This film got picked for review because my wife asked me to find something with cats in it. If you don’t think random “is there a film about X?” challenges are a valid way to select your viewing then you really haven’t lived – or, you are one of the lucky few who’s suggested viewing algorithm isn’t a stream of safe choice variations on the timeless classic “this film will fill an hour and a half of your life.” True, it took about twenty minutes of searching, and rejecting a million variations on Cat People to find The Uncanny was even a thing; but that’s only five minutes more than going all the way through Netflix to bung on what it first shilled at you when you turned it on.
One of the big attractions about this movie, other than the front cover that is obviously drawn by someone who only knew what a cat was from rumours, is that it’s an anthology. Horror anthologies are great, for a multitude of reasons, not just that they hark back to the telling of spooky stories around a camp fire. Having a load of stories in one film means that if one tale doesn’t grab you then it’ll jog on soon enough, that each concept can be shown without fluffing it up to a full 90 minutes, that they often have framing narratives that are just barking mad, and that the producers can punch way beyond their budget by getting a bit of decent talent in to do a few days’ work and it not look too obvious.
In The Uncanny, the big names are Peter Cushing, Ray Milland, and Donald Pleasence, who are all at the end of very distinguished careers and needed a reason to get out of the house. The rest of the cast is made up of “ooooh, they were in that thing! You know…” and an assortment of actors who make a credit on The Bill look like a Hollywood Star. There’s also a whole sack full of cats, who (openly) want to kill everyone, but that doesn’t stop them being adorable!
The framing story is all about Wilbur Gray (Peter Chushing), in 1977 Montreal that is introduced as “Present Day”, telling Frank Milland (Ray Milland) all about the evidence he’s pulled together that there is a sinister cat conspiracy to control the world! Milland rejects the discovery of toxoplasmosis, but listens to Gray’s three stories of kitty themed murder because who doesn’t want to hear Van Helsing go on about cats?
The first is from London, 1912, and is a story of murder, deceit, and Edwardian skulduggery. Think a cross between “Antics Roadshow” and “Pet Rescue” and then throw some more lace doilies around the set. Janet the maid rips off Miss Malkin the old woman, and is then besieged by an army of cats (either because they’re upset at their mummy being dead or pissed off that they haven’t been fed yet). It’s quite the treat, because we get to see Janet show off some real terror at being cut up by the cats and also try her hardest not to giggle whilst fake cats are thrown rather enthusiastically at her head. There’s also some quality gore on display when the kittens decide to “feed themselves”, along with just enough plot to claim it has a narrative.
Next up we have Quebec 1975, and a change in gear; a story of the orphan, Lucy, and her satanic demon cat, Wellington. Poor Lucy has lost her parents, gained a roof over her head with a brat cousin from hell, and has to suffer the indignity of poor dubbing throughout. Wellington has to suffer being the best actor on set, the odd bit of mauling, and being sent off to be put down by the Wicked Aunt. Then everything is set right by black magic and some really impressive special effects that have you cheering along at each retribution death! Yes, the last five minutes will make up for the paint-by-the-numbers build up, and have you giggling like the horrible person you really are.
Finally, it’s Hollywood 1936, in a sequence starring Donald Pleasence being an utterly vile leading man and an absolutely adorable basket of kittens that he flushes down the loo. Whilst this is arguably the hammiest of the three stories, it’s also the most fun as Pleasence plays everything at 11 and the subtle gags are flung around in between the low budget violence. It’s more in-keeping with the first story than the second, making Lucy’s tale feel even more uneven, and is a solid example of “the best ‘til last” in all aspects. Well, that’s until the end of the framing story, and Peter Cushing being silenced by the league of sinister cats…
As the whole thing clocks in at 88 minutes, it’s fair to say it chugs along at a bracing pace all the way through. That, combined with the low production values, gives it a TV special feel – but it’s got enough of a horror glee and lack of earnestness to make it fun viewing. You’ll laugh at every badly-applied drop of blood, you’ll giggle at every death, and you’ll turn to your chum and go “what?” at every plot point that makes no sense. Mostly – and especially if you are a cat person – it’s an unexpected Treasure, because for all it’s faults, this is a very watchable film. From the opening sequence, your expectations will be low, so when it reaches the heights of “a good laugh”, you’ll be ready to cheer. It is also especially good fun if you headcanon it as the prequel to Cats Vs Dogs.