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Home > Film

Cats on film

Robin Ince

4 December 2003

Alien has always inspired debate. It is without doubt a seminal science fiction film, a work which changed the whole cinematic design of our imagined future, but what of its notions of sexuality and the potency of the alien? Of its visions of gender roles? How much credence should we give to the reading of the film as an exploration of the male fear of penetration? And more importantly, what does the film say about just how rubbish cats are?

The cat in Alien is much like Clive Dunn in Dad’s Army. Not only are they both called Jones, but they are also intensely annoying and in a true director’s cut of either work they would be entirely excised using cutting-edge digital technology.

Why the hell is Ripley so fond of that darn cat? Jones the cat not only causes the death of Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), but keeps leaping out at inopportune moments and scampering off, and then nearly causes the death of Ripley when it disappears while the Nostromo only has 10 minutes left before exploding. When Ripley is embroiled in her final cat search, Lambert and Parker are being torn to bloody shreds. And don’t tell me that Jones doesn’t savour every moment of watching Harry Dean Stanton being ripped up, as we see from the leering close up of its ginger face over the curdling screams; clearly its eyes are full of admiration for another killing machine.

Is Jones the cat an aberration in feline films, or do cats always create cold-hearted mayhem on screen?

In The Uncanny, Wilbur Gray (Peter Cushing) has discovered that cats are in charge and so tells three stories of cat horror, and yet despite having a cast list including Ray Milland and Samantha Eggar this film is unutterable rubbish. Why? Because it stars cats of course.

Persecution (1974) has poor Lana Turner, a proper Hollywood star, being forced to act in a very bad British horror film, with Ralph Bates from Dear John, and eventually she gets killed because of her excessive cat love – this is the Reefer Madness of cat films: a warning of what overfondness for cats may lead to.

Top Cat and The Beverly Hills Cats (1987) is one of those awful Hanna Barbera movies where the animation has been done by blind children with a magic marker in a cartoon sweat shop in Malaysia. Top Cat was a fine animated series, (after all, it was the feline Bilko) but at feature length and with 27 years passing since the original, this story of Benny’s possible Beverly Hills inheritance is sure to infuriate young and old alike and successfully vomits on a legacy.

Then there’s the Rape Because of Cats (1973), and what the hell kind of title is that? This seventies teenage thug movie mixes extreme violence with poor quality acting in Holland. To be fair, I don’t think it really was the cats’ fault that the whole rape thing happened, nevertheless this remains such an embarrassment in cat movie history that it is never aired and is unavailable on any format. The film starred Bryan Marshall, who commands a submarine in The Spy Who Loved Me, then went to Australia to play an Amish man in A Country Practice.

General annoying cat moments occur in those hugely self-conscious “chick flicks” where a lonely, hugely attractive thirtysomething (see Meg Ryan) living in a million pound New York loft apartment and wearing a “cute” striped night shirt, talks to her cat on a Sunday morning about how unlucky in love she is. Also note any 'true life' Disney adventures that have a wise cat going on an incredible journey (such as The Incredible Journey).

Let us not forget Buxton, in Dougal and the Blue Cat (1971), who enters the magic roundabout garden and then ensnares the likes of Florence and Dylan in a vile trap, leading to the heart rending song “Will We Ever See the Sun Again?” (actually if you’re quite drunk, it really is very moving).

In short, Alien is one of the only films to escape the curse of the turkey cat, but should you suggest Breakfast at Tiffany’s as well, I will be forced to remind you of Mickey Rooney’s funny angry Chinese neighbour. Few movies can take the pressure of feline performance and their appearance more often than not leads to screen unpleasantness, suggesting the Egyptians were way off the mark. As Noel Coward said: “Don’t put your cat on the stage Mrs Worthington, it’ll only shit all over it and rip up the curtains.”

The ultimate cat film?

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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