Some time ago, I was thinking about Inferno – my favourite film by Dario Argento – and the fact that the only scene that lets that movie down is Daria Nicolodi’s death. Nicolodi meets her end by the claws of several cats. The scene, unlike the rest of the film, is poorly executed to comical effect with cats obviously being flung by crewmembers onto Nicolodi. But this scene, even better executed, would have never worked. Why? Because cats are simply not scary. In fact, domestic cats could well be the least threatening animal I can think of. Even animals far smaller have more potential as creatures of terror – rats, yep; mice, yep; lizards, yep; ants, yep; hell, even rabbits with their cold dead eyes are more unsettling than cats (just watch Watership Down for an example of terrifying rabbits). I wracked my brain attempting to think of a movie where cats were actually scary (and I’m not talking in an ominous black cat kind of way). The best I could muster was Cat People (1942), which is a genuinely scary movie with a catty theme but still, it’s the suggestion of cat people that delivers the scares, not house cats. In my desperation to find a movie where cats played the central antagonistic “monster” role, I found Strays. And, oh boy, the laughs did roll.
USA, 1991, John McPherson
I’m a sucker for any horror film that opens with the killer’s POV – Black Christmas and Halloween being the obvious examples – and Strays kicks things off with a fairly impressive cat point of view shot. Yes, I was sort of impressed, but also laughing pretty hard. The hysterical cat POV makes many returned appearances throughout the film, and is even utilised for the film’s final shot. Strays does nothing to make domestic cats scary – no matter how feral they may be. The king stray and his army of cats certainly had me quaking, but with chuckles rather than fear. Best of all, other than the king stray, the cats are hilariously non-threatening. They’re just regular cats! These cats aren’t genetically modified, they’re not part-wild cat, they’re just cats. Even in their absurd numbers, they’re still not threatening. Even when they’re clawing open a door to get to a mother and child, Jack Nicholson style, they’re still not threatening. (On a side note, I’m not sure if I was imagining things, but there seemed to be a lot of references to The Shining in Strays – even down to the musical score.) Check out the first reveal of the king stray and his gang, amazing stuff:
Cats aside, I loved the visual style of Strays. The film has that aesthetic only seen in made-for-television movies. When screened without adverts, the fades to black in the middle of intense scenes and repeated information seem ludicrous adding to the downright absurdity of the film. But its not only the enforced editing and structure brought by its televisual roots, Strays is shot really oddly. I must confess, the cinematography is quite good and really out of place in a film like this. Shots often linger for extended amounts of time, slowly tracking in to various objects. Sometimes it is for a reason, but more often than not, these lingering tracking shots have no purpose other than to totally headfuck the viewer – or me, at least. The script is equally as strange with confusing and unnecessary character relationships and intensely unlikable supporting characters. Every character outside our two leads is hellbent on being an asshole, like our protagonists are stuck in some sort of otherworldly hell. Best of all is the film’s ending, which goes on for one scene too long to great comic effect. Before the final scene, I’d actually reached for the remote to switch the television off, but instead of the credits rolling we are treating to a bizarrely unneeded scene. Pretty funny.
I must also draw attention to the amazing interactions the heroes of Strays have with cats. Paul, the film’s central character, is played by Timothy Busfield, who most will recognise from his role as Arnold Poindexter in Revenge of the Nerds. Busfield is great in Revenge of the Nerds, here he is infuriating. To be fair, it’s not really his fault, but rather the way his horrible character is written. Busfield as Paul looks like an uncomfortable blend of Paul Giamatti and Richard Dreyfuss and plays his clown-like character to cringe-worthy extremes. Paul seems to have no basic understanding of cats. In one hilarious scene, the cats soak Paul’s pillow and clothes in urine and leave him a dead mouse to wake up to (don’t cats do that as a gift rather than a threat?). Paul asks the local vet about the incident who tells him the stray is a “dominant male” and is marking his “turf”. Paul panics when hearing this. “Turf?” Paul yells. “This is our house!” It’s as if Paul expects the cats to understand his purchase of the property. Paul even gets confused when the term “feral cat” is used, like he’s never heard it before. Funniest of all is the way Paul and his wife, Lindsey, are so helpless against a bunch of fucking cats. Several times I yelled at the screen: “Just get a fucking broom! They’re just cats!” The hysteria the characters exude when the cats appear is feverish. When Paul has a one on one battle with the king stray, he acts like he’s fighting a rabid panther. At one point, Lindsey enters her daughter’s room to see the cats filling the crib as if they were eating her offspring. In a panic, she throws cats across the room, crying hysterically. Who would have thought a few cats could break two people so easily?
The film wraps up with the police arriving, but sadly it misses a great opportunity for comedy. The scene finishes before we can hear Paul and Lindsey explaining the situation to the police. Perhaps it’s best that Strays omits this conversation, because simply imagining was enough to have me giggling like a madman. Strays is wonderfully entertaining bit of trash. With an obviously decent budget, it’s also quite well-made. The decent production values offset by the insane content is a joy to behold. I heartily recommend Strays to anyone looking for a solid chuckle. Be prepared to hear a lot of this: