Friday, April 14, 2006

NIGHT SHIFT, Second Gear: CAT'S EYE (1985)

Drew Barrymore loses a cuteness contest in Cat's Eye

Stephen King is a man who loves all types of stories. Thus, he tells all types of stories. Night Shift alone contains science-fiction stories, nasty turnabout E.C. Comics-style poetic-justice, Lovecraftian supernatural tales, down-home splatter bucket stories, sensitive dramatic fiction, and hallucinatory absurdist horror-comedy. This grab-bag nature has contributed enormously to the popularity of King's short story collections. It also makes King's screenplay for director Lewis Teague's anthology film Cat's Eye a little scattershot, if still lovable.

Cat's Eye adapts two of the briefest Night Shift stories, and links them via the adventures of a cute cat who also weaves in and out of the plots, before becoming the star of the third tale, a segment original for the screen. Featuring ugly cinematography and a dated, embarrassing Alan Silvestri synth score, Cat's Eye's a lightweight King film, but it gets some things uniquely right.

The Night Shift tales King adapts for the screen are two of the collection's most blackly funny. In "Quitter's Inc.," Dick Morrison (James Woods) is a testy chain-smoker and a bit of a bastard, who signs up with a mysterious stop-smoking company (run by Alan King, having a lot of fun) whose tough-love policy involves electrocution, rape, and worse, if the subject doesn't go cold turkey immediately. In a witty criticism of 12 Step programs, and comical observation about human vice, Morrison can barely restrain himself from sneaking a puff, despite knowing his world is filled with spies and family in danger.

The twin engines of "Quitter's Inc." are the desperation and perpetual grumpiness of nicotine withdraw, and the far more universal fear of Being Watched. It's always seemed to me that the real reason Orwell's 1984 continues to capture the public imagination over other dystopias has less to do with politics than the omnipresent surveillance. King's story reclaims the idea for its inherent horror, and makes it very personal. The They in "Quitters, Inc." is not watching everyone. Their vast resources and innumerable agents are all trained on you. In the most giggly-scary suspense scene, Morrison steals away to his den during a thunderstorm for a midnight smoke, and suddenly realizes, unlit cigarette swinging from his bottom lip, that there very well might be something in the closet.

The omnibus format doesn't require the brief stories to be greatly expanded, so Cat's Eye takes far fewer liberties with the source material than other films of King's short fiction. The writer has taken the opportunity to redraft the plot in this new medium, and makes a few minor alterations. Some of the changes tighten the screws a bit: the stakes for Morrison's transgressions are worse in the film (no threats of raping his wife are in the story), and his off-page retarded son becomes an on-screen retarded daughter. Other choices mostly involve playing up the black humor. In an unfortunate fantasy scene, Morrison freaks out, surrounded by smokers, at an unexplained party. The sequence is supposed to visualize the king of all nicotine fits — revelers drag on fistfuls of cigarettes, blow out 3-minute exhale clouds, and blast smoke out their ears like Roger Rabbit — but James Woods' sweaty, surly performance already does a finer, subtler job of conveying the comedy and restless frustration.

In "The Ledge", a gambling-crazy cuckolded mob boss Cressner (Kenneth McMillan) bets/forces an adulterous retired tennis pro (Robert Hays) to walk the tiny ledge around a high-rise hotel, in exchange for the gangster's wife. That, Constant Readers, is it. It's kind of redundant to point out when a horror film exploits a primal human fear. That is horror's stock-in-trade, if not its definition. So "The Ledge" is about how we're scared of falling from high places, and knows better than to muck it up with complications. To justify the plot situation, "Ledge" dramatizes the grade-school lunchroom plot device "what if somebody put a gun to your head and made you do something you don't want to do?" Unlike the slack-jawed Saw films, "The Ledge" understands the goofiness inherent, and fully embraces all potential for humor. Fear not, it is that rustic Stephen King humor, such as an obnoxious pigeon being kicked off a building.

As with "Quitters", King largely leaves his well-enough story alone, but the changes his script makes are satisfying and cinematic. (Spoilers Ahoy!) The rather predictable revelation that Cressner is going to monkey paw on his promised ante, is handled via conversation in the story, and in a funny visual sick joke in the film: he presents her severed head by kicking it at Johnny. The power struggle at the center of the drama makes far more sense in the film, largely thanks to Kenneth McMillan's Cressner, who is convincingly persuasive when proposing his petty, juvenile, mad wager. Finally, a satisfying open-ended finale to the story becomes a crowd-pleasing violent comeuppance for the villain. The story is more literary, and rather nastier, and the script is easily funnier and breezier, as a movie can show us the vertiginous heights of the ledge without slowing for description, no matter how evocative.

The stories are all linked by a cat (presumably with the titular eye) who is chased around various cities, hitches rides on various transit, is adopted and tormented by the villains of the first two stories, before escaping. In his spare time, the cat is also plagued by weird visions of a ghostly little girl (Drew Barrymore) who appears in TV ads and department store manniquins and begs, Princess Leia-style, for his help (these scenes are completely non sequitur due to some deleted scenes explaining their payoff, and they damage the pace). Cats are more difficult to work with than dogs or horses, and Cat's Eye's ace in the sleeve is their feline star. The cat (sadly uncredited) is on screen as much as his human costars, and actually called upon to emote in several scenes. He is not only very cute, but holds his own with James Woods, Alan King, and Kenneth McMillan.

The third and final vignette, "The General", is original for the screen. It reminds me of a good joke on The Golden Girls, where Sophia wanted to read the new Stephen King book, and Dorothy protested that she hoped it wasn't about a demonic little creature finding creative ways to terrorize a household. In "The General", the stray cat takes center-stage, as he is taken in by little Amanda (Drew Barrymore) and her parents (James Naughton is the nice dad, Candy Clark the bitchy mom). Mom wants to chuck kitty outside because of strange doings late night in Amanda's room, but it turns out young Mandy is having night terrors because a Carlo Rambaldi troll is holding her nose closed and sucking out her breath as she sleeps. The cat, renamed General, engages in epic battle with the horrid troll, which depending on your mood is either over-the-top good times or may be the deal-breaker. Sadly, though marbles are spilled, opportunities are missed for match cuts between two different "cat's eyes."

Among identifiable King motifs are subverting genre tropes he finds irritating — the little girl's parents look at her like she's Steve McQueen in The Blob when she talks about the monster, but she's vindicated in the end — and finding inspiration in/ drawing a line to connect folklore and urban legend, in this case the superstition that cats suck the breath from sleeping children's mouths.

Cat's Eye, because it's from the man's pen, understands better than any films save Creepshow and Maximum Overdrive the intentionally cornpone humor of Stephen King's lighter work, doesn't futz with the plots too much, and keeps a jaunty tone throughout. For King fans, there are an enormous number of inside jokes, some for the casual reader — a red '58 Plymouth Fury almost nails the cat, and if you didn't catch it, the bumper sticker reads "I'm Christine and I'm pure evil" (!) — some jokes way deep inside: the issue of Penthouse that first published "The Ledge" can be spotted on a coffeetable.

All viewers are strongly, strongly advised to stick around for the heavy metal sing-along song "Cat's Eye" during the closing credit roll.

No comments: