Jabootu Repost: Strays (1991)

Plot: Night of the Living Dead, only with housecats instead of zombies.

For whatever reason, the killer cat genre remains a surprisingly robust one. I mean, I can understand movies being centered on killer dogs, because dogs could actually, you know, kill you. In contrast, killer cat movies—by which I mean films featuring regular-sized domestic cats—generally require a fair amount of cheating in this area. Still, such films continue to be cranked out on occasion.

I suppose it comes down to the fact that many perceive your standard pet cat, sitting slit-eyed and inert in a shaft of sunlight like some exhausted and particularly self-satisfied tribble, to quite likely be thinking secretive and no doubt wily thoughts. My own take on the matter is that cats are stupid, certainly stupider than dogs. I realize this contention will occasion a certain amount of controversy, but I stand by it.

I also realize that cat fanciers will likely make a diametrically opposed assertion. However, in my experience their evidence usually comes down to the fact that cats, unlike their canine peers, will not perform tricks. This, I have oft been informed, proves them to be possessed of such a fierce intellect and dignity that they disdainfully refuse to humiliate themselves for the pleasure of us mere homo sapiens. Of course, one could make the same argument regarding, say, spiders, or bottles of aspirin.

Please note, I am not contending that cats can’t or don’t make good pets. People with dominant personalities have dogs to amuse them and actually interact with, and folks with submissive ones have cats to tacitly boss them around. I don’t really see any problem with that arrangement. I just find protestations of feline superiority to be somewhat, er, non-empirical in nature.

We Only Have One. But we spend it watching stuff like this.

Strays was a television movie made for the USA Cable Network. (I guess I could really just end the review right there). Basically, it’s generally competent in its execution, sports a limited budget—the end credits cite a whopping eight characters, including Phone Man, Old Woman and Policeman—but not extravagantly so. In the end, it proves more uninspired than outright farcically inept. It does have its mirth-inspiring moments, however, and most of these revolve around attempts to make a horde of cats into an adequately believable menace.

The picture opens in a striking, innovative fashion, with a full moon filling the screen and being occasionally obscured as clouds drift past in spooooky slow motion. Now all we need is a torrential rainstorm punctuated by strokes of lightning to really create a truly original effect.

More daring still, we cut to some dank and dark interior space. Quite a lot of water drips from the ceiling, and the only illumination is provided by—are you ready?—a diffused yet surprisingly bright shaft of light filtering past—yes!—the slowly rotating blades of an industrial-sized fan. It turns out that it is raining outside (bravo, auteur!), and that the dripping water is saturating the attic of a house out in the country. Meanwhile, we hear a cat growling and see elliptical flashes of fur and such.

Outside, we cut to a laughably cliché employment of the ground level ‘shaky-cam’ director Sam Raimi invented to indicate rapidly moving demonic forces in the Evil Dead movies. This moves entirely too fast to indicate a cat’s POV, not to mention that the distance from the ground keeps changing, but there you go. The camera proceeds through a cat door leading into the aforementioned house’s kitchen. There are a few impressive moments when the camera glides through some especially tight spaces, but really, this sort of shot is such a signature of Raimi’s work that using it only calls attention to the fact that you’re watching a movie.

In the living room, we meet an elderly female (no doubt the ‘Old Woman’ mentioned in the closing credits) who we quickly learn is one of those half-crazy cat ladies. She wakens and makes to feed her small army of cats, only to find her refrigerator bereft of kitty chow. This necessitates a trip down to the cellar—uh oh—which inconveniently requires one to leave the house and use an exterior set of storm doors. As the Old Woman pulls the doors open, there’s an Ominous POV shot from some bushes, accompanied by an Ominous Music Cue. All in all, the effect is quite, er, ominous.

The Old Woman tries the light in the cellar, which naturally doesn’t work. (Are the cats supposedly behind that?! And if they’re supposed to be, wouldn’t the smart play have been to have the light bulb smashed, rather than just not functioning?) She proceeds on, grabbing one or perhaps two cans of cat food from the shelves. First, is she going to make this inconvenient trip to the cellar every time she needs to feed her cats? You’d think you’d bring up an armload while you were down there. Second, no wonder her pets turn murderously mutinous. (Oops, sorry.) She’s got like fifteen or twenty of them and she’s feeding them all from one small tin?

Back outside, and I don’t want to shock the hell out of you, but the Old Woman is suddenly attacked by a malicious POV shot. Since this moves in at a level chest-high to a human (!), it would in no way suggest being that of a cat were we not aware of the film’s premise. Screaming, the Old Woman ducks into the cellar, followed by the POV shot. Here we cut away, since it would be sort of difficult to stage a single housecat killing even a very old woman indeed.

Moreover, this is clearly going to be the sort of movie where several people will die horrible, violent deaths without any of the central characters being the wiser. Therefore, having the Old Woman flee into the isolated storm cellar under her own power is about the best they could do to mitigate the situation’s essential goofiness.

We cut to the car of the Jarretts, wife Lindsey (Kathleen Quinlan!), husband Paul (Timothy Busfield) and young Tessa. Being a family in a TV movie, they are, of course, cutesy and fantastically happy and whatnot. We can only assume, given the set-up so far, that they are the standard, cookie-cutter family who is moving to the country to live a safer and more peaceful life, only to be confronted with a far greater danger than they ever would have faced in the Big City. Wow, that’s fresh.

“Here’s the thing. Before I knew you I was engaged to another guy. We were in this horrible car accident…”

Of course, we also need some friction to add ‘drama’ to our mix, so Lindsay and Paul engage in some lighthearted and eminently low-grade banter that establishes Paul as the One Reluctant to Move to the Country and Lindsey as the One Behind It. It’s like Green Acres, only…well, OK, Green Acres was a pretty good show, so never mind. “I don’t want Tessa to grow up in that city,” Lindsey explains. (Or perhaps she actually means a town named That City. Given the kind of movie this is, I wouldn’t be surprised.) Do you want to know something incredible? The guy who wrote the movie came up with that innovative line of dialogue despite the fact that this was his first script! Wowsers.

Having sojourned deep into the boonies, The Jarretts are met by Lindsey’s sister, Claire (Claudia Christian, quickly becoming a Jabootu mainstay). She’s a realtor, and she’s going to show them…are you sitting down…the same isolated country house where the Old Woman was killed! What are the odds?!

The sisters embrace and Paul sets Tessa loose to run around the grounds. We immediately see her being stalked by a Ground Level Cat POV (GLCP) shot. Yes, nothing spells entertainment like the endangerment of a four year-old. Adding to the suspense is the very real possibility that the filmmakers will:

  1. Actually kill off the stars’ young daughter in a TV movie, and
  2. Do so about ten minutes into the movie.

Meanwhile, Paul discovers the film’s first Ominous Sign, which is a tree whose base has been severely clawed by…something. Hmm, I wonder…

They tour the house, which is, of course, gigantic. This is a movie, after all. I don’t know what kind of money Paul’s pulling down as a lawyer, but damn. Even in the country this place would pull a sizable buck. Eventually, they head up to the previously established attic. Amazingly, none of them mention any water damage, which you’d expect given the amount of dripping we saw earlier in the movie. Meanwhile, Paul begins sneezing, indicating a plot-handy allergy to cats. Of course, they take the house.

Soon the Jarretts have moved in. They have a dog (uh oh) named Benny, who proves about as macho a pooch as you’d expect Timothy Busfield to own. I mean, I like dogs, as indicated above, but if you’re going to own one, own a dog. There’s various stuff about the family having money problems (yeah, you’d think) and sister Claire being an undependable sort, and blah blah blah. It’s hell filling up that hour or more before you can just run with the killer cat stuff.

There’s a knock on the door, and their visitor identifies himself as “Phone Man.” If I’m not mistaken, this might be the character called Phone Man in the end credits. He’s sent *gasp* to the cellar to check the line. Didn’t anyone ever find the body? Presumably, since it’s not down there anymore.

Still, you’d think Lindsey’s own sister would have mentioned such a thing. On the other hand, maybe that’s why they’ve introduced the idea that Claire is undependable. Even so, with the nearest town having a population of under four hundred people, wouldn’t the Jarretts have heard this presumably juicy piece of gossip by now?

The Phone Guy pokes around in *gasp* the cellar for a while, but nothing really happens to him. He does hear some Mysterious Noises, but all I was thinking was that with a horde of cats about, the cellar should by all rights smell something fierce. The one bit that approaches cleverness, and perhaps even achieves it, is when he opens a panel. We’re waiting for the traditional spring-loaded cat, but instead get a spring-loaded rat. OK, that’s sort of funny. Anyway, the phone wires are all chewed up, and Phone Guy assumes rats did it.

Sadly, the contemporaneous attempts at domestic comedy upstairs aren’t nearly as successful. (And it’s not like the rat was a gut-buster in the first place.) For instance, Lindsey offers an array of paint samples for the kitchen, and asks Paul for his opinion. Her suggestions include Cottontail, Sea Mist and August Moon. “How about White?” Paul replies. Ha! Us guys, we only got like five colors. I get it. Also, I myself didn’t watch Thirtysomething. Was Timothy Busfield’s shtick always doing Richard Dreyfuss? That’s pretty much what he does here, anyway. And I’m talking Krippendorf’s Tribe Dreyfuss, not Jaws Dreyfuss.

The Phone Guy reemerges and informs them that they have rats. He suggests they get a cat. Oh, the irony. Of course, Paul’s allergies preclude that option. In any case, those puzzled by the Phone Guy’s survival will be quickly reassured when he explains that he’ll return the next day with more equipment. One can only assume they’re saving his big death scene for later in the picture.

That makes sense, I guess. Let’s see, the credits list eight characters. (Nine actors, though, as Tessa is played by twins to correspond to union rules about the amount of time minors can work on film or TV projects.) Obviously the Jarretts are going to make it through the picture. Claire’s a toss up, I suppose. The Old Woman has already been kacked. That leaves the Phone Guy, the Policeman and a Dr. Sokol, who we haven’t met yet. I think we have to assume there will be at least two more victims, given the nature of the movie.

We cut to the Jarretts driving home from a shopping trip. In a pretty damn funny ‘shock’ sting, a cat comes flying up across their windshield. This, as you might expect, causes Paul to swerve and he ends up putting their station wagon into a ditch. The realization of the Kamikaze Kommando Kat moment is pretty amusing. Rather than hurl a fake cat at a moving car, it’s obvious that a real tabby was tossed in front of the window by an off-camera grip, presumably while the car was not actually in drive. Then they dubbed in a smacking sound to indicate the cat was hit, when it really wasn’t, and wha-lah.

In any case, the crafty cats have now caused our protagonists to disable one of their vehicles. This doubtless means that when Paul drives off to the office, Lindsey and Tessa will be trapped and at the cats’ mercy. (Oops, sorry.)

Anyway, Paul ends up with a cut lip, despite his seat belt, and sees the aforementioned feline running away from the scene. By the way, this particular cat is so cunning that it has completely changed its appearance since it flew in front of the car. Perhaps it’s related to the feline star of The Uninvited.

That night, Paul takes out some trash, allowing for further Ominous POV shots. Not too ominous, actually, but hey, they’re trying. There are more signs, too, with Benny barking at something unseen and Paul sneezing a lot. Wow, if we didn’t already know this was a movie about cats, this would sure all be mysterious. Anyway, Benny trots outside, with predictable results. By which I mean, there’s a really dumb false scare where it seems like a cat’s coming after him, only it turns out to be Paul.

The next day Paul calls for a tow truck. He clearly tells them to come get a car resting in a ditch, so if this is going where I think it is… Oh, wait, now the phone reception is going all static-y, and Paul can’t confirm his message. Even so, this is a lame set-up.

Meanwhile, Tessa is outside with Benny, and we get even more GLCP shots. The film’s only about a third of the way through and its main suspense-generating technique is already boring the hell out of us. Also, for those keeping track, Paul is taking a cab to work, meaning that the Jarretts only owns one car. I can’t think of anybody I know whose family only owns one car, much less one living way out in the boondocks.

An arriving Claire intercepts him as he leaves. Paul is handling her divorce—see, all this backstory makes us ‘care’ for these vividly drawn characters, making their eventually fates all the more meaningful to us—and she pauses to lay a fairly inappropriate smooch upon him. You’d think she wouldn’t do this in the house where Lindsey might see it, although that is in fact what she does. Apparently, we’re going to waste some running time with Marital Angst before getting to the cat stuff. Paul is completely innocent, of course. C’mon, he’s played by Timothy Busfield. By the way, wasn’t there an adultery subplot in Stephen King’s Cujo? I’m pretty sure there was. Not that I’m implying anything.

Claire has come by because she has a breakfast date with her sister. Lindsey, however, is all pissed about the kiss, which she secretly saw, although she doesn’t bother actually mentioning it. Even so, her crankiness ends up provoking an argument, and blah blah blah. You know, I’m pretty sure there was supposed to be something to do with cats in this stupid movie. Let’s cut to the chase:

  • Lindsey returns home and heads up to the attic to set rat traps. Meanwhile, Phone Guy appears in his pick-up truck. (Don’t these guys usually have vans with large commercial signs painted on the side?) His vehicle is red, like the Jarretts’ station wagon. Do we all see where this is going?
  • Lindsey doesn’t hear him knock, and he shrugs and heads down to *gasp* the cellar. Two seconds later the previously established tow truck appears and, that’s right, tows off his truck. This despite the fact that it doesn’t match the description Paul gave the garage earlier, and despite the fact that the driver could not have possibly missed seeing the car jutting up from the ditch as he approached the house. He did, however, because this woefully convoluted set-up allows for Phone Guy to get whacked (oops, sorry) without anyone presently being the wiser.
  • Down in the cellar, we’re treated to our 4,000th Ominous POV Shot. Man, those just get more unsettling every freakin’ time we get one. Here we finally get to see our main villain, Bedraggled Cat, a gray puss who’s all mussed up in an attempt to look, I don’t know, scary or feral or some damn thing. He’s even introduced via an Ominous Slo-Mo Shot (!), and they give him (?) a fierce growl, but really, it’s a cat.
  • Freaked, Phone Guy notices that he’s surrounded by numerous furry creatures who are, to be fair, at least slightly more frightening than the similarly fluffy menaces of Night of the Lepus. The cats jump him, and since he reacts with a physical acumen that would embarrass Inspector Clouseau, the kitties manage to take him out.
  • Actually, if I’m following this, he manages to bump his head into a pipe hard enough to cause his own demise. Uh, OK. Still, if you don’t get a chill down your spine from watching a bunch of meowing pussycats swarming atop a guy, then…you’re a lot like me, I guess.
  • Lindsey finds a fluffy white cat with a kitty up in the attic, and shows it to Tessa. I think she supposedly is considering adopting them, which is pretty queer, given Paul’s much-established allergies. Meanwhile, I think we’re meant to get the idea that Mom Cat is a plant, put in the house to spy on the humans. Seriously. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my impression, anyway.
  • In a scintillating scene, we see Busfield do his Bob Newhart impression, wherein he pretends to be having a phone conversation with Claire’s husband’s attorney. Then he hangs up and tells Claire that his opposite number said he had evidence she was, er, catting around (sorry) during her marriage. Given that most states now have no-fault divorce, this almost certainly wouldn’t be relevant to anything, but anyway.
  • Claire admits that the charges are true, of course, although Paul is supposedly surprised. You know, a friend of mine does divorce work, and believe me, there’s no way somebody doing that job would be surprised to learn that a client had cheated on their spouse.
  • On the other hand, Claire’s whining and rationalizations don’t exactly inspire much sympathy. “Don’t judge me,” she tells him. Why not? It’s people like this that make shows like Judge Judy so popular. Plus, the fact that she would hide this from her lawyer makes her look stupid as well as slutty.
  • By the way, wasn’t there supposed to be something to do with cats in this flick?
  • Paul responds by giving Claire a supportive hug, and like a scene from a really, really, really bad Moliere farce, Lindsey chooses that exact moment to walk into the office with Tessa. She apparently took a cab into That City—despite the fact that his office is supposed to be this extreme distance from the house—to show Paul the kitty she gave Tessa. Which, again, seems sort of weird in the first place, given her husband’s cat allergy. Needless to say, Lindsey assumes the worst and whisks Tessa out of there. Between her and Claire, this movie’s not exactly chockablock with sympathetic female characters.
  • Cut to the house that evening. I guess this is finally the beginning of the big siege, since there’s a rainstorm going on. That’s right, it’s a dark and stormy night. In any case, the rain drives all the cats into the cellar, where they all sit around and, uh, meow at each other. Ooh, spooky.
  • Upstairs, Paul is trying to cajole Lindsey into a better mood. Frankly, I’d be telling her to kiss my ass. On top of essentially accusing him of cheating on her (with her sister, yet!) on rather little evidence, she just declares that they’re keeping the cats she found. This despite the fact that they make her husband, you know, horrendously ill.
  • Lindsey then ends up going off on him, and as he walks off we see Bedraggled Cat peering at them in purportedly sinister fashion through a convenient air vent grate conventiently located high up the wall and directly over their bed (?).
  • In a laugh-out loud moment, Paul wakes up the next morning to find their pillows and blankets covered with cat pee stains. How the hell did they sleep through that? Plus there’s a dead mouse on the floor, which perhaps indicates that Bedraggled Cat has seen The Godfather. Finally, Paul discovers that all the clothes in their closet have been peed upon too. This much urine would require every cat we’ve seen so far, and that’s assuming they all downed a six-pack of beer or something. Meanwhile, the notion that upwards of twenty cats were running around the room and their closet and all over their bed pissing on everything without waking them up is outright hysterical.
  • Actually, it’s even funnier than I thought. The grate I mentioned earlier is now shown to be gaping open. This is situated about four feet directly above their bed, which means all the cats presumably jumped down that distance right on top of them, spent several minutes strategically urinating on everything in sight, and then somehow levitated themselves back up there to make their escape. Seriously, don’t filmmakers ever stop for a moment and think about how dumb this sort of stuff is?
  • Paul finally shows some backbone and demands the cats be rooted out, and given the circumstances even Lindsey can’t say much in opposition. Then we get yet another GLCP shot, which are rapidly losing any ability to inspire dread that they originally may have had.
  • Paul goes looking for Benny. Seeing the cellar storm doors open, he pauses to close them before continuing the search. He then stumbles over the badly mauled dog. I guess actually killing a dog would be too brutal for a made for TV movie, so Benny pulls through.
  • The previously mentioned Dr. Sokol turns out to be a vet. He takes Benny in for treatment, so that when the Jarretts find themselves besieged by the marauding kitties, their foo foo dog won’t be there to offer assistance. (Oops, sorry.)
  • By the way, wouldn’t the family move into a motel and get animal control out there pronto? Anything that could maul a dog could injure a small child.
  • Also, I’m not sure I’d trust a vet who couldn’t tell wounds inflicted by cats from those that would be made by a raccoon.
  • I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think they’re now implying that Bedraggled Cat was the author of all those urine stains. Cripes, that thing must have a bladder like a retention pond.
  • You know those really annoying moments when they assume the viewer is an idiot, and so they make the characters look like morons so as to allow for a really insulting bit of exposition? Well, Sokol suggests that Bedraggled Cat might be feral. Neither Paul, who’s a lawyer, or Lindsey, who’s a professional writer, knows what the word means. Myself, I’m still trying to wrap my head around this ‘cat’ thing.
  • Getting back to trusting this vet: He opines that a feral cat would be much more dangerous than a wild cat, such as an ocelot, because a feral cat wouldn’t have a fear of humans. Here’s a quote on ocelots I found after an exhaustive two-second Internet search: “The slender body of the ocelot can measure up to four foot and weighs in at twice that of a large domestic cat.” I think I’d rather deal with a feral house cat, myself. And yes, I realize that the scriptwriter didn’t have the Internet at his fingertips back in ’91. However, I’m pretty sure a five-minute call to his local library would have gleaned the same information.
  • Paul leaves with Sokol, meaning to go into town and take the train to his That City office. Since we’re finally down to about the film’s last half hour, I’m assuming we’re finally settling in for the cat attack.
  • Lindsey secures the grate in the bedroom and the kitchen’s doggy door (wow, stuff real life people would do) and then continues working on the house. Lifting an extended paint roller from the pan, however, she pokes the end of the handle up through the living room ceiling. Man, that’s some chintzy plaster. I can only assume this is meant to establish the ceilings as being very weak for later in the movie.
  • Oh, and they establish that their phones still aren’t working well. Gee, that’s subtle.
  • Sensing something’s wrong—she’s a mom, you know—Lindsey leaves off painting to go check on Tessa, who is napping in her bedroom. When Lindsey opens the door, she finds a horde of cats milling around in Tessa’s crib. (Cue loud shock sting.) She rushes over and begins tossing cats around, which was admittedly pretty amusing, only to find the crib bereft of child (the felines were after Tessa’s spilled milk bottle). At this point Tessa shrieks from the closet she’s been hiding in.
  • Lindsey heads over to the closet alcove. There she discovers that Bedraggled Cat is attempting, with some small amount of success, to force its way through the wooden slats of the closet door and get at Tessa. Lindsey pulls the door all the way open, pinning the snarling BC against the wall.
  • This is shot for maximum shock value, which isn’t much, although it to be fair it does achieve a very high level of comedy value. Lindsey is shown to be barely able to contain her feline tormentor, despite the fact that the beast would have no leverage when smooshed against a wall, and that, oh, yeah, it’s a friggin’ cat. Moreover, in order to make this look as dangerous as they can—which again ain’t much—she keeps pressure on the door with her hands, which she places near the ruptured slats. This, naturally, allows BC to snap and claw at her. Hey, dummy, how about using your lower body to pin the door? Or, with the cat trapped between the door and the wall, how about taking the opportunity to whale the crap out if it? No? OK.
  • With Tessa in her arms, Lindsey beats a strategic retreat from the fearsome feline. She locks herself in the master bedroom as the cats mill around in the hall, having achieved dominance over a vast majority of the house.
  • A jump cut indicates some time has passed (or, now that I think about it, that USA viewers were returning after a commercial break), but we still see Lindsey sitting on the floor and comforting Tessa. I don’t know, I think I’d be looking about the room for potential weapons or possible escape routes, something of that nature. I mean, really, isn’t it a little embarrassing to be besieged in your own home by cats?
  • Her goldbricking is forcibly terminated when she hears Bedraggled Cat hissing and spitting from Ye Olde Air Vent. In one of the cheapest and funniest ‘special’ effects I’ve seen in some time, we’ll occasionally get BC POV shots from inside the chute, with BC’s front paw indicated with, and I kid you not, puppet pussy paws on sticks. Just the image of some poor grip kneeling under the camera and waving these babies in front of the lens fills you with giddiness.
  • Meanwhile, the Cat Corps are beginning to claw their way through the ludicrously thin balsa wood bedroom door. That’s some mighty fine construction in this house. Lindsey blocks the breach, sort of, with a small shelving unit.
  • On the other front, BC is forcing the vent open. If anyone actually found this movie scary, it must have been Bob Villa, who undoubtedly would have been wondering who the hell built this place. Lindsey forces BC back by tossing water on him, since earlier we learned that cats don’t like that. Then she stuffs a series of pillows into the air duct, which I suppose is the best she could do under short notice. Luckily, said pillows proves fairly resistant to be batted at with puppet cat paws.
  • Lindsey manages to get through to Paul on the phone, although she doesn’t know that, because she can’t hear him on her end. This phone manifests quite a variety of malfunctions, doesn’t it? She hangs up, and Paul, getting the idea something’s wrong, hops into a car to start the long commute home. (In case you’re keeping track, he borrows his secretary’s car.) Of course, he doesn’t think to call the police and ask them to send a car out to the house to check on things. Yep, if I ever need a lawyer, I want it to be this guy.
  • Meanwhile, Lindsey again scoops Tessa into her arms and sits on her bed rocking the child. Hey, lady, how about, you know, doing something?! Man, movies like this drive you nuts. You end up almost wanting to see the main characters get killed, just because they’re so useless.
  • Uhmmm…OK, I’m really confused. Earlier, we saw a clock in the house that said it was about one in the afternoon. This was before the attack. Tessa is put down for her nap, Lindsey goes down to paint, blah blah, we end up in the bedroom with Lindsey trying to call Paul. Let’s say the above events took about an hour, and she phoned him around 2:00. Paul heads home immediately, and tells his secretary to call off his court appearance that afternoon and inform his clients. This includes Claire, who when we see her is wearing seductive lingerie and putting on make-up, as if preparing for a tryst. Despite the fact that presumably her court appearance was scheduled for that day, or why would she be getting a call? I mean, what the hell? (Looking back, I guess she could have just been in a dressing gown and getting ready to get dressed for court, but again, why would you be undressed at two or three in the afternoon?)
  • Continuing on this thread, we cut back to the house, and it’s now heavily raining–ooh, spooky–and clearly evening. (Indeed, the clock indicates that it’s now 6:00.) Paul has not arrived home yet. Again, if it literally takes him hours to drive home, wouldn’t you call the cops and have them go out to the house?
  • With BC again assaulting the air duct, and seeing the hall is clear, Claire decides to make a run for it. (Where to? Got me.) First she tries to fill her water jug with anti-cat water. However, it won’t fit into the sink, and when she tries to fill it in the tub, the faucet control dial falls off (!!!). She beats the other one, which is stuck (???!!!) with a shoe, and it also falls off, only now water gushes from the spigot. Cripes, the Three Stooges built better houses than this.
  • The combined strength of the cat army manages to force the pillows out of the duct, although this has left the hall free, and Lindsey has made her escape. She naturally walks through the hall very sloooowly, rather than just beating feet. Nor does she try to turn any lights on, although in this place she’d probably be electrocuted if she did.
  • Lindsey, Tessa and water jug in her arms, innnnches her way downstairs. Suddenly, though, Bedraggled Cat offscreen teleports up into the foyer chandelier (??), while the other cats are simultaneously arrayed about in positions they clearly hadn’t been in. The camera treats us to a series of close-ups of their terrifying fuzzy pussycat faces with their widdle pink noses and cute whiskers and other fear-provoking features. However, they are momentarily stymied by Lindsey’s possession of the water jug. That’s the mark of a fearsome beastie, by golly.
  • Lindsey escapes by the brilliant expedient of…opening the front door and exiting the house. In an attempt to make this even more suspenseful (assuming such a thing is possible), Bedraggled Cat snarls and leaps in slow motion at the retreating Lindsey, only to bounce off the door after she closes it. That was…too close.
  • We cut upstairs so as confirm that the water in the tub is still running, as you’d expect, since Lindsey broke off the spigots. The yellow rubber ducky floating in the rising water only serves to make the image more ominous.
  • Lindsey, presumably looking for whatever refuge will offer the least amount of security, intuitively decides to just hide in the storm cellar. Quite the Brainiac, our Lindsey. Seeing the dead body of Phone Guy (to which she reacts in a weirdly blasé manner), she actually thinks to try his mobile phone. Considering that up to now she’s displayed the raw intelligence of an inbred chimp, I was rather impressed by this. She even manifests the nerve to pry his still, dead fingers off of it. She calls the police, proving that, sadly, she at least is smarter than her husband.
  • Speaking of, we see him still attempting to get home, although he’s stymied by the downpour. (Well, actually, we see actor Busfield sitting in a parked car being jostled by grips while a sprinkler is used to simulate a heavy rain, but close enough. Almost.) I think we have to assume that he’s been on the road for at least two hours now, and again, you have to think maybe he should have called the cops before he left.
  • The tub is almost full. The yellow rubber duck drifts in front of the camera, slowly going around in circles. Much like the movie, in fact.
  • For no discernable reason, Lindsay decides to decamp from the cellar. I don’t know if I would have gone down there in the first place, and I’m sure the dead body made it somewhat ooky, but it was dry and she had access to a working phone. By the way, would it be too much to ask that she look around before leaving and try to find a weapon of some sort? This is a cellar; it’s full of crap. And it’s not like she’s need something that could bring down a rhino or anything. She and her daughter are being threatened by house cats. How about a length of pipe? A screwdriver? Something.
  • She picks the playhouse to be their sanctuary. I suppose if she had acquired any weapons or materials with which to fortify it, this wouldn’t be the worst choice. As it is, however, with windows and suspiciously thin walls, it leaves something to be desired. Of course, the heavy rain will presumably dissuade the cats from coming outside, given that they dared not attack a woman with a jug of water.
  • Paul, meanwhile, is lost. This is actually somewhat believable, given the circumstances. However, it isn’t making him look any brighter. This is especially true given that he decides to whip out and consult a map while still driving along the twisty, dark and sodden road.
  • Meanwhile, Claire arrives at the house. The message from Paul’s secretary indicated that he had gone home to deal with a family matter, and she has come out to see what’s going on. Needless to say, her chances of surviving the next several minutes seem slight.
  • She enters the darkened house, calling for Lindsey. Several ‘tense’ minutes follow as she heads upstairs, where she sees a cardboard box shaking. Earlier there was a scene where Tessa hid in the box and popped out at Claire, thus setting up the current situation. (It remains a clumsy mechanism, however, especially since the scene even at the time seemed to be setting something up.) In any case, Claire bends over the box, is startled when Bedraggled Cat jumps out, and rears back and goes over the balcony. It’s not much of a fall, but she croaks anyway. Ah, the pathos.
  • By the way, if you examine this scene it completely falls apart. Why the hell was Bedraggled Cat in the box? Are we actually to believe that he was setting a trap for Claire? If so, that’s a) retarded on its face, and b) extra ridiculous in that her presence at the house is completely accidental. And if the whole thing is meant as a coincidence…I mean, c’mon. In any case, it’s pretty outlandish, and too twee by far. Couldn’t the cat have gotten under her feet when she was walking up the stairs, or something of that nature?
  • Lindsey, having seen Claire’s car, leaves Tessa alone and unprotected (!) in the playhouse while she goes to find her sister. She even locks the door behind her, although she doesn’t bother to make sure the window is secured first. In any case, she arrives just in time to witness her sister’s death.
  • As she approaches her sister’s dead body, Lindsey is startled by the snarl of Bedraggled Cat. She screams and flees. You know, I have siblings. If I had just seen one killed somehow by a frickin’ cat, I’m pretty sure I’d corner the thing and beat it to death, even if all I could do was stomp on it. But that’s just me, I guess.
  • There are further moments of Lindsey experiencing panic and horror as she’s confronted by some cat or other. Seriously, my patience for these characters is growing pretty thin at this point.
  • Barricaded inside a room, Lindsey finds herself trapped when she can’t open a window to escape. (Throw a chair through it, lunkhead.) At this juncture she hears glass smashing, and sees a broken pane of glass in the connecting door. In other words, a human and a cat find themselves with a window standing between themselves and their respective objectives, and the cat is the one who overcomes this obstacle. Cripes.
  • Lindsey finally procures a weapon, although she chooses the previously established long-handled paint roller. By the way, the room sports a fireplace, so I myself would have gone with a poker. But what do I know? Even if all I had was the paint roller, I would at least break off the top part, so as to have a jagged sort-of spear, but naturally Lindsey lacks even the wit to do that.
  • As the other cats begin to make headway against the bookcase she shoved against the rear door (really), she pokes around, trying to either flush or chase off Bedraggled Cat.
  • She finally decides to break the window, only to then spot BC on the nearby mantle. The cat jumps at her, and we get a pretty embarrassing scene of actress Quinlan holding a mock cat against her chest and pretending to fight for her life. I don’t want to become as boring as the movie, but let me risk that by repeating, IT’S A CAT. A FRICKIN’ CAT.
  • Rather than bashing it, or tossing it out the window—I personally would run it’s body over the jagged glass still jutting from the window frame, but that’s just me—Lindsey sees the ceiling sweating and bulging from the overflowing water from the tub upstairs. (Wow, all the script’s planning is coming together!) Instead of taking direct action against the cat, which is currently pressed up near her neck and eyes, she waltzes over to the wet spot and beats on it several times with the paint roller. Down falls a load of plaster and a bunch of water, driving off the cat. Of all the ways to drive off a cat clinging to your torso, that might well be the most inefficient.
  • Leaping out the window, she runs to the playhouse, only to find Tessa missing. Whatever.
  • Paul finally arrives, finding Lindsey curled up on the driveway. It’s just like Aliens, only instead of Sigorney Weaver engaging the fearsome Alien Queen in battle to save Newt’s life, here she’d be facing a pissed-off Jonesy the Cat and would give up.
  • After listening to his wife babble for a bit, Paul runs inside to find Tessa. He’s brought up short by finding Claire’s body in the foyer, since Lindsey didn’t bother to mention it. He looks shocked and stoops to check for a pulse, which is a hell of a lot more than her sister bothered to do. (Did Kathleen Quinlan sign a deal with the devil that stipulated she only play incredible insipid women?)
  • Hearing Tessa cry, Paul runs into the kitchen, only to rear to a stop when he finds her on the floor, surrounded by cats. Let me repeat, surrounded by cats. This is the kitchen. Does he grab a big knife and start carving his way through her feline tormentors? Does he just start kicking and punching his way to his daughter, scoop her up and smash his way out the back door? Does he do much of anything? No.
  • Instead, he just stands there trying to think of a plan, all while advising his daughter not to move. Then, as he stands maybe four feet away from her, he tries to get the panicked four year-old to crawl the ten feet to the rear door and go out the doggie panel. Really. You know, no matter how this ends, that kid is screwed. Her parents are two of the biggest numbnuts I’ve ever seen.
  • So Paul stands there for like a minute straight, trying to coax Tessa into following his brilliant plan. Again, this guy isn’t trapped under a girder or anything, he’s just standing there, literally five feet away from her. Meanwhile, Lindsey appears outside the kitchen door. She waves to Tessa through the window and sure enough, the kid starts crawling for the door. You’d think at this point Paul could at least start tossing crap at the cats, as a diversion, but no, he basically just stands there going, “That’s right…slowly now…slowly…” What a putz.
  • Luckily, the cats aren’t much more proactive, and naturally don’t bother attacking the kid—c’mon, it’s a TV movie—seeming altogether satisfied just to snarl at her and wave their claws. There are films that become increasingly irritating in direct proportion to how suspenseful they try to be, and this is one of the movies. Therefore, when the doggie door turns out to be latched and Paul has to slooowly talk Tessa into undoing the latch before she can escape, I basically wanted to toss a brick at my television.
  • With the kid safely out the door, Bedraggled Cat jumps Paul. Does he toss it off and just run back out the front door? No. Like Quinlan did earlier, Busfield has to stagger around clutching a really obvious puppet cat to his bosom, all while pretending to be fighting for his life.
  • He crashes around, eventually dislodging his miniscule adversary. I laughed when a stroke of ‘lightning’ lit up the kitchen, revealing a nearby collection of knives in a wooden block. However, it’s a movie, so Paul instead grabs, what else, a fire extinguisher. This does manage to scatter the cats, and in a sane universe Paul would make his escape. However, this is a movie (sort of), and so a more titanic climax is required.
  • Therefore Bedraggled Cat jumps Paul again. Paul manages to pull it off and tosses it outside a window, but in a poorly edited moment it (apparently) jumps back inside the kitchen. That’s two panes of glass the cat has gone through so far, and I thought it pretty strange that it isn’t all cut up, but there you go.
  • BC jumps Paul yet again. Dude, IT’S A CAT!! A CAT!! AUGGH!!
  • OK, let’s just pretend this is somehow credible, because my brain’s ready to explode. So the cat gets Paul on his back on the floor, and is clawing at his face, and Paul proves unable to do much about it.
  • Finally, with a (snort) mighty effort, he shoves it inside the nearby microwave oven. He then attempts to fry his opponent. However, they previously established that the power cord is frayed, so the microwave doesn’t turn on. Wow, my heart. The suspense. Angered, Paul picks up the microwave and throws it across the room.
  • In perhaps the film’s most moronic moment—and what an impressive achievement that is—Bedraggled Cat smashes his way out of the microwave, knocking the door off and shooting out like a missile. Even assuming a cat would have the sheer muscle required to do such a thing, how much leverage would it have crammed into that tight of a space?
  • Of course, it ends up on Paul again. That’s four times he’s had to wrestle with this thing. He tosses it off again, and we see the now detached microwave oven cord sparking. I gasped in delight at this, since it was clear they were intending to rip off the ending of Jaws 2. Sure enough, BC jumps, Paul grabs the cords and holds it stretched out before him, BC ends up chomping down on it and is fried. Yes, that’s a much easier way to kill a cat than stepping on it.
  • Bereft of their captain, the rest of the cats are harmless. Or something. Anyway, the family is reunited, and of course this is when the cops finally show up. “Are you the owners,” the policeman asks. “No,” Paul grimly declares. “They’re inside.” In other words, the film ends with Paul ceding his house to the cats. What a loser.
  • We end on a sunny day, as Paul exits the house with a patently empty box to indicate that the family is moving back to That City. Paul packs Tessa into their vehicle, but Lindsey stays behind, looking pensive. Seeing her, Paul walks over. “We could stay,” he offers. Yes, in the house where a homicidal kitty kat murdered Lindsey’s oddly breakable sister. He also suggests they could just move to another house in the country. Lindsey, however, is OK about returning to urban life. “You are where I live,” she tells him lovingly. (??) I don’t know what kind of drugs they’ve got her on, but I hope she’s not driving.
  • Then, and I swear this happens, after they head off the camera dollies closer to the house. Through the latticework screen covering the underside of the porch, we see…that one teeny gray kitty from earlier in the movie. Cue Ominous Music Sting. It meows sweetly and the movie inevitable closes with…what else…a ‘chilling’ freeze frame on its furry little face. Remember the shock cut to the koala that ended the episode of The Simpsons when they went to Australia? That was much more authentically sinister.
  • But wait! There’s even another shock-suspense coda. A car pulls up outside, disgorging a real estate agent and another city couple come to look over the house. The woman is *gasp* pregnant. We cut to a POV shot watching them all from under the porch. An extended Ominous Music Chord plays. After they enter the house, a Ground Level Cat POV Shot indicates that the kitten is running around to the kitchen doggie door. The Ominous Music Chord still sounds. The camera stops at the door, with the kitty apparently having entered. From inside we hear:

    Presently Offscreen Kitty: “Meee-ow.”
    Voice of Pregnant Wife: “What was that?”
    Husband: “It’s just a cat.”
    Pregnant Wife: “Oh, isn’t he adorable! Here, kitty, kitty!”

    And on that final note of raw, palpitating terror, we cut to the end credits.

Most of the people involved in this project are, unsurprisingly, television veterans. Director John McPherson has exclusively helmed TV series episodes and made-for-TV movies. In the ‘80s, he broke out and performed cinematography chores for several theatrical productions, including recent Jabootu subject Jaws: The Revenge. In the end, though, he returned to the tube.

The script was written by former pop star Shaun Cassidy. This actually might make one expect too much of the film, as Cassidy was the creator of one of network television’s best horror series, American Gothic. That was several years after this, however, so apparently he was still learning his chops with our current item of inquiry. Also, it should be said in his behalf that Strays was his first writing effort. In any case, Mr. Cassidy continues to work steadily. Currently he executive produces and writes for the popular crime series Cold Case.

Kathleen Quinlan needs no introduction to Jabootuites. She is fondly remembered for her grossly laughable performance in the monumentally inane tear-jerker The Promise. Still, it’s hard to assign her much of the blame for that fiasco. Meryl Streep on her best day couldn’t have salvaged that film’s epically moronic premise. In any case, Ms. Quinlan continues to appear in numerous films and television projects, including the occasional genre flick like Event Horizon. I tend to see Ms. Quinlan in films like this, The Promise and Airport ’77. She’s never struck me as much of an actress, but I’ll withhold my final judgment until I see how she fares in something that doesn’t outright suck to begin with.

Timothy Busfield starred in the cult yuppie-angst series Thirtysomething. Like several of his co-stars from that series, he has gone on to become a prolific episodic television director, working on such shows as Sports Night, Ed and Miss Match. He also maintains an active character acting career.

Claudia Christian is becoming a familiar personage at this site. She played a butch, trigger-happy terrorist in The Final Voyage (for which, along with the film’s director, she provides a hysterical commentary track on the movie’s DVD), as well as a butch, trigger-happy FBI agent in Half Past Dead. Ms. Christian probably remains best known for playing Susan Ivanova on the cult sci-fi series Babylon Five, and stays quite busy guest starring on TV shows and appearing in (mostly) schlocky direct-to-video fare. Impressively, she has maintained this career while (mostly) keeping her clothes on.

[Proof]Readers Respond:

Both Carl Fink and Bill Leary advise that feral domestic cats can, in fact, be dangerous. Bill opines that a pack of attacking cats could inflict some amount of damage, and in extreme, perhaps kill. This is no doubt true, although in this case the problem is at least partly a reflection on my poor writing skills. The fact is, while Bedraggled Cat seems to be leading a small army of disaffected felines, only he (she?) is ever shown actually attacking anyone. The others basically sit around and hiss menacingly.

So let me be clear, I’m not incredulous at the idea that a pack of cats could conceivably be dangerous. Or that such an attack, even by one cat, could possible lead to someone’s demise. (Although a certain amount of bad luck would be required, I believe.) However, again, the film fails to convince us that this single cat, although no doubt nasty, could terrorize a succession of fully-grown adults. The fact that said menace can be dissuaded by squirting it with water certainly doesn’t help.

To an extent, the film admits this. Phone Guy apparently kills himself in a panic, and Claire dies from a combination of terminal stupidity and ludicrously extenuated circumstances. Only the Old Woman presumably dies directly via cat, and of course her age and fragility must considered a contributing factor.

However, in the end we are presented with two fully able adults, in their apparently physical and intellectual prime, refuse to arm themselves or take any of several other apparent steps when confronted with a single actively murderous cat. Meanwhile, caution is one thing, but watching parents react so passively as their young child is threatened just doesn’t play.

Carl also mentions that cats do possess amazing leaping abilities, in regards to my incredulity regarding Bedraggled Cat leaping up from the Jarretts’ bed and up into the air duct. Yes, cats are extraordinary jumpers, and while I’m not completely convinced one could hit that small target from such a distance, I’ll grant it’s possible. However, I still maintain that doing so without waking either of the bed’s occupants is more than a tad unlikely. On the other hand, they slept through him urinating all over their pillows, sheets and clothes, so…

In the end, of course, this is the problem: Whether a feral cat could in real life be dangerous or not is almost beside the point. The fact is that the film never remotely convinces us that these characters would be in any real danger were they not themselves such nitwits.

I should also mention that I actually like cats, despite what might be implied by anything above. I just like dogs, except for little yippy ones, a lot more. However, I’ve met any number of fervid proponents of the ‘cat superiority’ school over the years, and remain unconvinced.

Summary: For confirmed catophobes only.

“Rah, I’m a monsta!”

  • Eric Hinkle

    I saw this movie years ago. I’d mercifully forgotten all about it until reading this. Thanks a lot, buddy! XD

    More seriously, goofy as this was, you should have seen the SyFy “original” NIGHT OF THE WILD earlier this year for a canine counterpart to this. Meteor lands in rural area, drives dogs into murderous rage, hilarity ensues. The best part is when at the end, the escaped on a plane survivors set down at an airport after being radioed that it’s safe. Upon leaving the plane they discover that the dogs have killed everyone and, presumably, sent them the radio message. STRAY was awful but at least the cats weren’t phoning the husband at the office and telling him they were safe and he just needed to bring some catnip home!

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  • Eric Hinkle

    Oh yow, that poster promises a much better movie that the one the viewer will get!

    And on normal if feral cats menacing people, I suppose they could with someone who was very frail, or badly handicapped, or a small child. You’d think that would add some suspense too; it’s one thing for a healthy adult to vamoose, but what about someone missing their legs or the like?

  • Beckoning Chasm

    Even domestic cats can be dangerous, as witnessed some years back by a guy who was trapped in his bathroom by a cat for (I think) a day or two. Of course, in that instance he’s probably trying not to injure a pet despite its inexplicable behavior.

    I would think that a “cat attack” movie would be much better served by using the cat’s cunning. They could run up and downstairs and trip people, dash in front of them and make them fall, etc. Since most people don’t regard cats as dangerous, people would tend not to want to step on a cute little cat and assume that it had no ill intentions. It could be something like Bradbury’s “The Small Assassin” only with cats instead of a baby.

    Also, if you’ve not seen “Phase IV” then I recommend it…it’s also a “tiny creatures attack” movie but the ants have a pretty remarkable strategy, rather than just swarming and devouring.

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  • Gamera977

    Yeap, kinda hard for me to be scared of something I can drop kick across the room. Though I’ll admit H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Cats of Ulthar’ is a pretty disturbing story.

  • Sandy Petersen

    Having owned both cats & dogs, I must disagree with Ken. I think cats & dogs are comparable in intelligence. Certainly I’ve owned cats smarter than some of my dogs, so at a minimum there is overlap.

    Cats don’t do tricks, but I don’t think it’s because they are smarter or dumber. They just have a wildly different personality. Example: it’s easy to teach a dog to nudge aside a door or object, because they often push with their snout. Cats don’t, so this is hard to learn. OTOH cats climb vertically, so quickly learn to ascend a tower or pillar. Dogs don’t.