The Uncanny (1977)
I love cats. If one had asked me over 25 years ago if this was so I would have said I tolerated them, while before that I didn't care for them much because I was kind of brought up not to. I have nothing against dogs or any other animal, but ever since my future wife moved in with me and brought her cat Jonnie they have been my animal of choice. Part of that is because they often come across as mysterious creatures, able to teleport whenever they know there is food being prepared or a bed being made. Although they can look at one with quite a bit of love in their eyes, even that seems to be somewhat combined with disapproval, encouraging a person to continue to do better - or at least make sure the little pincushions are fed on time.
Because our relationship with cats seems to blur the line between who is in charge there has always been a question of whether felines just figured out how to use the loud, clumsy things with opposable thumbs to do stuff for them just by looking adorable. Some have attributed certain supernatural aspects to cats, both positive and negative, throughout the centuries, resulting in situations in which they have unfortunately suffered abuse due to religious zealotry or plain human indecency. The Uncanny, a Canadian horror anthology by director Denis Héroux with a strong feel of an Amicus production, explores the question of the cats controlling us behind the scenes.
Wilbur (Peter Cushing) is a nervous author known for writing about conspiracy theories. After finishing his latest work he tries to convince his publisher Frank Richards (Ray Milland) of the validity of his work, this book being that, through extensive research, Wilbur has discovered that cats are secretly in control of everything that happens around us. He proceeds to go through his research and give Frank three examples.
The first is of an elderly lady (Joan Greenwood) who, after suffering a stroke from which she is recovering, realizes that it is time to change her will so that her nephew (Simon Williams) gets nothing. Instead, she leaves everything to her cats. Unfortunately, the nephew is the boyfriend of her servant Janet (Susan Penhaligon), who attempts to retrieve the will so that they can live off the fortune once the old lady passes. The second is about a girl named Lucy (Katrina Holden Bronson) who loses her parents in an airplane crash, leaving her with only her cat Wellington. She is sent to live with her aunt (Renée Gerard), who objects to the cat, while both Lucy and Wellington become an object for abuse by her cousin Angela (Chloe Franks). Finally, there is the story of Valentine De'ath (Donald Pleasence), an actor in the golden age of Hollywood who murders his wife to be with another woman. Unfortunately, his late wife's cat isn't too happy about the new living arrangements.
Being a later horror anthology, at a time when both the style of this movie was starting to feel archaic and the actors a product of a bygone era, I didn't expect much. This was Denis Héroux's last movie as a director, and he was known for his softcore films that had been quite successful in Canada in the early 1970s. His movie before this, Born for Hell, was a major departure and has become a grindhouse classic. The Uncanny, while it has its gruesome moments, does feel like it belongs in the previous decade.
Despite that the first two segments are quite good. The old lady giving money to the cats or writing the wastrel heir out of the will is an old conceit, but once the predictable parts are done Susan Penhaligon does a wonderful job portraying a woman who has come up against a force she didn't imagine, and is even given a chance to escape but for her own greed. The second segment is the strongest and, while Angela is the definition of a terrible brat, I hated her mom more for siding with her and callously ordering that Wellington be taken to his death. The ending to this one, involving black magic and revenge, was quite satisfying.
Unfortunately, the segment with Donald Pleasence and Samantha Eggar is the least satisfying. The story has been done to death and, while it was nice seeing the cat give everyone their just desserts and Pleasence have some fun aping Laurence Olivier's acting style, it seems this part of the movie is just undercooked. It probably should have been the middle portion, allowing the stronger second story to wind things up before concluding the wraparound portion. I think this running order is why The Uncanny is not as well regarded as other anthologies with much the same cast and feel, as it is always important to end on strong story so the audience remembers it when leaving the theater.
Despite the fact that the production feels out of time I find that this does rank with some of the better Amicus and Hammer anthologies, and is in fact better for the fact that it keeps the stories down to three and allows them to both be brief enough so they don't overstay their welcome, but long enough so that the stories seem satisfying. The wraparound is a bit too predictable, and many times the cats looked way too adorable to be frightening, but I guess that was also the point. My only fear is that this was made before Heaven's Gate created a big enough uproar to change many of the rules of how animals were treated on set, and at one point the cinematographer raised concerns about the treatment of the cats. Still, if one is looking for feline-based horror, this is an unfairly forgotten pleasure.
The Uncanny (1977)
Time: 89 minutes
Starring: Peter Cushing, Ray Milland, Susan Penhaligon, Katrina Holden Bronson, Chloe Franks, Donald Pleasence, Samantha Eggar
Director: Denis Héroux
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