Churchill from Pet Sematary (1989)
Pet Sematary (1989)
Stories & Ideas

Fri 17 Nov 2023

Meow Meow Massacre – cats in horror cinema

Film Pop culture Retrospective
Lee Gambin and doggo
Lee Gambin

Writer, author & film historian

A short history of ravenous and vengeful felines on film.

Cats are forever linked to the supernatural – this is something that dates all the way back to ancient Egypt and then into the realm of European witchery where the cat served as familiar to those who practiced old world religions. In film, cats are often seen as creatures who are clairvoyant seers, animal friends who spot poltergeist activity or sense ghostly phenomena. In fantasy films and comedies such as The Three Lives of Thomasina (1963) and Bell, Book and Candle (1958), cats are linked to otherworldly goings-on in a playful and romantic manner, while their dark side in family movies such as Babe (1995) is used as a narrative tool to enhance the inherit goodness in other animals, be they dogs or pigs in the case of Chris Noonan’s fable. In the case of the iconic Cheshire Cat, the mystical puss could be presented as a trickster always ready to play mind games as he does with our young heroine in various incarnations of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, and when a human dons the ideals of felinity they are somehow always a morally ambiguous beastie but always glamorous and pretty as seen in an array of depictions from Gale Sondergaard’s performance as Tylette in fantasy The Blue Bird (1940) or the many faces of the Catwoman as played by Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether, Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfieffer and others.

Catwoman sits on top of Batman

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Michael Keaton as Batman in Batman Returns (1992)

In horror cinema, cats primarily serve two major purposes – one, to be a victimised innocent bystander usually killed to imply the serious cold blooded threat of the monster or killer in question and two, as a prescribed “boo” tactic, popping up to scare a potential human victim moments before these unfortunate people are actually slaughtered.

But let us look at cats as the monstrous entity themselves – not as docile pets or magical caretakers to humans, but as forces of evil, either hungry for human flesh or vengeful critters wanting to wreak havoc on humankind.

In 1977’s The Uncanny, an anthology horror piece, the evil of cats is something that torments Wilbur Gray as played by Peter Cushing. Gray is a writer who strongly believes that the devil himself lives within the sinister guise of the seemingly innocuous housecat. When he takes his idea to his publisher Frank Richards played by Ray Milland, he spends his time split between trying to pitch a book idea and also expressing his belief that cats are inherently demonic.

What unfolds are three stories about revenge, more so than about the direct menace of cats. In each tale, cats take control of the situation at hand and seek to torment those who are wrongdoers. The first tale involves a clowder of cats owned by Miss Malkin (Joan Greenwood), a wealthy woman who wishes to leave her assets to her beloved pets. When her opportunistic and greedy maid Janet (Susan Penhaligon) kills Miss Malkin, the cats avenge her death by terrorising Janet and ripping her to shreds in what truly is a horrific, blood-soaked sequence. It is lengthy, frantic, drawn out and remarkably constructed – and the cats are shown to completely revel in their maniacal and sadistic behaviour. However, these are cats defending the honour of their murdered mistress, therefore, the subsector of eco-horror or natural horror presented here is the revenge fuelled branch, where animals take charge and right a wrong.

The story here rings similar to a previous British horror film The Shadow of the Cat from 1961 starring Barbara Shelley, which features Tabitha, a housecat who witnesses her mistress being killed and seeks revenge, while also being under attack by the murderers who see the poor puss as a threat. In The Shadow of the Cat, the cat is once again a creature informed and invested in avenging the death of a human they loved. Another predecessor to the first story in The Uncanny that bears resemblance is the 1969 film The Eye of the Cat, where Michael Sarrazin has a penetrating fear of cats much like Peter Cushing in The Uncanny, so that when he plots to murder his wealthy aunt as played by Eleanor Parker with the help of his girlfriend and then discovers that his aunt’s home is swarming with her pet cats, there is a nice foreshadowing of what is to come in the brutal opening tale of killer kitties in The Uncanny.

This kind of kinship shared between vengeful cats and the people they are devoted to who are persecuted or killed is the basis of the follow up stories in The Uncanny, one involving a little girl who is bullied by a cousin who uses her secret power of witchcraft to empower her cat and claim revenge, and in the last story where a cat avenges the death of an actress killed by her philandering husband as played by Donald Pleasance who wishes to advance the career of an aspiring thespian as played by Samantha Eggar. The cats in The Uncanny are not unlike the hard-done-by ghouls from beyond the grave that peppered the likes of EC horror comics who would take revenge upon those who did them wrong, in many regards, the cats here, while killing people, are admirable in their actions and it is somehow unwarranted that Peter Cushing’s Wilbur Gray would draw such a conclusion that all cats are evil. The Uncanny presents us with three stories where cats are trying to right a wrong, albeit in a violent and destructive manner.

Which is very different to what is on display in the made-for-TV horror film Strays from 1991, which features a satisfying blend of human melodrama and home invasion terror. The interpersonal relationships shared between the three principals: the stoic, strong willed mother, her loving but easily distracted husband and her emotionally fragile but potentially destructive sister is a nice counteract for the stray cats that have made a home for themselves in the fixer-upper house out in a picturesque but of course secluded locale. While the lead balances her shaky writing career with her role as mother and wife as well as the sole person responsible for restoring the house, she is faced with two intrusions: one being her predatory sister trying to seduce her husband, and a horde of ferocious feral cats led by a nasty tom who has already marked his territory on their home. The film finds a nice balance between a woman going through an emotional breakdown featuring some fantastic images that highlight her ordeal such as her child’s crib infested with filthy hungry cats, with her husband’s plight as a careerist having to reclaim his manhood and dedication to his family by conquering the alpha cat who could be read as a bestial mirror image of a potential future. The cats in Strays are outright menaces, dedicated to causing great distress and even death, but they are also a commentary on the humanism presented in the film, written by Shaun Cassidy, who thoroughly understands the brand of ecological horror that is beset in a character study that makes striking parallels between humanism and animalism.

Uninvited from 1987, gives us a genetically altered cat who terrorises people on board a luxury yacht. Here, the role of science plays a part in what is a major component of animal centric horror movies, where critters are mutated and cause great distress for the human cast. Uninvited delivers a violent response and a thoroughly entertaining critique on something incredibly serious: the issue of animals being used in experiments. What these kind of ecologically bent horror pictures do is inform us that perhaps respect and honour and compassion towards animals is essential, and that abuse such as that inflicted upon the cat in Uninvited can turn around and bite back.

While in The Corpse Grinders (1971), commerce and desperation make for a deadly combination. Although the film is ultimately a fun horror comedy exploitation picture from the great Ted V. Mikels, it is a film that discusses the repercussions of industry and neglectful enterprise. When the folk who run a local cat food company find that it is far more cost effective to have corpses from the local cemetery grinded up for their product, they soon discover that the cats eating this newfound source of protein have started to develop a taste for human flesh as they begin turning on their owners and killing them. The violence from cats here are a by-product of human opportunism and their destructive nature is caused by industrial endeavours wishing to make a quick buck.

In comparison to the fun The Corpse Grinders is Rene Cardona Jr’s film Night of A Thousand Cats A.K.A Blood Feast (1972), where hungry felines are fed the bloodied battered and brutally murdered women who are killed by a wealthy playboy who eventually falls victim to his own pets, in what is a twisted Mexican exploitation gore film, presenting cats as a cover up to mass murder.

Class resentment and the struggles suggested by that are intertwined within the plot of the Giallo horror picture Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973), while The Cat Creature (also 1973), directed by Curtis Harrington and written by Robert Bloch, brings the mythology of cats and their link to Egyptian mysticism back into the fore in what is a moody and effective made for TV horror film.

Paying tribute to the masterwork from producer Val Lewton, The Cat People (1942), The Cat Creature does employ the evil cat trope in the guise of the aforementioned Gale Sondergaard, who had played the shifty feline with her own hidden agenda in the Shirley Temple vehicle The Blue Bird. Rebirth and resurrection are commonplace themes in horror fiction and cinema involving cats, and Pet Sematary (1989), based on the novel by Stephen King, examines loss and despair and the role of Churchill as the newly resurrected zombie cat is an eerie reminder of “sometimes dead is better”.

Much like The Cat Creature, Pet Sematary uses ancient religions and belief systems as its fundamental narrative backbone, and here with the role of Native Americans of the Mi’kmaq nation serving the basis of how Louis Creed can restore a world that he has since lost, it is through the image of a dead-eyed cat with an all knowing sense of evil that perpetuates the notion of not playing the role of god. While two more Stephen King cat-related ventures present the feline in a heroic sense: Cat’s Eye (1985), which has the cat be the figure of protection, comfort and nurturing, and Sleepwalkers (1992), where cats are the only living thing that can fend off the monstrous mother and son duo that pose a threat to Mädchen Amick, Pet Sematary doesn’t overtly express Churchill’s demonic energy, instead it depicts him as a constant reminder, as a cautionary tale, as something monstrous that could get worse.

Unlike dogs in horror films such as The Pack (1977), White Dog (1982), Cujo (1983), Devil Dog: Hound of Hell (1978) and 1976’s Dogs which ends with a close up of a ginger puss lurking in the fields in what was a promise for a follow up featuring mass hordes of killer cats, which never eventuated. But alas, cats are generally not found to be the cause of multiple massacres in movies, albeit for a few examples as touched upon here, instead they are associated with death, decay, disturbance and decadence as seen in the many interpretations of ‘The Black Cat’, ‘The Cat and the Canary’ and films that take from these classic Gothic works such as the Argento/Romero film Two Evil Eyes (1990). Cats’ ancestors the lion and the tiger do feature in stunning examples of eco-horror with films as varied as Savage Harvest (1981) and Black Zoo (1963), as well as adventure Jaws (1975) tribute penned by William Goldman The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), and of course the must see to believe semi-snuff venture Roar (1981), which had noble intentions behind its making, but the housecat seems to get the short end of the stick when it comes to causing such horrendous damage to the human race. However, when he or she does, it is frightfully fun, and for avid cat people, it is always purrrfectly satisfying.

Cat-centric horror movie Sleepwalkers will be screening at ACMI on November 25th

Cat-centric horror movie Sleepwalkers will screen at ACMI on 25 Nov 2023.

Join our newsletter

Get updates on the latest news, exhibitions, programs, special offers and more.

You might also like