EYE OF THE CAT (1969)
Director: David Lowell Rich
Writer: Joseph Stefano
Cast: Michael Sarrazin, Gayle Hunnicutt, Eleanor Parker, Tim Henry
We’ve always known – and maybe enjoyed a bit of schadenfreude in the process – about observing how “the rich are different.” And greedy, twisted, conniving, backstabbing and pretty much soulless. Nowhere is that better displayed than in EYE OF THE CAT, a 1969 thriller potboiler, with writer JOSEPH STEFANO (PSYCHO, THE OUTER LIMITS) stirring up the cauldron, and TV vet DAVID LOWELL RICH directing the flying fur, (almost literally).
MICHAEL SARRAZIN (THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD, FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY), one of the celebrated “IT-Hunks” of that period, stars as Wylie, the dark-humored, charismatic ‘prodigal son’, or nephew, in this case. Ailing heiress ‘Aunt Danny’ (ELEANOR PARKER of CAGED, THE NAKED JUNGLE, but most famously, the ‘Baroness’ in THE SOUND OF MUSIC) dotes on Wylie and then some, while loathing his sibling, Luke (TIM HENRY of EYE SEE YOU and ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM), who is also her sole caretaker.
Slinking into the picture comes the darkly seductive Kassia Lancaster, played to near “purr-fection” by GAYLE HUNNICUTT (THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, THE LOVE MACHINE, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE). Kassia, who works at a local San Francisco hair salon and spa, and being the one technician who mainly attends to Danny’s needs, sees her having a respiratory attack brought on by her emphysema, which begins to give her more than a few ideas…
You know that old saying, “Only her hairdresser knows for sure?” Let this be a lesson to you about how much you actually tell your local “hairdo-specialist”. Kassia knows everything about Danny, it seems…how much she adores Wylie, and how she’d even be willing to change her will to benefit him as the sole heir. It’s the standard plotline from the ‘hag horror’ films of the period: let’s bump off rich old ‘Aunt-What’s-her-name’ for a shitload of money. Easy-peasy, right?
Not so fast, man. Hate to harsh your murdering elders buzz, but there’s one catch, and it’s a biggie. Aunt Danny loves cats. (I know; she has a breathing ailment and she loves felines. Humans. Who can explain them?) And it wouldn’t be so bad if Wylie didn’t have a raging case of ‘ailurophobia’, from a traumatic childhood incident. That’s ‘fear of cats’, for those not schooled in medical terms. Which kind of fucks up Kassia’s plans pretty royally, since everything is riding on Wylie reconnecting with his aunt. (We’ll talk about that more in a few.)
So what develops is one amusingly twisted situation, what with Wylie getting all warm-and-fuzzy with Aunt Danny after his long hiatus…until her “warm-and-fuzzy” friends want to get with him, and not in a complimentary way. Animals always seem to sense when someone is up to no good, and these are some pretty smart kitties.
Though the ending shocks us a lot less than it simply falls to the ground with a dull thud, getting there is pretty entertaining. A lot of that is thanks to Rich, a director who’s handled everything from sitcoms to suspense shows, and he obviously knows how to turn in the goods fast and on a budget, without sacrificing at least a bit of style, (wonderfully provided behind the lens by DP’s RUSSELL METTY and ELLSWORTH FREDERICKS.)
And the flourishes employed by the director, owe just about everything to Hitchcock as it is. A nail-biting scene that features Aunt Danny’s malfunctioning wheelchair as its catalyst, with Wylie’s fear of cats coming into play, is a near textbook exercise of the director’s technique.
If for nothing else, this movie makes a great time capsule for the sights and sounds of late ‘60’s SF, even if the cultural references and clothing haven’t aged well in the least. In fact, a scene where Wylie and Kassia go to a hippie hangout for a “happening,” is a lot more reminiscent of a skit from ROWAN AND MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN than anything else! (The dialogue in that scene is a retro-hoot!)
And anyone who knows anything at all about Stefano, can see him wantonly ripping himself off from his PSYCHO screenplay, throwing in a shower scene (menacing cat shadows included) and even some skeevy and intentionally uncomfortable scenes between Wylie and Aunt Danny, who loves her nephew a lot. I mean, like a whole lot. (As in the ‘Now-I-need-a-hundred-hot-showers’ kind of way.) It was also probably no accident on Universal’s part, greenlighting EYE as fast as they did. Stefano’s name still had plenty of clout between PSYCHO, and the watershed sci-fi/horror series showcase, THE OUTER LIMITS. It was also prescient about using animals in horror films, since the surprise box office smash, WILLARD, would be released only two years later.
Lalo Schifrin’s score is a callback to his work on the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series, but it’s not all that out-of-place, since EYE could have easily been a TV-movie-of-the-week back in those days, (with some of the implied sex and incestuous yearnings toned down or excised altogether). In fact, the marvelous Scream Factory release actually includes the broadcast TV version of the film.
As an ‘antique’ curio of sorts, EYE OF THE CAT is a throwback from a fondly remembered time (cinematically-speaking, that is), and a good example of the work of Sarrazin, a hunk who was also actually talented, and never phoned in a performance, no matter the genre. Hunnicutt, Parker and Henry all bring their performances up to match him, and for the riveting work they all did, this gets a solid three-out-of-five stars.