The Importance of Cats in Horror Cinema

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This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This feature contains broad spoilers for several horror movies featuring cats, including Alien, Cat People, Drag Me To Hell, Fallen, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, Pet Sematary and The Voices.

The relationship between humans and cats over time has given way to a number of cultural impressions and outright superstitions. Ancient Egyptians associated them with gods. In the Middle Ages, they were linked with witches and killed en masse, which probably hastened the spread of the Black Plague through the rodent population. And in the modern day, it’s interchangeably lucky or not if a black cat crosses your path.

Like anything with such a wide array of symbolic links, movies have presented cats as characters in different ways over the years. It’s their abiding association with the supernatural – whether as an omen of things to come or as the popular witch’s familiar or in some other way – that makes their representation in horror films particularly interesting.

Exempting terrors such as Nine Lives and Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas from the canon of feline representation, these everyday animals are turned to all sorts of purposes in horror, and seeing as it’s Halloween, we’ve been thinking about some of those different portrayals. There’s a famous storytelling maxim that states characters should ‘save the cat’ early on in the story, but in horror, they more often need saving from the cat.

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What follows is not a complete, exhaustive cat-alogue of their screen history in the genre. We haven’t included one-off models of moggyness, such as the 2010 home invasion film Burning Bright, which contrives a Lemony Snicket-esque tower of circumstances to put a live tiger in a boarded up house with a teenager and her autistic brother during a hurricane. Instead, we’re using key examples to look at nine major tropes for cats in horror, whether lucky or unlucky; natural or supernatural; good or evil…

1. Werecats

There cats! You’ll never get very far in a conversation about cats in horror without hitting 1942’s Cat People, a seminal psychological horror that was later given a more lurid remake by Paul Schrader. Based on producer Val Lewton’s short story The Bagheeta, Jacques Torneur’s film follows a young Serbian woman called Irena (Simone Simon), whose marriage to American engineer Oliver (Kent Smith) is strained by her deep-rooted fear of a family curse.

Irena loves her husband, and she’s petrified that if she becomes aroused or angry, a black magic curse on her family will cause her to transform into a wild cat and violently attack him. Animals start going nuts around her, except for a caged panther in New York’s Central Park Zoo, which comes to represent the way in which Irena is caged by her inner turmoil and leads her to a tragic end.

Schrader’s remake, which is perhaps best remembered for David Bowie’s theme song, invokes the tropes of werewolf movies and adds erotic, incestuous overtones. In short, it’s more about the external effects than the monster within, which the original essayed so brilliantly despite a limited budget and a troubled production.

On a semi-related note, Torneur also had a house cat turn into a panther in a memorable scene from 1957’s Night Of The Demon, adapted from M.R. James’ Casting The Runes, as Niall MacGinnis’ Satanic cult leader affably trolls Dana Andrews with his witchcraft. Werecat films have never been quite as popular on screen as their canine cousins (only just above the lesser seen Wererabbit in terms of representation), and the original Cat People remains an unparalleled classic in this particular branch of feline horror.

2. Revenants

Getting onto actual feline characters, there are a fair few films that position cats as zombies or revenants, to one end or another, usually to differing degrees of gross-out.

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For instance, on one end of the scale, we have Thackery Binx in Disney’s Hocus Pocus, with his immortal soul trapped inside a black cat by the wicked Sanderson sisters. He gets flattened by a tyre at one point, but the curse affords him a swift return. On the gorier end, Re-Animator‘s Herbert West demonstrates his ghastly green serum on his roommate’s dearly departed pet Rufus, though it’s unclear if he was already dead when West got hold of him.

“Don’t expect it to tango. It has a broken back”, West deadpans after the serum drives Rufus to attack on the first attempt. Unsurprisingly, Rufus winds up in much worse shape than Binx.

But cats pop up time and again in Stephen King’s work, so naturally, the major revenant to discuss here is Church, from Mary Lambert’s film adaptation of Pet Sematary. Dr. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) is shown a secret Micmac burial ground by his well meaning neighbour Jud (Fred Gwynne), and unwisely buries the beloved family pet there in order to bring him back to life.

Church does indeed return, but with an awful stench and some serious personality problems. Sometimes dead is better, but that’s a lesson that the doctor fails to take on board as he’s repeatedly bereaved, later subjecting his young son Gage (brilliantly played by Miko Hughes) to the same ritual. The murderous toddler has his own zombie familiar in the form of Church.

3. Haunted pussies (Or ‘Pussession’)

Other cats are more obviously possessed by forces from beyond. A prominent example of a cat’s body being controlled by some supernatural nasty or other comes in 1973’s The Legend Of Hell House, based on the novel by Richard Matheson. A black cat usually appears in establishing shots of the titular house, in which paranormal experts have congregated to prove or disprove the possibility of ‘survival after death’.

The air of foreboding in its presence is paid off when it startles poor Florence (Pamela Franklin) twice – first by attacking her in her room and then turning up dead and bloodied in the shower later on. If you haven’t seen the film, you might know the typically over-the-top spoof of the fight scene in Scary Movie 2, when Anna Faris goes Raging Bull on the little bastard.

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Even more irreverent is Nobuhiku Obayashi’s surreal and anarchic horror comedy, House (or Hausu), which was conceived as a Jaws style monster movie by Japanese film company Toho, but wound up being something utterly unique. A schoolgirl nicknamed Gorgeous takes six of her classmates to visit her aunt, who lives alone but for her cat, Blanche. Things start getting weird when the cat reveals green laser eyes, but never lets up on the insanity from there.

But when we talk about cats in this regard, we’re really thinking of Gregory Hoblit’s criminally underappreciated thriller Fallen, which plays with supernatural horror and an unreliable narrator all the way up to its final gut-punch, in which the presence of a cat is crucial.

4. Vessels of dark magic

Elsewhere, the good guys will sometimes use cats in less than humane ways, particularly where rituals are concerned. For instance, 2005’s Constantine has Keanu Reeves’ occult detective use Duck, a cat who belonged to Rachel Weisz’s dead twin sister, in a ritual to open a portal to hell. The cat is suitably perturbed by the ordeal and runs off when it’s over.

But more memorably, Sam Raimi’s raucous Drag Me To Hell has cursed real estate agent Christine (Alison Lohman) learn that an animal sacrifice might get the dreaded Lamia off her back. Initially, she’s adamant that she would never do this, but it only takes a couple of Raimi-brand encounters with the demon to have Christine coaxing her adorable pet kitten over to her kitchen knives.

Wisely, the theatrical cut of the film cuts out the violent sacrifice itself and cuts to the poor kitten’s burial. Alas, the very dead cat makes an unexpected reappearance during the film’s batshit insane séance scene, when it’s regurgitated by one of the possessed participants. It’s a dog’s life for some of these kitties.

5. Conscience and feline avengers

Horror fiction has found some interesting uses of a cat’s piercing glare as well. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Black Cat follows an alcoholic whose life is ruined when he drunkenly attacks his faithful cat Pluto, in a series of episodes that range from eye gouging to eventual hanging. Like The Telltale Heart, the story features a guilty protagonist projecting his heavy conscience upon an outwardly un-self-conscious proxy.

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In this case, it’s the almost identical cat he obtains to replace the one he murdered, which appears to be punishing him for his crimes and drives him to eventual ruin when he kills his wife too. Although many film adaptations have taken the title of Poe’s story, including Lucio Fulci’s 1981 horror, the only story element that is truly consistent between them all is the representation of the black cat as conscience and even as avenger.

It’s a portrayal which also forms the basis of films such as 1961’s The Shadow Of The Cat, in which a murdered heiress’ tabby cat, Tabitha, witnesses the conspiracy between her crooked husband and butler and torments them into a tizzy.

The 1977 anthology film The Uncanny runs with this basic premise too, as writer Wilbur Gray (the great Peter Cushing) feverishly pitches his exposé of cat violence to his sceptical publisher, telling three tales of terror in which feline avengers chew through throats or trip malfeasant humans down the stairs.

“We let them prowl about just as they please, hardly noticing them”, Grey pleads. “And all the time, they’re watching us, spying on us, making sure that we behave.” Notably, humans are behind the real evil of all three stories, and where the cats are violent, they’re avenging various wrongs. His ravings about cats being the real masters and humans their pawns will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to look after one for someone else.

Of course, not all conscientious cats are working for good. In The Voices, factory worker Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) is caught in the midst of a battle for his very soul, between his good boy dog Bosco and his spiteful Glaswegian cat Mr. Whiskers (both voiced by Reynolds.) Given the collection of heads he builds in his fridge, it’s fair to say the foul mouthed feline wins that particular battle.

6. Reincarnated women

In an unexpected crossover between the possessed breed and the more conscientious kind of cat, there’s a strong basis in cinema for wronged women to be reincarnated in feline form.

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A key text here is 1968’s Kuroneko, (whose title roughly translates as The Black Cat, again) which opens with an unforgettably grim sequence of a mother and her daughter-in-law being raped and murdered by soldiers. The two women are somehow awoken by a black cat, and they embark upon a mission of revenge. This film inspired Batman Returns‘ take on Catwoman, which was ripped off in turn by a real horror, 2004’s Catwoman, starring Halle Berry.

Going back to Poe adaptations, the 1964 Vincent Price vehicle The Tomb Of Ligeia gives us a cat who comes back to torment her widower’s new wife, but it’s definitely the aggressor rather than the avenger here. And bringing the widow reincarnation trope right up to date, a cat who may or may not be the main character’s late mother in a new form plays a pivotal role in 2014’s A Girl Walks Home At Night, which leads us nicely to…

7. Evil detectors

The cat proves instrumental to the story in Ana Lily Amirpour’s Iranian vampire noir from beginning to end, passing from Arash (Arash Marandi) to his drug-addled father Hossein (Marshall Manesh) to the titular Girl (Sheila Vand) and it’s when she’s with the latter that we see the time-honoured ability of cats to detect when something is not what it ought to be.

This extends beyond horror cinema to the point where even 1990’s Ghost subverts it, by having Demi Moore’s cat be able to sense a late Patrick Swayze and help him to protect his living girlfriend by warding off his murderer. The trope also got a digital update in The Matrix, when the deja vu of seeing two black cats is a sign that ‘they’ve changed something’ – more of an evil alarm, than anything else. The sequels would have a forgettable brush with the Matrix’s equivalent of vampires, werewolves and ghosts, but the horror aspect is decidedly underplayed.

It also formed the basis of a screenplay by Stephen King (him again!), for 1992’s Sleepwalkers. The cat-like vampires of that film, Charles and Mary Brady (Brian Krause and Alice Krige) can only be detected and harmed by regular cats, making it into werecats versus regular cats. The police deputy’s cat Clovis proves to be the real hero here, loyally defending humanity and scratching up the Bradys ’till they combust.

Unlike the dark conscience/avenger trope, this model of moggy-ness is decidedly pro-cat, even though it usually still hinges on the creatures being a little off themselves. After all these evil cats, what can we say? Game recognise game.

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8. Faithful companions

Sometimes, a cat is just a pet, but even so, pets in horror are unlikely to be just cats. For example, that cat may have the voice of Keith David, as in the superb family friendly chiller Coraline, where The Cat serves as the heroine’s sarcastic guide to the Other World.

Still, they can be just as faithful to the baddies too, as in the case of the witch’s familiar. Dario Argento’s Inferno has one of the leads get attacked by cats, after earlier establishing that one of the film’s witches brings her cat to college with her. The trope also gets a more endearing airing in Hellboy, where the big red lug has several pet cats and saves a whole box of kittens during a dust-up with a hellhound on a subway platform.

But arguably the most famous pet cat in cinema is Jones from Alien, the only other survivor of the Nostromo. The ship’s mouser is nothing but trouble for the human crew, getting them to chase him into the path of the xenomorph with fatal consequences for Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and major inconvenience for Ripley (Sigourney Weaver.)

Jones seems unaffected by this, as film writer and cat enthusiast Anne Bilson expanded upon in her short story My Day By Jonesy, rewriting the film from his cool perspective, which is well worth seeking out. In the movies, he’s last seen in Aliens, when Ripley leaves him behind on Earth as she goes on another dangerous expedition. Without a cat to chase after, she winds up adopting a Newt instead.

9. Jump scares

You’re in a dark room. The killer/monster/poisonous mist has gotta be around here somewhere and your guard is up. Your pulse races and your breath catches, and every fight or flight instinct goes mental as you anticipate a sudden… MEOW. Oh, it’s just the bloody cat. And only then does the xenomorph comes and gets you. Cheers, Jones, you little shithead.

Our last trope is a near-universal function of cats in horror movies – to pop out and scare characters and the audience at inopportune moments. (“Is someone throwing it?” Donald Glover’s Troy yelps in a Halloween episode of Community filled with cat scares.) It’s so common that it’s even been parodied to death – Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday The 13th even has cats with names like Cheap Shot, Lame Gag and Dead Horse just to hammer it home – and circled back around to being used again.

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This trick goes so far back that one of the earliest, most famous subversions of it comes in Cat People, when Oliver’s love interest Alice (Jane Randolph) has an uneasy walk home. As the suspense builds, we’re ready for Irena or another cat to pop up and scratch her eyes out but when the hiss comes, it’s from the air brake of a bus that suddenly pulls up beside her.

It’s from this early jolt that the ‘cat scare’ gets its official name of the Lewton bus, after the producer who replicated this technique in several of his later horror films too. Cats have a number of roles to play in horror, but as this bus brings us full circle, we all know that they’ll be making people jump long after these other character types have gone out of fashion.

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