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The Uncanny

1977, Starring Peter Cushing, Samantha Eggar, Ray Milland, Susan Penhaligon. Directed by Denis Hroux.

While the stalwart Canadian feature film industry generally balked at genre films until tax laws made them profitable, across the pond, the Brits were busy cultivating one of cinema's strongest traditions of horror on film. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, notorious blood-dripping studios like Hammer and Amicus spawned an amazing wealth of British horror films that today are highly regarded around the world. Never ones to ignore a popular filmmaking trend with tax free investments on the line, Canada struck back with 1977's The Uncanny, a Canadian collection of eerie feline tales molded after Amicus' successful horror anthologies which include Tales from the Crypt and Dr Terror's House of Horrors. A mostly Canadian co-production directed by "maple syrup porn" king Denis Hroux, The Uncanny paired Montreal's Astral Films with the Rank Organisation, a long-standing British production company that had only recently began to dip their toes into horror with two Hammer co-productions, Countess Dracula and Twins for Evil.

Not surprisingly, from the film's opening titlespaintings of cats, with the cast listed in a beatnik-styled fontthis film begins to feel almost exactly like a gothic Hammer horror throwback. In the wraparound story that connects all three of the film's horror vignettes, haggard author Wilbur Gray (Peter Cushing) has written a book about unsolved murders that he believes are the work of an unholy army of killer kitties, and Frank Richards (Ray Milland) is a publisher who doesn't believe a word it. On a chilly Montreal evening, the two meet to discuss the possible publication of the book, and Gray tries to convince the skeptical cat-lover with three chilling "true" tales.

In the first story, we head back to Merrie Olde England in 1912, where wealthy dowager Mrs. Melkin (Joan Greenwood) is planning to write her only nephew Michael (Simon Williams) out of her will, and bequeath her large fortune entirely to her large multitude of cats. When Mrs. Melkin's maid Janet (Susan Penhaligon), hears the old woman making these changes with her lawyer, she alerts Michael, whom she is secretly dating, and together they plan to destroy the last copy of the will locked in Mrs. Melkin's bedside safe. Janet waits for the perfect moment to crack the combination, but Mrs. Melkin catches her in the act and attempts to call the police, forcing the conniving maid to kill her boss. The cats, however, witness the murder, and they don't plan on letting Janet deny them of their hefty inheritance.

The next vignette takes us to modern day Quebec, where Lucy (Katrina Holden), a recently orphaned young girl, is about to be moved into her aunt's home along with her pet cat Wellington. Her cousin Angela (Chloe Franklin), however, gets extremely jealous when she discovers that Wellington will be living with them, since she's not allowed any pets herself. When her whining does little to change her parents' (Alexandra Stewart and Donald Pilon) minds, Angela delights in getting both the cat and Lucy in trouble, prompting her fed-up father to drive Wellington out into the wilderness and let him go. Lucy is livid about their cruel treatment of the cat, but not for too longWellington somehow finds his way home, and helps Lucy plot her revenge against the troublemaking Angela by shrinking her cousin down to the size of a catnip play toy.

Finally, Gray recounts the grisly end of the improbably named 1930s B-movie star Valentine De'ath (Donald Pleasance). After doing away with his wife, De'ath blackballs his producer Pomeroy (John Vernon) into handing over a prized film role to the actor's vapid girlfriend Edina (Samantha Eggar). As the two celebrate back at De'ath's spacious mansion, they are constantly interrupted by his wife's cat, who is still living in the house and taking care of her newborn litter. De'ath hates the little creatures and drowns them all, but the mother cat escapes and follows him to the studio to retaliate, eating through ropes to drop a light on his head and shutting an iron maiden with his girlfriend insideall before pitting herself against De'ath for a final showdown.

After he almost single-handedly put Montreal sex cinema on the map with Valrie and L'Initiation, Denis Hroux turned to horror for a brief period in the late 1970s before giving up directing altogether for the production side of the business. His two final directorial efforts, the 1976 Richard Speck-influenced Born for Hell and this film, The Uncanny, are not very well regarded additions to his resume. In particular, the wildly uneven, low-budget The Uncanny pales in comparison to some of its more notable British influences and really suffers from a lack of variety in its three horror vignettes, all of which come down to the same basic premisecats will turn on you if you fuck with their masters.

Unfortunately, it's The Uncanny's first story, which comprises much of the film's British component, which easily outshines the remaining two segments. With dozens and dozens of snarling felines literally being thrown at Susan Penhaligon's head, topped off with a nicely delivered shock ending, the sheer number of malicious cats makes this an effective little tale, even if you don't find cats particularly frightening. By the time the second story starts, however, we're suddenly mired in prototypically gloomy Canadian tax shelter filmmaking. Featuring an all-Canadian cast, except for Chloe Franklin, this segment is poorly dubbed and features unconvincing special effects. At least it actually takes place in Montreal, rare for a horror film from the late 1970s, but once Lucy manages to shrink her cousin down, the film suddenly feels like one of Rock Demers' Tales for All gone horribly wrong. Dropping some direct references to the Hammer horror style, the last vignette is at least interesting, if not particularly successful. While quite similar to the earlier stories, this film takes an odd, completely over-the-top turn, as Pleasance chases the cat around the house slapstick style, and generally makes a fool of himself to set up the unavoidable and unforgettable punchline, "What's the matter, cat got your tongue?" To his credit, however, Pleasance clearly appears to be relishing the villainous, campy role.

While the three stories remain somewhat inconsistent in terms of quality, The Uncanny boasts one of the finest casts ever assembled for a Canadian horror film. Not only are there juicy roles for homegrown favourites John Vernon, Donald Pleasance and Samantha Eggar, but the additions of British horror icons Ray Milland and Peter Cushingthe same year he appeared in Star Wars, no lesslend the film some added respectability, even though the wraparound story is ultimately hampered by a predictable and uninspired twist ending. This star-studded lineup no doubt boosted worldwide ticket sales, since despite a precise regionalism in each segment, The Uncanny has that tangible Canadian co-production quality of placelessness tailored for both European and North American appeal.

Although the film suffers in comparison to likeminded horror anthologies that proliferated throughout the 60s and early 70s, The Uncanny is still a pretty unique exercise in Canadian horror. Sure the budget is embarrassing, the writing stale and the scares as tame as a saucer of milk, but the film incorporates just enough unusual elements to remain memorable. If time spent with cats is never wasted, then truly, The Uncanny remains one of the most extraordinary feline horror films ever let out of the bag.

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