Category Archives: musings

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Unyielding in Their Mystery: Cats in Horror Films

Cats as mysterious creatures is more widely accepted among cultures worldwide than is certitude that the earth is round. You  will never find anyone arguing the former. Ubiquitous are tales of cats as otherworldy animals — from ancient Egypt to the modern day. It’s only natural, then, that the mythology and folklore of cats would find its way to film. And no films are better suited to tales of cats than those of the horror genre.

An 1894 short called “Falling Cat” by French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey is believed to be the first film in history to show a live feline; it consists solely of a cat falling down and landing on its feet. Why do we say a cat has “nine lives”? Its righting reflex, apparently. Mystery solved. But not really. Throw all the science you want at it; the fact remains that cats are mysterious creatures. The supernatural in our homes.

That writers of the nineteenth century inspired filmmakers of the twentieth is not surprising. And that Edgar Allan Poe is first and foremost among them is no surprise either.

Poe’s titular black cat alone has been the subject — even title — of several films. Boris Karloff totes one around in the 1934 film bearing the name (with little other resemblance to Poe’s classic). Similarly separate from anything resembling Poe is 1941’s THE BLACK CAT — a semi-comedic film in the “old dark house” style with the now common trope of a crazy cat lady.

Closer to Poe is 1966’s THE BLACK CAT where a mentally disturbed man is convinced his black cat is possessed. Closer still is Roger Corman’s wildly entertaining TALES OF TERROR (1962) that finds Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in a mash-up of Poe’s story with another of the author’s works: “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Vincent Price as Verden Fell in Tomb of Ligeia
Vincent Price as Verden Fell in Tomb of Ligeia

But tales of a cat as a truly supernatural being get no better than Corman’s atmospheric Poe adaptation TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964). There, Vincent Price as the mournful eccentric Verden Fell (one of the best named characters in all of horror films… with the coolest sunglasses) has the spectre of his wife’s death hanging over him.  Her spirit seemingly inhabits a black cat that torments his new wife, Rowena.

“The eyes, they confound me,” says Fell of cats. “There’s a blankness, a mindless sort of malice in some Egyptian. They do not readily yield up the mystery.” By film’s climax, the cat attacks Fell as Ligeia’s tomb burns down around him.

Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

Written by Robert Towne — best known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for CHINATOWN (1974) — TOMB OF LIGEIA takes Poe’s theme of the dead having influence over the living and adds possession to the mix. Is it metempsychosis? Or is it paranoia? That the cat could be a symbol of Fell’s unnatural love for Ligeia, or her undying influence (and possible revenge?), is left to the audience to decide.

Shadow of the Cat (1961)
Shadow of the Cat (1961)

Revenge, however, is definitely at the heart of Hammer’s 1961 SHADOW OF THE CAT, starring studio regulars André Morell and Barbara Shelley. There, a cat named Tabitha who witnesses the murder of her owner, exacts revenge on her killers just as they try, and continually fail, to kill her.

Cats exacting revenge runs throughout Rank Organization’s THE UNCANNY (1977). Although it performed poorly at the box office, and is pretty much universally panned, it is notable for star Peter Cushing’s portrayal of Wilbur, whose book about cats — as supernatural creatures and the devil in disguise — frames not one but three tales of feline revenge.

The theme of a cat as avenging devil may be at its most gory and over-the-top entertaining in an adaptation of a 1977 Stephen King short story entitled “The Cat from Hell.” Directed by George Romero as the second of three stories in 1990’s TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, “Cat from Hell” finds a wheelchair bound old man named Drogan hiring a hitman to kill a black cat (whose visage graces the header of this blog post). Drogan believes the cat is murderous. Downright evil. When it is revealed that the man’s pharmaceutical company killed thousands of cats while testing a new drug, it becomes clear that the cat is not evil as much as it is vengeful: exacting its revenge as it kills Drogan’s sister, friend, butler, and hitman, before ultimately dispatching Drogan himself.

A young Drew Barrymore holds General, her savior, in Cat's Eye (1985)
A young Drew Barrymore holds General, her savior, in Cat’s Eye (1985)

But cats are not always killers. Sometimes, they are our saviors. 1985’s CAT’S EYE, written by Stephen King, finds a cat named General figuring into three separate stories. The last — and most effective — is the one named for the cat, which finds General at the home of a little girl whose mother dislikes the animal — going so far as to have it euthanized. But General knows that a malevolent troll has moved into the little girl’s home. And it’s up to the cat to fight the troll and protect the child.

Then there’s the unassuming white kitty in 1999’s remake of THE MUMMY. By merely walking across piano keys, it scares Imhotep, the titular character, and the monster runs away.

Avengers. Saviors. Emissaries of the dead, or the dead themselves transmogrified, cats will undoubtedly continue to capture the imagination of audiences eager to delve into their many mysteries for years to come.

Insofar as to how they have been used in horror films, this post has only scratched the surface.

A Shot at The Gun Club

Jeffrey Lee Pierce by Yves Lorson, circa 1985

About a week after musician Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s death in the Spring of 1996, Britain’s Independent published an obituary that called him “one of those musicians who never quite fulfil (sic) their potential yet follow their destiny to its inescapable conclusion.” Grim words for a man who — despite fusing punk rock with psychobilly, roots music, country, and a whole lot of the blues — eschewed much of the angst and anger that was common among his peers. His band, The Gun Club, invariably raises questions of the “who are they?” variety in some circles. But they were pioneers nonetheless, cited as an influence by the likes of The Pixies and Jack White.

“Why are these songs not taught in schools?” asked Jack White in an article in Mojo Magazine [as quoted by The Guardian]). Pointing to tracks like “Sex Beat,” and “She’s Like Heroin to Me,” White would go on to say that “the songwriting of Kid Congo Powers and Jeffrey Lee Pierce has the freshest white take on the blues of its time.” (Listen to “For the Love of Ivy,” another song cited by White, and you can hear how much the band influenced him).

Experiencing many lineup changes (nearly 25 people!) over the years (with Kid Congo Powers leaving to play with both The Cramps, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds for a time), The Gun Club released seven albums in the nineteen eighties and early nineties. Arguably, the band’s first two were its best: Fire of Love (1981) and Miami (1982). The former features a raucous cover of Robert Johson’s “Preaching the Blues.” The latter, released on Blondie guitarist Chris Stein’s Animal Records, found Debbie Harry* singing backup vocals.

Like their debut album, Miami is steeped in the blues, but comes off a little bit darker than its predecessor. Perhaps not as much gloom as the burgeoning goth crowd wanted, but still too strange to appeal to fans of more traditional blues.

That odd mixture might explain why stardom eluded Pierce. The music was difficult to pin down. Live, it could come across as discordant and jarring, as on a 1983 performance of “Sex Beat” at the Hacienda in Manchester, UK. And in the studio, the results were often mixed (no pun intended). Sometimes too polished. Other times, thin and tinny.

Of course, Pierce himself may have been to blame for The Gun Club never getting much notoriety. At least according to bassist Patricia Morrison (later of Sisters of Mercy fame), who joined The Gun Club soon after the release of Miami. In a recent interview with Stomp and Stammer, she attributed their relative anonymity to the same thing that made the band work: Pierce himself. “Jeffrey was quite difficult,” said Morrisson. “He was his own worst enemy. That band should have been huge. I sat there and watched as we were offered record deals and he would turn them down, to take less. It was just his personality, but that’s what also made him Jeffrey.”

The Gun Club never found wider appear like other Los Angeles bands of the time — like X and, especially, The Cramps — did. No coverage on MTv (anyone remember 120 Minutes?). Very little college radio play (at least in the Philadelphia area, where I grew up).  Although they now appeal to fans like me that sought them out years later due to others’ recommendations, they just never attracted a broad audience, then or now.

Their Fire of Love album is included in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Vefore You Die, but they never charted.

Pierce died young, suffering a brain hemorrhage in 1996.

He was 37.

*Pierce was the President of the West Coast chapter of the Blondie fanclub. Harry would go on to record a duet with Nick Cave on “In The Fire” — part of The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project, a tribute to Pierce that has produced a handful of albums.

“Mother of Earth,” was chosen as the song to embed in this article because Debbie Harry performed it with Blondie at the second-to-last CBGB show in 2006. I make that remark for no other reason than I find it hard to believe I’m a Blondie fan and never knew of their connection to The Gun Club.

Finally, the photo used in the header of this post shows The Gun Club, circa 1984, with band lineup, left to right: Terry Graham (drums), Jeffrey Lee Pierce (vocals, guitar), Kid Congo Powers (guitar) and Patricia Morrison (bass).