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Retro Sceening: Eye of the Cat at New Beverly

New Beverly Cinema let the cat out of the bag and onto the big screen for the first time in decades….

Though not a lost classic, the seldom seen Eye of the Cat is an interesting historical oddity with its own quirky cult appeal, especially to fans of feline-themed horror-thrillers. After receiving a limited theatrical release from Universal Pictures in June 1969, the Joseph L. Schenck Enterprises production was shuffled off to television, where it was not only edited but also drastically revised by the inclusion of alternate footage. (Universal had performed similar cosmetic surgery on a trio of Hammer Horror films1 earlier in the decade, adding scenes for television, and would later do much the same for Earthquake and John Carpenter’s The Thing.)

For decades, the theatrical version of Eye of the Cat was virtually unobtainable, and even the TV edit was seldom broadcast. The only way to see the film at all was on VHS bootleg tapes of the TV broadcast, and the only way to get a glimpse of the original was via the theatrical trailer, which included footage not shown on television. Eventually, Shout Factory put out a restored version on Blu ray in 2018, at last giving cult movie fans a chance to see the film as its creators intended. Theatrical screenings remained rare, making its appearance at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles on January 22 something of an event.

One of the few Los Angeles theatres still devoted to keeping old movies alive on the big screen, The New Beverly is a haven for cinephiles, and it is great shape these days (not the slightly shabby place it used to be prior to renovations). Seeing movies there is a true pleasure, partly because of the presentation (good projection of the best available 35mm prints) and partly because of the audience (like-minded fans showing up to enjoy the communal experience of seeing a film they could probably watch on home video). Thus, the opportunity to see Eye of the Cat on the big screen for the first (and probably last) time in our life, was not to be missed even though we own the blu ray.

As we like to say, you have not really seen a film until you have seen it in a theatre.


Eye of the Cat: Supernatural Horror of Psycho-Sexual Thriller?
Eye of the Cat (1969)
As in the old wive’s tale, the black cat approaches as if to suck the breath from our ailurophobic protagonist.

Eye of the Cat is an obvious attempt to create a Hitchcockian thriller set in San Francisco but with a protagonist suffering from ailurophobia instead of acrophobia. The result hardly ascends the summit of Vertigo (1958), but that is too high a bar for most films to clear. Sure, director David Lowell Rich is no Alfred Hitchcock, and star Michael Sarazzin is no Jimmy Stewart, but both acquit themselves quite well, and the film manages to be both creepy and suspenseful.

The film’s one contributor with a truly Hitchcockian pedigree is screenwriter Joseph Stefano, who had adapted Robert Bloch’s novel for Hitchock’s 1960 film, Psycho. Stefano’s script for Eye of the Cat mixes conventional murder melodrama with suggestions of the supernatural to create an intriguing if oddball mixture. It is not a perfectly balanced cocktail, but if you swallow it whole, it will get you buzzed.

The plot has Kassia2 (Gayle Hunnicut) track down Wylie (Michael Sarrazin), wayward nephew of Aunt Danny (Eleanor Parker), so that the old woman can reinstate him in her will – instead of leaving her money to the hundreds of cats in her San Francisco home. Kassia plans is to kill Aunt Danny for a share of the inheritance, but there is one problem: Wylie has a phobia of cats, inspired by a childhood memory of one climbing onto his chest and sucking out his breath.

Aunt Danny has the cats removed for Wylie’s benefit, but one of them (“Tullia” in the credits) mysteriously avoids eviction. Even more mysteriously, Tullia reappears after having been apparently killed early in the movie. The film is ambiguous on this point (is it really the same cat or a look-alike?) and also on the question of whether something supernatural is truly afoot. Stefano (who had undergone psychoanalysis) takes a psychological approach, suggesting that the characters may be projecting their own guilty feelings onto the cats. But this explanation leaves unanswered questions, such as why all the cats took up residence with Aunt Danny in the first place. Is it possible that Wylie and his younger brother, Luke (Tim Henry), were correct in their childish belief that Aunt Danny had “occult” powers?

Eye of the Cat (1969)
Tullia prevents Kassia from turning off Aunt Danny’s oxygen.

For that matter, why does Tullia seem to be eyeing the conspirators suspiciously as they put their murderous plan into action? Tullia appears menacing, even diabolic, to Wylie, and eventually Kassia begins to share his phobia; however, it is easy for the audience to view the cat in a heroic role, thwarting the would-be murderers: not content to merely observe, Tullia prevents Kassia from turning off Aunt Danny’s oxygen supply at a crucial moment. This convincing animal action – Tullia is one of the screen’s best animal actors – is enhanced by several shots that incorporate both actors and animal, allowing for believable interaction, instead of the standard technique of shooting the cat separately and editing it into the scene.

Lobby card from the 1969 film
Aunt Danny (Eleanor Parker) seems way too interested in her newphew.

Stefano also fills his script with psycho-sexual elements so pronounced that they almost overwhelm the focus on the film’s ambiguously sinister felines. There is a truly weird family dynamic at play, which is not so subtly Oedipal. Aunt Danny is basically a replacement mother for the two brothers: their real mother died when they were children, and she inherited their father’s wealth because she was his mistress.

Since Wylie dropped out and fled the scene, Luke has devoted his life to caring for his ailing aunt, working bare-chested like a young stud hoping to seduce the lady of the house. He is clearly resentful when Wylie reappears like the prodigal son, immediately claiming all of their aunt’s affection – which extends well beyond maternal. She comes across like a predatory cougar toward Wylie, at one point suggestively placing her hand on his thigh as he reclines on her bed (“You have a very hot hand,” says Wylie, “for an aunt”).

At times the hothouse atmosphere is so steamy it approaches camp but remains enjoyable, nonetheless.

 Michael Sarrazzin as Wylie
Deadbeat Wylie (Michael Sarrazzin) gets a makeover before being reintroduced to his rich aunt.

By the standards of Hollywood productions in the 1960s, Eye of the Cat does a decent job with its depiction of the younger generation. When we meet Wylie, he is supposed to be a deadbeat drifter, but he is affable and fairly endearing in his willingness to follow whatever path happens to open up before him, and considering his home life, we understand why he took off even if it meant abandoning a family fortune. Of course, he is plotting to murder his aunt, but like Alex De Large a few years later in A Clockwork Orange, there is something engaging about his amoral joie de vivre; moreover, the occasional flashes of genuine concern flashing from beneath his placid indifference make us wonder whether he will follow through.

There is also a somewhat irrelevant scene at a hipster bar in Sausalito, which adds little to the plot, but it does include a cat fight between Kassia and Wylie’s former girlfriend. Charitably, the sequence offers a glimpse of the lifestyle Whylie chose before being drafted into Kassia’s murder plot, and it also provides refreshing relief from the oppressive tension at home. The depiction of the pot-smoking hipsters could be read as condescending, but they seem less bizarre than Wylie’s family and a lot more fun – even when they’re being pretentious. At least, their amusing quips show a hint of self-deprecation: “I told my mom I’m a latent homosexual, and she said, ‘better latent than never’!”

Visually, the film suffers from being made when Universal Pictures was having an identity crisis about whether it was a movie studio or a television studio. Like many of the company’s other theatrical features of the era, Eye of the Cat has daytime scenes shot in a bright, low-contrast style that would look good on the cathode ray tubes of the day. Fortunately, cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks was able to employ a more noirish look during the night scenes, creating an eerie ambiance that exploits our ambivalent attitude toward felines.

Eye of the Cat (19690
Aunt Danny takes a tumble down the streets of San Francisco.

Likewise, Lalo Schifrin’s score is a bit too saccharine when underlining the beautiful outdoor scenery, but it kicks into terror mode during the climactic cat attack, when Aunt Danny’s cats return en masse to exact vengeance on Kassia. The animal action here is truly amazing, with a horde of cats pursuing Kassia in long shots, which are effectively intercut with closeups of the feral creatures eyeing her with a convincing combination of ferocity and hunger. Along with the cat wranglers, kudos go to director Rich for effectively handling a scene so entertainingly over-the-top that it borders on the absurd. Rich also pulls off a Hitchcock-worthy set piece earlier in the film when Aunt Danny’s electric wheelchair gives out on hilly street, sending her on a mad slide down toward a busy intersection – the film’s most effective attempt to create a genuinely thrilling Hitchcockian set piece.

Thrills like these, combined with ominous cats and a perverse family dynamic, may not add up to a masterpiece, but they do make Eye of the Cat worth seeing, especially on the big screen with an appreciative audience.


Eye of the Cat at the New Beverly Cinema

New Beverly Cinema

Watching Eye of the Cat at the New Beverly on January 22 (where it was double billed with 1967’s Games) reminded us once again of the superiority of the theatrical experience. To our surprise, the seats were packed for a film that few have heard or care about. It was a bit like being part of an ad hoc esoteric society exploring a topic of interest only to the initiated. Less poetically, a rep for the theatre introduced the screening by noting that the film’s trailer had been screening daily for the prior week, and in his words “it killed.” Presumably that was enough to draw an audience eager to enjoy this strange artifact from 1969.

Typical for the New Beverly, each feature film was preceded by vintage trailers, a cartoon, and a Coming Soon bumper that felt like a time machine taking viewers back to the 20th century. The trailer was for the 1966 British horror-thriller The Psychopath (scripted by Robert Bloch), which set the tone for the films to follow. The cartoon was 1949’s Oscar-nominated short Mouse Wreckers, featuring Hubie and Bertie, a pair of mice who contrive to scare a cat away from a house where they hope to take up residence. Not sure whether the presence of a cat was supposed to tie in with Eye of the Cat, but if that was the plan, Tom and Jerry’s 1942 spooky spoof Fraidy Cat might have been a better choice.

As for the feature film, an archival 35mm print of Eye of the Cat was screened (with the outdated M for Mature rating still intact), and it looked like new – no scratches, splices, or faded colors.3 Of course there was some grain, but that gave a pleasing texture to the cinemaphotography, which to our eyes seems a little too pristine on Blu ray. This especially helped the slightly over-lit daylight scenes, helping make Eye of the Cat look more like a theatrical feature and less as like a TV movie.

Equally important was the feeling of being swept up in in the audience appreciation, which was obvious and audible. Certainly, they laughed at campier elements: Wylie’s ailurophobia is sometimes overplayed, and the coy approach to risqué elements is dated (the film hints that it might show nudity but always cuts away). However, even the dubious elements like the gratuitous cat fight between Kassia and Wylie’s ex-girlfriend were greeted with wild enthusiasm. Even better, the weird vibe between Aunt Danny and Wylie pushed viewers’ cringe buttons quite effectively, creating as much discomfort as the sinister felines.

Eye of the Cat (1969)
Kassia Lancaster (Gayle Hunnicutt) pursued by cats in the original ending.

Best of all, the film’s original madcap finale with Kassia pursued by hungry cats went down like gangbusters. Sure, it’s absurd if you stop to think about it, but it works visually, thanks to Hunnicut’s performance and nicely staged animal action, with lots of longshots clearly showing the actress in the scene with felines instead of piecing everything together in the editing room). The last-minute plot twists offer some legitimate surprises (whether or not they fully vibe with the characters’ previous behavior).

The final resolution may not be fully satisfying, but it makes sense in light of everything we have seen. Hints of the occult remain hints, and the script opts for a subtler sort of retribution than modern film’s typically mete out to villains. Nevertheless, Eye of the Cat works on its own terms, and for us it never worked better than when seen on the big screen at the New Beverly Cinema.4


Footnotes:

  1. The Phantom of the Opera, Evil of Frankenstein, Kiss of the Vampire
  2. This is the same name Stefano gave to the femme fatale in “The Form of Things Unknown,” an episode of The Outer Limits.
  3. Most likely the print was in great shape because the obscure film has been so rarely screened.
  4. We did not stick around for the second half of the double bill, Games, which we have seen theatrically twice before. It would have been worth seeing again, but we had to rush home and write up the experience of watching Eye of the Cat.
Eye of the Cat (Universal Pictures, 1969)
3

Rating Scale

1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See

A would-be Hitchcockian thriller, Eye of the Cat strives for heights it cannot fully attain, but its combo of feral felines, murder melodrama, and Oedipal insinuation is memorably weird in a “WTF?” sort of way.

The New Beverly Cinema’s presentation of the film on January 22, 2024 was everything a cult movie cinephile could have wanted: with an excellent 35mm print and flawless projection, the film provoked an enthusiastic audience response that brought the film to life in a way that home video can never match.

Credits: Directed by David Lowell Rich. Written by Joseph Stefano. 102 mins. Rated M (for Mature). U.S. Theatrical Release:

Cast: Michael Sarrazin, Gayle Hunnicutt, Eleanor Parker, Tim Henry, Laurence Naismith, Jennifer Leak, Linden Chiles, Mark Herron.

The New Beverly Cinema is located at 7165 Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. Check out their schedule of retro screenings here.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.