As cute ‘n’ frisky as they may be, not everyone views the humble house cat in the same light.
After all, cats, no matter how well we think we know them, are mysterious and mischievous animals that, unlike their attention-starved canine counterparts, aren’t so easily manipulated. They do whatever they want, whenever they feel like it. They stalk, they hunt, they intentionally break stuff, they stare deep into your soul with glowing, all-knowing eyes. That’s just the way it is and always has been. And this — that trademark feline independence and unpredictability — seriously freaks some folks out. (Hello, gatophobics!)
Aloof as they are affectionate, domestic cats are both revered and feared by different cultures. Often viewed as harbingers of death, doom and not-so-great luck, cats — particularly kitties with sleek black coats — have long been at the center of superstitious folklore and macabre works of literature and art. They’re also, of course, the preferred familiars of witches.
This all said, cats have long played a prominent part in horror films throughout the decades. Usually their roles are of a malevolent — if not straight-up murderous — nature although some scary movies opt to paint kitties as human-protecting protagonists or foils to supernatural forces. And while they often appear in horror movies, cats don’t always necessarily enjoy watching them, as the video below shows. (Old “Tom and Jerry” cartoons and bird documentaries are probably more their speed).
Below you'll find nine nightmarish films filled with feline-based frights: zombie cats, evil spirit-possessed cats, demonic ghost casts, mutant cats, even shape-shifting werecats. Obviously, these picks make for perfect Halloween viewing so put down that well-loved “Hocus Pocus” DVD (no offense to Thackery Binx) and stop being a scaredy cat already …
'The Black Cat' (1981)
The residents of a quaint English village are dropping like flies, each succumbing to a death more grisly than the one that came before it. Are they just horrific accidents? Or is a homicidal maniac on the loose? And what’s with that surly black cat running amok around town?
Based very loosely on the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name, “The Black Cat” is a supernatural revenge tale centered around a nasty old professor who has a knack at convincing evil spirits to possess the body of his creepy pet kitty. Directed by notorious gore-maestro Lucio Fulci (“City of the Living Dead,” “The House by the Cemetery”), this atmospheric British-Italian production is noted by horror fans for demonstrating relative restraint in the blood ‘n’ guts department — surprising for a film that contains graphic car crashes, impalements, a terrifying scene of immolation and some seriously gnarly feline-induced scratches.
'Cat People' (1942)
This paranoia-tinged psychosexual thriller from RKO Pictures isn’t super-scary or swarming with ferocious felines. It does, however, have a way of getting under your skin. Considered tawdry during its day, “Cat People” is the story of Irena, a beautiful but unassuming Serbian immigrant working in New York’s fashion industry. The conflict of the film revolves around a rather unique dilemma faced by the deeply repressed Irena: There’s a new and very persistent suitor in her life whom she cares for very much and would like to, ahem, get to know a bit better. However, if the folklore of her native village back in Serbia proves correct, Irena will transform into a murderous werecat when aroused. Petting is okay with this closeted shapeshifting cat person but heavy petting? That’s off limits, even after Irena marries her beau.
Similar to other werecat films (particularly “Sleepwalkers,” also included here), domestic cats and cat people aren’t exactly simpatico. In fact, they hate — even fear — each other. That said, it doesn’t exactly go over well when Irena’s doting man friend buys her a kitten as a gift. If anything, “Cat People” — remade in 1982 by director Paul Schrader with the kink factor cranked significantly up — provides one valuable lesson: Be careful about who you pick up at the zoo.
'Cat's Eye' (1985)
You’d think that a Stephen King-penned horror anthology film named “Cat’s Eye” would feature sinister Siamese, menacing Maine coons and pernicious Persians — a whole clowder of killer kitties! After all, King is the master of painting the ordinary — dogs, clowns, classic cars, laundry presses, lonely fans of popular fiction — in a most malevolent light. Not the case here.
Featuring three vignettes — two of them being adaptations of previously published short stories by King — linked together by a streetwise grey tabby, “Cat’s Eye” was heralded on its release as the “effectively pro-cat movie of the year” by Vincent Canby of the New York Times. While the titular tomcat plays a somewhat minor role in the first two uncanny tales, in the final segment it gains a name (“General”) and plays the role of hero. After all, who — or what — is better equipped to fiercely protect a young girl (a pre-"Firestarter" Drew Barrymore) from a dagger-wielding, breath-stealing, parrot-murdering mini-troll that lives in her bedroom walls? If anything, the concluding story goes to show that cats' household pest control abilities extend well beyond mice.
'Eye of the Cat' (1969)
You’d better bet that this groovy, San Francisco-set thriller — Big hair! Swingers! Really steep hills! — conceived by the same screenwriter as “Psycho” has the requisite shower scene … featuring a cat.
Like some other films on this list, it’s debatable whether the multitude of unfriendly felines featured in “Eye of the Cat” are, in the end, actually villainous. In this case, the kitties would appear to simply be protecting their owner, a wealthy wheelchair-bound matron with animal hoarding issues, from her conveniently cat-phobic (and frequently shirtless) nephew and his scheming hairdresser girlfriend. You see, the eccentric old cat lady’s health is deteriorating and she’s apparently left everything in her will to her tuna-nibbling companions. The nephew and his up-to-no-good gal pal arrive on the scene to coerce dear old auntie into changing her will so the cats get nothing. Problem is, the legion of fluffy furballs roaming her mansion know exactly what’s up and will do anything to prevent the greedy interlopers from getting their hands on their owner's vast fortune.
In “House," a clutch of bubbly teenaged schoolgirls are eaten — yes, eaten — by an assortment of household furnishings: a piano, a grandfather clock, light fixtures, futons. And while she doesn't devour anyone per se, a demonic white Persian named Blanche also factors heavily into the story.
Basic plot aside, it's impossible to describe this surrealist roller coaster of a movie. "House" — “Hausa” in its native Japan — is loud, offensive, garish, disturbing and a whole lot of fun. An assault on the senses, it also doesn't make a soupçon of sense. The hallucinatory debut feature film of TV commercial director Nobuhiko Obayashi, “House” was supposed to be a straightforward summer blockbuster of a horror film. Studio executives envisioned Obayashi as being a Spielberg-esque auteur who would deliver Japan’s answer to “Jaws,” which was released two years prior. Obayashi took a decidedly different route and consulted with his 11-year-old daughter, asking her what she thought was frightening. Emerald-eyed fluffballs and blood-spewing cat portraiture apparently topped the list. The resulting narrative — if you can even call it that — is based on the “eccentric musings” of Obayashi’s young daughter. Largely forgotten after its release, “House” found a new and enthusiastic audience in 2010 when it received a limited stateside theatrical release to coincide with its inclusion in the Criterion Collection.
'Pet Sematary' (1989)
A basic plot summary: Father buries family cat in accursed Native American burial ground after it is hit and killed by a semi-truck on a rural Maine highway. The cat comes back. Father buries young son in accursed Native American burial ground after he is hit and killed by a semi-truck on a rural Maine highway. The son comes back. Father buries mother in accursed Native American burial ground after she is viciously murdered by the young son’s reanimated corpse. The mother comes back.
Reportedly portrayed by seven different blue British Shorthairs, the feline in question, Church, plays a somewhat minor role in this critically panned but popular-with-audiences adaptation of a 1983 Stephen King novel that depicts what happens when the grieving process and “sour ground” mix. Still, the resurrected kitty — stinky, mean and more than a bit deranged in its second life — serves as the all-important harbinger of really bad things to come. It’s worth noting that everyone and everything in “Pet Sematary” — snarling zombie cats and Fred Gwynne’s thick Mainer accent included — are overshadowed by Zelda Goldman, a tangential character with only brief screen time that managed to traumatize a whole generation of young moviegoers.
A horror movie where cats save the day — and with a Stephen King-penned screenplay to boot!
Like its primary antagonists (an incestuous mother-son duo of vampiric shape-shifting werecats in desperate need of a virgin’s life force), this pro-cat supernatural thriller hasn’t exactly aged gracefully over the years. It’s pretty bad. Not irredeemable — because, c’mon incestuous werecats played by Leo from “Charmed” and the Borg Queen from “Star Trek: First Contact” — but pretty bad. As the titular incestuous werecats begin to terrorize a small Indiana town, it quickly becomes apparent that nothing — not a silver bullet nor a dump truck filled with catnip — can take down these horrific beasts. Well, there is one thing: multiple scratches inflicted by ordinary domestic kitty-cats. And it’s a small army of these kitty-cats, led by a fearless tabby named Clovis, that ultimately come to the rescue at the end. In addition to its refreshing portrayal of cats as monster-slayers, “Sleepwalkers” is best known for what’s perhaps the only example of death-by-corn-on-the-cob in cinematic history.
'The Uncanny' (1977)
Starring a slew of scary movie luminaries including Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance, “The Uncanny” is just one of an umpteen number of horror anthology films — see also: “From Beyond the Grave,” “The House That Dripped Blood” etc. — produced by Milton Subotsky during the 1960s and 70s. While this late-period entry from Canada features a whole lot of the same — screams, suspense and gratuitous bloodletting — it does stand apart thanks to a uniquely feline framework. That is, the whole shebang — three standalone tales of the macabre plus a spooky wraparound story — concerns exceptionally evil cats.
Well, the evilness of that cat featured in the middle vignette — a revenge fantasy concerning a young girl named Lucy and her loyal black kitty, Wellington — is debatable. After her parents die in a plane crash, Lucy is sent to live with her aunt, uncle and an incredibly rude cousin named Angela who is hell bent on making her life miserable. It’s a good thing that poor, orphaned Lucy is in possession of her mother’s book of black magic — a book, which, as luck would have it, just happens to contain a spell for shrinking bullying cousins down to mouse-sized morsels. Says Lucy to her miniaturized cousin right before she lets Wellington have a go at her: “You’re not such a big girl anymore, are you Angela? Why you’re no bigger than a mouse!”
From the 1950s all the way though the 1990s, you couldn’t shake a radioactive sludge-dipped stick without hitting a horror movie starring a horribly mutated animal: Bears (“Prophecy”), bees (“The Swarm”) and even bunnies (“Night of the Lepus”) have all gotten the murderous mutant treatment along with the standard creepy crawlies.
Cats have largely avoided the mutant animal craze. After all, malevolent pets are the most nightmarish when they’re presented in a subtle, semi-realistic manner, not when they’re spewing toxic slime and/or inflated to the size of a compact car. An exception is “Uninvited,” a late 80s schlock-fest about an otherwise cute kitty that escapes from a nefarious research lab and later finds its way aboard a Cayman Islands-bound private yacht filled with scheming criminals and assorted women in bikinis. It’s not long before the feline stowaway is revealed to be harboring a rabid mutant-parasite that, when angered, pops right out of the host cat’s mouth. Coming off as a sort of ultra-low-budget homage to “Alien,” “Uninvited” features some of the most inadvertently hilarious puppetry work ever committed to film.
A few more whisker-heavy tales of terror:
- "Blood Fest" (1972)
- "The Corpse Grinders" (1971)
- "Crimes of the Black Cat" (1972)
- "Shadow of the Cat" (1961)
- "Strays" (1991)
- "Tales from the Darkside: The Movie" (1990) (Anthology features adaptation of Stephen King's short story, "The Cat From Hell")
- "The Tomb of Ligeia" (1964)