31 Days to Scare ~ Eye of the Cat (1969)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man and his girlfriend plan to rob the mansion of the man’s eccentric but wealthy aunt. However, the aunt keeps dozens of cats in her home, and the man is deathly afraid of cats.
Stars: Michael Sarrazin, Gayle Hunnicutt, Eleanor Parker, Tim Henry, Laurence Naismith
Director: David Lowell Rich
Rated: NR
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  The one thing I don’t do nearly enough of every year for this series is travel back to a time when they truly cranked out horror films. Twenty days in, I often find myself scrambling for titles that I haven’t covered (or want to cover) but then realize that I haven’t even crept up to the edge of the bountiful time when Hollywood leaned into the growing craze for double-bill entertainment and drive-in fare. In truth, most of these are often bland carbon copies of each other, with the studios doing what they still do today: finding a hook that works and continuing to let it wriggle out money until it’s dead. Every so often, a fabulous find like Eye of the Cat slinks into your lap, renewing your commitment to exploring each cobwebbed corner of the horror film vault.

A Universal Studios production, this comes with some prestige to it. Written by Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter of Psycho (1960) and starring Eleanor Parker (the Baroness in The Sound of Music), Eye of the Cat was directed by David Lowell Rich. Rich was the director of the TV movie 1964’s See How They Run (the first movie produced for the medium), which gave network executives the blueprint for the made-for-television film. He was also behind the camera for the popular Lana Turner movie Madame X in 1966. Nabbing hot new stars Michael Sarrazin (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? also arrived in 1969) and Gayle Hunnicutt (appearing in Marlowe the same year) was another win.

So, with all of these factors in its favor, why is Eye of the Cat not that well known? While it has gone on to become a modest cult hit with its strong devotees, it retains its share of detractors for having some semblance of a trashy vibe. I think it’s a hot-wired thriller laced with campy melodrama that bogs it down at critical moments. With all that on the table, the premise is so good and the execution so delightfully “studio” that it’s a must-see in my book.

Parker (Home for the Holidays) plays a wealthy woman living in San Francisco dying of emphysema. (You’ll hear about how the disease has taken 2/3 of her lung tissue several dozen times throughout.)  Charged with the care of her two young nephews after their parents died, only Luke (Tim Henry) remains with her as a grown adult. It’s Wylie (Sarrazin, The Seduction) that Aunt Danny worries about and longs to have back in her life, though, and ever since he left, she has found comfort in a menagerie of cats that has taken Wylie’s place in her heart…and her will. She’s shared all this information with Kassia (Hunnicut), the beautician she visits regularly and has recently had a severe health emergency in the presence of. 

With her client declining rapidly due to the illness, Kassia sets into motion a plan long in development. She’s located Wylie and entices him to return to his aunt’s well-appointed mansion and again get back in her good graces. After he returns to the will, Kassia will kill her and take a cut of the inheritance Wylie stands to receive. There’s just one tiny issue Kassia failed to tell Wylie about. The cats. A childhood trauma at his aunt’s has left him paralyzed with a fear of cats, and he can’t complete his task or compete with the felines until they are out of the way. An old wife’s tale says a cat will always come back, but when a cat knows it isn’t wanted and that someone plans to hurt its owner, it will return…with plans of its own.

From its opening moments featuring a cat prowling around the city, first as a stylized overlay and then the real thing (the main cat is a mischievous-looking orange tabby), Eye of the Cat is a spooky movie that rarely pumps the brakes. Like Stefano’s script for Psycho, it bears down on the audience and doesn’t give much explanation or set-up. It would be best if you got on board, kept up, or were left in the dust. The film’s beginning feels disjointed because Stefano and Rich drop you right into the action without much establishment of whom we’re watching; it’s only later that gaps are filled in. There’s also some disappointing sag in the middle of the film when Wylie and Kassia go out for a night at a swinging ’60s head club which ends with girls in very short mini skirts rolling around fighting/hair-pulling. If you’re watching the movie, fast-forward past this part because it adds nothing but extra time to the film.

Instead, focus on the great work Parker is doing. It could have been easy for Parker to take a Joan Crawford-sized bite out of the role (and Crawford would have been a more obvious choice while giving a less interesting performance). Still, she shows a restraint that favors heightened suspicion over nagging paranoia and growing fear rather than over-the-top terror regarding the people in her house trying to do her in. There’s a marvelous bit where Parker is in a wheelchair, perched precariously at the top of an infamous San Francisco hill and struggling to keep from falling backward. A cat is sauntering up from behind her, and her nephew is coming toward her, and we aren’t sure who means her more harm…and neither is she. Brilliant.

The supporting players are also strong, with Hunnicut being a swell femme fatale that might be playing both brothers against each other but is absolutely hiding something from Wylie. I’ve always found Sarrazin to be an appealing actor but never someone to actively root for. He’s a bit insufferable by design here, but the extra layer of subterfuge he’s pulling makes the character even harder to stomach. I hadn’t seen (or remembered) Henry before, but he’s a handsome leading man, and you feel bad Parker’s character ignores him as she does. However, perhaps she knows something we don’t. There is the suggestion of some impropriety between aunt and nephew, but this was 1969, and a hint is all we get.

The finale of Eye of the Cat was nicely built up and so extreme that when it was aired on network TV, the studio had to refilm the ending to be “less intense.” It’s pretty tense but not as nail-biting as it sounds nor as perfectly satisfying as it could be. I would be interested to see if they remade this today, even as a short in a longer anthology. Eye of the Cat would work nicely as a 45–50-minute chapter of something more gothic and centered around San Francisco’s impressive architecture. Featuring a lush, spine-tingling score by Lalo Schifrin (Tales of Halloween), Eye of the Cat was a pleasant surprise and a title I’d share with friends interested in something different than the same old Halloween rotation of movies.