977
Director: Denis Heroux
Writer: Michel Parry
Keywords: horror
Country: UK, Canada
Actor: Peter Cushing, Ray Milland, Joan Greenwood, Roland Culver, Susan Penhaligon, Simon Williams, Alexandra Stewart, Donald Pilon, Chloe Franks, Katrina Holden, Renee Girard, Donald Pleasence, Samantha Eggar, John Vernon, Catherine Begin, Jean LeClerc, Sean McCann
Format: 89 minutes
Website category: Horror 1970/80s
Review date: 12 September 2008
They prowl by night... lusting for human flesh! Cats aren't always cute and cuddly! A trilogy of feline terror!
Those were the film's real tag lines. Yup, it's a horror film about pussy cats.
I'd put off watching this for years because of its bland title, which spoke to neither my memory nor my imagination. My mistake. I'd have watched it long ago had I known that it's a cat-themed anthology starring Peter Cushing. Or to put it another way, it's another attempt by Milton Subotsky to return to the horror anthologies that had been so successful for him at Amicus. A look through the imdb review pages would seem to suggest that this one is poorly regarded, but I really enjoyed it. I suspect everything depends on the basic premise. Cats are creatures of evil and terror that will gang up to murder anyone who crosses them. You now know whether this film is for you.
Personally I don't see why this is any more ridiculous than that of, say, Hitchcock's The Birds. In fact, it seems clear that the first of its three stories must have been aware of the precedents of that film, given the identical manner in which ever-increasing numbers of cats gather to observe their victim before attacking. A good chunk of that segment has no plot, but is simply about barricading yourself in against the assault. It's bloodier than Hitchcock's version, too. Personally I thought it was rather nasty. What's more, I loved the thought experiment of a world where cats are our unsuspected predators, watching at all times and waiting to strike. When I was at university in Bristol, we'd watch them playing cat chess. All the neighbourhood cats would be sitting outside. They'd watch you go past. They'd watch each other. Then suddenly one would jump down and disappear to another sentry point, whereupon a replacement cat would take advantage of the empty space and scurry up to fill it.
However not everyone will be able to take the cat attacks seriously. You'll need to suspend some disbelief. Nevertheless it's not a film I'd dream of showing to a young child, since something like Jurassic Park or Aliens would merely teach them to fear monsters that want to bite your face off. That sounds like a good life lesson. This film might induce phobias.
The other remarkable thing here is how blatantly the cats' victims deserve their fates. This isn't one of those horror movies where you're meant to empathise with likeable characters and root for them against the odds. No, these scumbags are cut from the same cloth as that evil old bat from Gremlins who ended up getting killed by her own electric stair lift, to the approval of the audience. It's a simple idea, but I've never seen it quite so systematically implemented. Everyone loves a good hero, but sometimes a villain is even better. Peter Cushing is a gentle old soul who wants to warn the world, but the anthology segments are full of greedy, sadistic and/or murderous sons of bitches whose fates are clearly designed to elicit satisfied grunts from the audience, if not outright laughter.
The first story is set in London, 1912, amid the most beautiful surroundings you ever saw. Gorgeous house. Exquisite decor. This is a world of serious money, at a time not long after the demise of Queen Victoria. A harridan is changing her will to cut dead her nephew and instead leave everything to her cats. You can probably see where this is going, but it actually kept surprising me. You couldn't sustain this kind of escalation in a longer film. It starts small, almost like a Noel Coward stage play, and then keeps taking turns of ever-increasing wrongness until it finally turns into a thoroughly nasty little fable. I don't think the conspirators had thought through their plan at all, but that just makes them stupid as well as greedy and evil. What were they planning to do about the lawyer? This is the only story to make the cats scary, but their attacks are so horrible that for me they sustained the rest of the film anyway.
The second story is set in Quebec, 1975, and unfortunately has big problems. Can you say "child actors"? A girl called Lucy and her pet cat Wellington are coming to live with relatives after her parents were killed in a plane crash. Unfortunately her cat-hating aunt has a bitch of a daughter who seems to delight in torturing everything in sight. What can poor Lucy do? Well, maybe the answer might lie in the books of magic and witchcraft which her mother passed on to her. This would have been a fairly mediocre story even without the unconvincing performances of the girls, which pretty much sunk it without trace until the time came for revenge. This is so silly that it's brilliant, especially the charmingly goofy visual effects. I loved it to pieces.
However it's not even trying to be convincing. How did the cat come back, eh? It also feels like an oversight that the mother's witchcraft didn't cause her demise. Despite all this black magic and homicidal kittie-cats, apparently the plane crash really was just a plane crash. Weird. Since she was a witch whose daughter would soon go around using magic to kill people, it wouldn't have been hard to make her look like she'd deserved it too.
The third film is the campest. It's set in Hollywood, 1936, with Donald Pleasence as the star of a Poe-inspired horror film called Dungeon of Horror. Cheekily the segment is introduced with a photo of Pleasence as Ernst Stavro Blofeld from You Only Live Twice, with Persian cat. This story is deliberately playing with cliche and includes splashes of outrageous kitsch in the costume and set design. I want to go back and see if they filmed in the same house as the first segment, though. Inevitably the movie-within-a-movie has lots of flamboyant medieval instruments of death, which you'd think any sane filmmaker would have tried to render harmless before letting them near a set. Axe-like blades. Iron Maidens with foot-long spikes. You can see what's coming and half the fun is in waiting for it. Mind you, they still managed to surprise me with one last gag as a punchline.
I don't know how seriously we're meant to take the setting. You've got John Vernon mostly remembering to keep up his Russian accent and a director who shouts out stage directions to his actors while the cameras are rolling. This isn't the silent era, so what's that about? Maybe they were planning to redub the soundtrack for that bit, being a swordfight rather than a dialogue scene. One of the film's dafter gags comes with Pleasence's character, Valentine De'ath, getting called by his initials.
Then there's the framing story. Peter Cushing plays a doddery old author who's trying to sell his publisher on his latest manuscript containing the terrifying truth about cats. Those scenes are obviously wonderful. You can tell because of the words "Peter" and "Cushing".
Overall this anthology is a mixed bag, but I had a great time. The first story is clearly the strongest, but the other two are funnier. The second story is objectively pretty bad, but it goes so loopy in the end that I loved it anyway. Unlike many anthologies the stories also clearly belong together, thanks to the cat theme. I think I've been won over. There's huge potential in this format, which can tell stories the length of TV episodes but with none of television's associated restrictions. Certainly I'd be tempted to say that the best horror prose fiction might seem to be short stories rather than novels. Admittedly by the standards of horror in 1977 this would have been tame, with little to differentiate it from any other Hammer-inspired British film from the preceding two decades. The first story's a bit gorier than usual, perhaps. All the cats mean I couldn't recommend this to everyone, but you should have decided by now if it's for you.