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Uncanny Cats

From Edgar Allen Poe to Edgar G. Ulmer, and from Jacques Tourneur to Stephen King, cats are used to bring home the horror of the wilderness.
Katherine Connell
In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Black Cat” (1843) a large feline named Pluto follows the narrator “with a pertinacity which it would be difficult to make the reader comprehend.” Poe’s narrator struggles to put into words how, exactly, this pursuit fills him with terror. Cinema has provided a solution to capturing the elusive, uncanny cat: its quiet steps, eerily graceful jumps, gleaming eyes, and mythologized ability to dodge death nine-fold. Unlike dogs, cats are more independent and can’t be relied on to come when they’re called. Cats are expert at hiding, fitting into unbelievably tiny spaces, and their claws are extremely sharp. Hovering in the liminal field between wilderness and domestication, the house cat is often used in horror to parallel the genre’s interest in showing the disintegration of the home or domestic life into chaos. 
Poe’s story has been loosely adapted as a horror film several times, first in Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934, starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi), as a chapter in Roger Corman’s anthology Tales of Terror (1962), and notably again in cat-obsessed giallo filmmaker Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (1981). These and similar films use cats as devices to leap into frame and startle spectators or reproduce the meow as a terrifying sound, akin to a twisted human scream. Fulci’s adaptation of Poe begins with a man who loses control of his red sports car, thrown off-guard by the yellow eyes of a hissing, telepathically possessed black cat in the back seat. The man is thrown through his windshield, instantly dead—though the cat survives. The camera pans away from the brutal crash, following the lithe movements of the cat who languidly crawls over a terracotta tiled roof, growling slightly but largely unbothered. Often shooting in tracking swerves at ground level, Fulci captures the perspective of this murderous cat, giving the spectator cross-species access to a cat’s eye view.
In the 1940s an abundance of cat themed horror films were made. The Black Cat was revived again in 1941 and the war era spawned several notable animal thrillers: Cat People (1942), The Leopard Man (1943), Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Catman of Paris (1946), and The Creeper (1948). Within this period and beyond, Naomi Pallas has recently noted the ways that cats function symbolically along gendered lines, either in the figure of the cat lady (who threatens heteronormativity) or, as in Cat People’s 1982 remake, cat-ness takes on an erotic dimension that fetishizes yet demonizes women’s sexuality (a symbolic trope with longstanding presence in art history). In the 1942 Cat People, cats become offered up as exotic or orientalist sources of old magic used to justify a story involving supernatural terrors. Cat People is also an early example of the onscreen horror trope of showing a person who acts like a cat, such as the nightmarish meowing boy in Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) whose horrific presence hinges on a simultaneous reversal of childhood innocence and the power relations in pet keeping. We are often uncritical of the ways that we transgress and uphold human/nonhuman distinctions with companion animals. We may treat our pets as children, a dynamic uncomfortably exposed in watching children behave like pets.
In a great deal of more contemporary films, cats might be victims or red-herrings for dangers located elsewhere. They’re frequently preternaturally intelligent and elusive, such as Jonesy in Alien (1979) or Mrs. Norris in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011). Despite their small scale these cats bear witness to, interact with, and evade the most threatening or destructive forces of evil. In The Shape of Water (2017), Guillermo Del Toro’s Amphibian Man munches off the head of a frequently hissing cat named Pandora whose body hangs limply, neck teeming with blood. The scene is played for macabre laughs, but resonates as one of the more complex moments in the film’s exploration of animality, monstrosity and otherness. The death of a cat is often used to create a more affectively rich horror film, manipulating the audience’s emotions in unpredictable ways. This is true of Drag Me To Hell (2009), in which Alison Lohman taunts, stabs, sacrifices and buries a kitten in attempt to offset a curse. Echoing Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000), Lohman heightens her voice with a knife held over her head: “Here kitty, kitty!” Yet while in American Psycho where the small tabby kitten acts as itinerant witness to Bateman’s murder of an elderly woman, the fluffy white Persian cat of Hausu (1977) named Blanche watches over the bizarre horrors of the surreal, possessed house as both observant cat and gruesome, blood spewing painting. Blanche highlights the ways in which horror draws upon the mischief of cats: passive seeming, secretly scheming.
If one cat can be made frightening, any additions become an unwanted crowd. Hordes of feral cats play on the sensory claustrophobia associated with hoarding situations. Homeliness becomes entropy in Grey Gardens (1975), where spectators can practically smell the tins of rotting cat food scattered throughout the decaying mansion. “They have nine lives—we only have one,” reads a tagline for John McPherson’s made-for-TV horror Strays (1991), which draws its scariness from this beastly multiplicity overcrowding a family home. Cats are considered like a murder of crows: an omen that quickly transforms into a direct threat. We see a pack of cats produce similar violence in the Swedish film Let The Right One In (2008): arching their backs and narrowing in on their victim, biting her ankles and jumping up her body while sinking their claws deep into her flesh. Attempts to throw them off only increase their plenitude and aggression. The experience is haptic and painful, even for spectators without the sense memory of being scratched by or clung to by a sharp-nailed cat. What is most interesting here, and unique to the cat as monster, is that we feel empathy for the human victim but also the cats. Tiny yet powerful, aggressive yet vulnerable, cats regularly compliment horror’s interest in sympathetic monsters. Even though they’re aggressive, it’s hard not to cringe as their mewling forms are thrown against a hanging lamp or when they’re crushed by their victim’s rolling fall down the stairs. As Missouri Williams writes, the audience can rarely relinquish awareness of the “realness” of an animal performer’s presence onscreen. In scenes of cruelty towards animals, humans confront their “own feelings of powerlessness” by looking at “an even less powerful animal.” As a genre, horror can trouble the sense of spectatorial passivity Williams mentions, where “to not have to intervene is a relief.” Instead, horror chooses to activate spectatorial nausea or panic that may move us towards self-awareness of our complicity in nonhuman suffering.
The house cat lends itself well to the horror genre as it stands for both domesticity and part of the family, but can also something that can’t be contained or controlled within these structures. Such is the interest of Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Windmyer’s recently released Pet Sematary (2019) in which cats play a vivid role. Kölsch and Windmyer’s Pet Sematary functions as both an adaptation of Stephen King’s 1983 novel and director Mary Lambert’s 1989 film. In the 2019 update, horror hinges on the Creed family’s move from Boston to the forests of rural Maine, in the hopes of their new home providing a slower and quieter life for father Louis (Jason Clarke), who is a doctor. When they arrive at their new home, the Creeds are displeased to discover that the country road their home lies on is a particularly busy with massive trucks, driving far too fast. More disturbingly, at least initially, the property backs onto a pet cemetery, a discovery made by mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and young daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence).
As with Lambert’s first adaptation, the reception of Kölsch and Windmyer’s Pet Sematary has been largely mixed, and for good reason. The story extends some tired clichés that are, at best, somewhat boring scares and, at worst, do not thoughtfully anticipate obvious political critiques by refusing to unpack the story’s reliance on vaguely interpreted Indigenous mythologies. What viewers have found exciting about Pet Sematary has been expressed via fannish excitement over the five Maine Coon cats who play Church, the Creed family’s special pet who is soon run over by a truck and whose squashed, bloodied furry form is the first body that is treated to resurrection in the supernatural pet cemetery. For Ellie, Church offers special companionship, and so neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) shows Louis the aftermath of Church’s run-in with a truck and swears him to secrecy. When Church comes back from the dead, however, he’s “different,” meowing and hissing with an aggression and bad smell that are hard to ignore. Yet what’s also striking is that there’s something off about pre-death Church, too, who is almost too behaved and too sweet. He spoons in bed with Ellie at night and leaps onto Jud’s lap, flopping and purring loudly. Foreshadowing Church’s eventual turn is a bedtime conversation Louis and Rachel have with Ellie who is grappling to understand death. Rachel spins lofty stories about heaven, and the afterlife. As a doctor, Louis thinks this is putting off the truth of death and grieving. As Louis and Rachel hover over their daughter’s bed oscillating between these two different perspectives, Church, who is curled up at the foot, flaps his tail back and forth, acting as a metronome to the foundational suspense built in this conversation. Here, Church is framed as judging the humans surrounding him. His discerning presence emphasizes the inadequacies of human meaning-making as Louis and Rachel struggle with the “right” narrative structure to impose onto human life.
When Church is buried in the pet cemetery, Louis and Rachel settle on the fictitious story that he ran away. To their shock, Ellie claims that he didn’t: Church was there all night. The camera pans over to Ellie’s window, where one of the ceramic blocks spelling her name has been ominously knocked over. Church hisses from the closet. Ellie remains unperturbed until she begins to brush Church’s snarled, dirty fur and he scratches her for pulling on a hard tangle. Ellie kicks Church out of her bedroom that night, and Louis—too horrified by this perversion of nature—releases the cat far, far away from the house.
Ellie feels that she drove Church to run away and these feelings of guilt come to a head on her birthday, producing two of the film’s most formally interesting feline related images. At her party, Ellie can’t stop moping about Church. In an attempt to pacify her, Louis gifts her a stuffed toy animal of a grey cat dressed up in a ballerina’s costume. As Ellie is a dancer, the image of this toy encapsulates film’s theme of animals and humans behaving out of character. Its status as an object for children reminds the viewer of the human tendency to make animals cute in order to diminish their weirdness or reassert our control over them. While the party is distracted playing games, Ellie sees an absolutely filthy Church sitting peacefully in the middle of the road. As Ellie runs towards Church, the scene cuts to an unthinking truck driver listening to music and speeding. The truck swerves upon seeing Ellie, but its trailer detaches and kills her. Though we’re not shown the gruesome collision, one of the first images shown to the audience is Ellie’s toy cat strewn on the road. Although Jud tells Louis that “sometimes dead is better,” father resurrects daughter. Like Church, undead Ellie is different: replete with a stapled scalp and newfound murderous rage. Dancing wildly in her funerary garments, she resembles the cat ballerina toy given to her earlier. As she rampages, enacting her devastation and confusion at being brought back, Ellie’s movements become catlike. Much like Blanche in Hausu, Church sits in eerie calm, watching Ellie’s rampage in smug alliance.
Ellie’s death is one of many diversions Kölsch and Windmyer make from Lambert’s adaptation—and King’s original text—where Ellie’s baby brother Gage is killed by the truck. Undead Gage with his awful laugh is actually much scarier, and Church (played by a “British Blue” Shorthair in the 1989 film) less so. Also, in Kölsch and Windmyer’s version, Church remains unscathed. In Lambert’s film, Louis kills re-animated Church with a syringe of morphine and the cat essentially deflates. Just as with Let The Right One In, we’re more than aware of Church’s demonic nature, but also feel intense sympathy while watching his body slacken.
Cats have been a longstanding fascination for Stephen King, also appearing in Cats Eye (1985) and Sleepwalkers (1992). Photos of the author cuddling cats or with kittens stacked on his head and shoulders are readily accessible. Fascinatingly, the reboot of Pet Sematary has awakened an audience interest in the minutiae of training animals for onscreen performance. In a moment where cat videos on globally popular pet video website The Dodo remain a reliable source of respite from reality and television shows like My Cat From Hell promise that naughty kitties can become good kitties, horror films like Pet Sematary are delightful in their refusal of this narrative. More radically, these films make the assertion that cats like Church might still be lovable or fascinating in spite or because of their perverseness, their monstrosity, and their ultimate inability to be controlled by humans. 
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