The 1970s was a truly vile era of schlock cinema, a decade of post-Hays Code liberation that’s just as notable for its New Hollywood artistic renaissance as it is for grotesque drive-in provocations like Cannibal Holocaust & I Spit on Your Grave. Whenever I watch horror films from the 70s era of grindhouse grime I usually prepare myself for the possibility of disgust, particularly in the decade’s beyond questionable depictions of sexual assault. I do have a few pet favorites from the era, though, rough at the edges gems that could’ve only been produced in the lawless days when exploitation cinema was king, a malevolent, slovenly king. I don’t want to say, for instance, that I’ve seen the minor schlock title The Night of a Thousand Cats more than anyone else, but it is a nasty 70s horror title I return to far more often than is typical for me. Ever since I picked up its laughably shoddy DVD print at an ancient FYE for pocket change, the film has held a strange, undeniable fascination for me. It’s something that could have only been made in what I consider to be the sleaziest, most disreputable era of genre cinema and, yet, I return to it often in sheer bewilderment.
You might expect a horror film with the title The Night of a Thousand Cats to be laughable camp, but somehow the inherent goofiness of a mass hoard of ravenous, man-eating house cats is severely undercut here. Much like with the mannequin-commanding telepathy of Tourist Trap, The Night of a Thousand Cats is far too grimy, loopy, cruel, and unnerving in its feline-themed murders to be brushed aside as a campy trifle. Its cocktail napkin plot is thus: a mysterious, wealthy man flirts with women by flaunting his opulence. Once (easily) seduced, he flies them back to his remote castle via helicopter, murders them, stores their heads in glass cases, and tosses their remaining meat to his ungodly collection of house cats, which might just meet the 1,000 benchmark indicated in the title. Before he can complete his collection of lovely lady heads, his cat army escapes confinement, turns on him, and eats him alive. It’s an inevitable comeuppance in a bare bones story with little to no frills in its individual beats. There’s certainly an alternate universe where the exact same premise could be played for absurdist, camp-minded laughs, but something about this film lodges itself under your skin. It’s disturbing to the point of feeling unethical, even more so in its treatment of cats than its treatment of women.
If The Night of a Thousand Cats were produced in 2016 there’s no doubt its titular feline hoard would be made entirely of CGI. In 1972, they used real cats. Like, so many goddamn cats. A lot of 1970s schlock is difficult to watch due to its gleeful cruelty towards fictional women. This film is disturbing for the way it treats real life animals. A sea of cats whine in a bare, concrete cage where they’re fed from above by casually-tossed, rare “human” meat. What’s worse is that the cats themselves are tossed at both their fleeing victims & their cruel master. It’s not quite the nasty on-screen animal cruelty of Cannibal Holocaust, but it’s still disturbing to watch. The only cinematic reference point I can really compare it to is the feline kill at the heart of Dario Argento’s Inferno. As uncomfortable as the film is to watch as an animal lover, however, it’s still fascinating as a relic from a time when filmmakers could go unchecked in such a questionable way. My usual discomfort with grindhouse slime is in the way sexual violence is exploited for shock value & (in the worst cases) titillation. The cat-tossing & cat-hoarding of this work is surely immoral in a similarly sleazy way. I’d never want to see it recreated in a modern context and it probably should have never been made in the first place, but it’s a fascinating document as is, one that’s effectively disturbing in both its on & off screen implications.
What’s most surprising about The Night of a Thousand Cats is that its depiction of predatory sexuality is actually somewhat enlightened & thoughtful, depending on how you read the film’s intent. Since there is a surprisingly minuscule amount of dialogue holding the film together, the terror of The Night of a Thousand Cats is mostly centered on the predatory evils of masculine seduction. The bearded playboy killer who collects heads & house cats could easily be presented as a target for envy from the audience. He vacations in beautiful locations, seduces beautiful women, and lives in an inherited mansion complete with an Igor-esque butler named Goro. The killer’s entire seduction process amounts to “Look at my helicopter,” but it’s a flirtation that works every single time. Instead of coming across like a prototype for The World’s Most Interesting Man, however, he’s played as an obvious creep. He directly tells his romantic partners that he wants to possess them, to “put you in a place where no one can’t touch you,” “a crystal cage”. The women find this possessiveness charming, but for the audience it’s a horror show, one that only leads to more cat feedings. We know so little about the killer that he’s defined solely by his wealth, his sexuality, and his masculinity. He inherited wealth from a family of “collectors” & strives to assemble his own collection of sorts that will stand as “the most interesting of all”, but that’s about it. We don’t even know for sure why he’s obsessed with cats. His interest in cats & women seems to be one in the same: a violent obsessiveness that’s smartly played for chills & vague menace instead of shameless titillation.
Some of the confusion in this film’s plot is surely due to its heavily-edited US release, which cuts a good half-hour off the original Mexican work for a slim hour-long runtime. The speed & disjointedness of The Night of a Thousand Cats plays to the film’s strengths, however, and through its strange, clunky edits the film feels at times like a clumsy art house dream world. In a way, it plays like a nasty grindhouse version of Knight of Cups, with its loose, largely dialogue-free disposal of beautiful women & the heavy psychedelic melancholy of a deeply selfish man. I don’t want to oversell this film’s competence. It’s an ugly mess first & foremost, but I’m continually fascinated by the surreal quality of its ugliness, the surprisingly deft way it handles the killer’s misogyny and (of course) its never-ending sea of bloodthirsty cats. I’m usually all for leaving the nastier side of grindhouse horror in the past, but The Night of a Thousand Cats is one ghost from that era I’d love to see brought back & re-examined. It’s a singularly strange & nasty work I return to way more often than I probably should.