Scratch Your Midnight Movie Itch with ‘Eye of the Cat’ (1969): The Sex Horror-Comedy on Its Ninth Life

On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age. 

First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing. 

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Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.

The Pitch: Drink (Responsibly) Every Time They Say “Cat”

Like midnight movie canonization, the Cat Distribution System works in mysterious ways. The term, as made popular on TikTok, refers to an informal branch of feline government by which every cat-human connection is ostensibly forged. Whether you met Mittens at your local animal shelter — or found Paul Gia-Meowti in an empty boarding school over Christmas break — the central tenets of the C.D.S. suggest that any time a cat and owner find one another that connection was somehow fated. (To wit, this writer and her ill-mannered orange tabby belong to an undergraduate adoption program out of Atlanta known colloquially to its star-crossed alumni as “Being 20 and Bored.”)

Watching a grindhouse screening of David Lowell Rich’s “Eye of the Cat” at the New Beverly in mid-January (my now 8-year-old Kirby still snug at home), I imagined how the delightfully unserious creature feature must have slinked its way from 1969 to my contemporary corner of Los Angeles. Sure, there’s Tarantino to thank; the 35mm version I saw wouldn’t have happened without his movie theater or its horror-focused Mondays. But with a plug on the Criterion Channel’s “Cat Movies” collection — and a certain runaway wheelchair scene going semi-viral every few years — this psychosexual crime thriller seems destined to find a home with digital age cat lovers like me.

Written by Joseph Stefano (AKA the screenwriter responsible for adapting “Psycho”), this vivid and winsome melodrama combines an intergenerational murder scheme with some not-quite-supernatural undercurrents to force three-time Oscar nominee Eleanor Parker into frame with damn near a hundred cats. When estranged heir apparent Wylie (Michael Sarrazin) meets the mysterious Kassia (Gayle Hunnicutt), he learns his very doting and even more wealthy Aunt Danny is dying of lung disease. According to Kassia, a Lana Del Rey lookalike with the jaw-dropping ‘60s get-ups to match, the infirm old woman plans to give every last cent she has to her cat companions — unless Wylie comes home to help his brother Luke (Tim Henry) take care of her.

For that kind of cash, our feckless dweeb of a hero is happy to oblige; turns out, he can toss out ridiculous pseudo-intellectual lines like “I thought I’d fallen into something all fruitcake and fetishist!” anywhere. Unlucky for Wylie, a debilitating case of “ailurophobia” (AKA the fear of cats) could stop him from getting his paws on that fortune. A feisty flop that’s worth checking out at home but an absolute must-see if you can go in person, “Eye of the Cat” is a niche treasure of crepuscular cinema now on its ninth life — and purrfect for your next midnight movie. —AF

The Aftermath: I’m Not Afraid of the Cats, and I’m Sick of Being Treated Like I Am

As a 21st century viewing experience, the vibes of “Eye of the Cat” are immaculate. The film is a visual smorgasbord of rich only-on-celluloid colors, mod ’60s fashion, and a baroque pop score that would have made Brian Wilson crack a smile. Its legitimate visual quality may well end up making it one of my most rewatched IndieWire After Dark selections when all is said and done.
But if I had to pick a gripe, I’d point out that David Lowell Rich’s film rests on two very flawed assumptions:

  1. That Michael Sarrazin, an odd little man who gives off “Mick Jagger without the fame, money, or musical talent” vibes, is somehow an irresistable fuck-stud who is so used to sleeping with random hotties that he doesn’t suspect he’s part of a scheme until it’s too late.

  2. That everyone in the audience is just as scared of cats as Wylie is.

The idea of a man who is terrified of cats being forced to interact with tons of them as he shamelessly tries to weasel his way into his dying aunt’s fortune sounds like a great movie to me. But I can’t help but feel that this sex horror-comedy should have just been a sex comedy. While I’m sympathetic to Wylie’s condition, everyone who worked on this film apparently missed the memo that cats aren’t actually scary to 99% of the population.

Cutting the horror and leaning into the dark comedy is what I would have done if I was in charge of “Eye of the Cat,” but everyone should be grateful that I wasn’t. Because that one misguided creative choice is what punched the film’s ticket to midnight movie glory.

These adorable felines are constantly shot and edited in ways that seem designed to invoke utter terror. There are so many unintentionally hilarious moments where a cat moves its paw in the most benign way, but an abrupt jump cut and a loud sound effect make it seem like we’re watching Jason Voorhees jump out from around a corner. While I absolutely adored the “Blow Out”-meets-“Pillow Talk” split screens and clever use of cat silhouettes in the opening sequence, I couldn’t help but wonder who on earth they thought they were fooling by making kittens seem so ominous.

But while I found the cats to be consistently lovable, the same can’t be said of the human characters. That’s a compliment to the film’s script, as I admire Joseph Stefano’s courage to show us a slimy ensemble of would-be grave robbers without succumbing to the temptation to make us like someone. Some twists in the script work better than others (I’ll admit that I was charmed by the reveal of Luke and Kassia’s covert love affair), but as I watched these characters go to such great lengths to ensure that they didn’t lose their fortune to a pack of fucking cats, all I could think about was how grateful I am to live an existence where interspecies money laundering does not factor into any of my day-to-day plans. —CZ

Those brave enough to join in on the fun can stream “Eye of the Cat” on the Criterion Channel. IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions…

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