There’s an instant absurdist appeal to making a live action cat movie that I find endlessly entertaining, whether it be a “lighthearted” family comedy like Nine Lives or a weirdo genre film like The Night of 1,000 Cats or something in-between like The Cat from Outer Space. 2003’s made-for-Animal Planet TV movie Ghost Cat also splits the difference between those feline cinema subcategories. Starring a before-she-was-famous Ellen Page, still firmly in the Trailer Park Boys/I Downloaded a Ghost phase of her career, Ghost Cat is a cheaply ugly & transparently vapid time-waster of a family picture. Alternately marketed as a family drama under the titles Mrs. Ashboro’s Cat and The Cat that Came Back, it was only packaged as a feline horror thriller as an afterthought. Ghost Cat doesn’t have the heart to make a villain out of its titular threat, instead playing the ghost cat as a hero to animals everywhere & giving her the not-at-all-threatening name Margaret. Still, I found myself at least mildly charmed by the film’s quaintly campy thrills throughout and left it with a big, dumb smile on my face. The inane pleasures of a live action cat movie are that inherently strong.
Ghost Cat’s titular animal spirit is too lovable to demonize, so the film instead turns to the most tried & true villains of children’s media (and life in general): white businessmen. Greedy white men conspire to rob an old lady of her family home and her friendly neighbor of her animal rescue operation to make way for an Evil Real Estate Development Deal. Once the old lady dies alone at home, along with her cat (yikes! that’s depressing) the only thing standing in the way of the evil real estate development is the cat’s ghost and its only living human friend, a young girl played by Page. The ghost cat initially appears in the young girl’s stress-induced nightmares about her own dead mother, wildly meowing in an artfully inane montage of flames and black & white photographs. From there it does things you’d expect a cat’s ghost to do: mysteriously knocking items off shelves, walking across piano keys, and invisibly “making biscuits” on bedspreads. The cat’s ghostly deeds become more purposefully heroic as the film goes on, though, and Margaret eventually saves the day several times over by scratching the evil white men in the face and thwarting their shady contract deals by getting the right papers in the right people’s hands.
Made soon after national stories like the Enron scandal and Martha Stewart’s insider trading conviction, Ghost Cat has a surprising amount to say about how financial institutions are gleefully willing to rip off & tear down the people. The film even solidifies the threat by having its business cretins directly attack the most innocent victims possible: abused & neglected animals. It’s bad enough when they start the film pressuring an old woman to forfeit her property, but by the end the ghost cat has to stop them from literally gassing an entire animal shelter’s worth of rescues to death. That’s some top shelf TV movie villainy right there. Unfortunately, focusing the story’s weight on the evils of white man business dealings means there’s less room in the runtime for ghost cat tomfoolery, which is obviously the film’s main draw. I was satiated by the few ridiculous cat cam & feline nightmare sequences the film could afford me, but for the most part there just wasn’t nearly enough ghost cat in my Ghost Cat. This film is strictly for mid-afternoon lazy-watching, an easy on the brain indulgence that somewhat satisfies in its titular inanity, but leaves a lot of room to explore in future feline spirit realm cinema. I’ll be there for those future ghost cat experiments in TV movie artistry, but sadly I doubt Ellen Page will be joining me for the ride. She’s got better things to do. I don’t.
When recently revisiting James Gunn’s MCU directorial debut for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. feature, I was surprised to find that the film had greatly improved with time & distance. A lot of problems I had with Guardians of the Galaxy felt entirely inconsequential the second time around. Unfortunately, I couldn’t repeat this trick with Gunn’s other superhero movie, 2010’s dark comedy Super. I enjoyed Super well enough the first time I saw it a few years ago, but found it deeply flawed in select moments that often poisoned the film’s brighter spots with a certain kind of tonal cruelty. More specifically, I thought Super‘s lighthearted approach to sexually assault in not one, but three separate gags was a huge Achilles heel in an otherwise enjoyable film. If anything, recently giving Super a second, closer look made this fault even more glaring than it was the first go-round.
In the film a short-order grill cook & lifelong target of bullying (Rainn Wilson) is emotionally wrecked when his exotic dancer wife (Liv Tyler) relapses on her sobriety & leaves him for a ruthless drug-dealing schmuck (Kevin Bacon). In this moment of crisis our pathetic hero finds solace & inspiration in a Christian television show about a pious superhero named The Holy Avenger. Things get out of hand when his religious delusions become full-blown divine visions where the finger of God touches his brain (literally) and convinces him to take justice into his own hands by becoming a real-life superhero. As his newly-minted superego The Crimson Bolt, our hero is no longer on the receiving end of bullying. He’s no longer the kind of pushover who’d make his wife’s new lover fried eggs for breakfast out of timid kindness. He’s now empowered by a homemade costume, an overeager sidekick (Ellen Page), and some nifty catchphrases (“Shut up, crime!”) to fight evil deeds by mercilessly beating people within an inch of their lives with household tools for minor offenses. In his mind The Crimson Bolt is all that’s standing between justice & chaos. From the outside looking in, he’s a man suffering from crippling depression & self hate and is more of a dangerous liability than he is a divine vigilante.
My favorite aspect of Super is the ambiguity of its tone. Is it a pitch black comedy or simply pitch black? When The Crimson Bolt weeps in a mirror & thinks to himself “People look stupid when they cry,” does the humor of that observation outweigh the severity of its emotional turmoil or should you join in on the tears? It’s difficult to tell either way, but part of what makes James Gunn pictures so engaging is in the fearless way they’re willing to explore this compromised tone by going hard on darker impulses that complicate their humor. Sometimes I’m more than willing to laugh at these clashes in tone, like when The Crimson Bolt has a moral dilemma about murdering people for non-violent offenses (like cutting in line or keying cars) that he summarizes as “How am I supposed to tell evil to shut up if I have to shut up?” Other times I’m left much more uncomfortable, especially in the multiple instances of rape “humor” that make light of prison rape, female-on-male rape, and drug-assisted sexual assault. In these moments Gunn’s tonal ambiguity plays much more like a detriment than an asset & any humor meant to be mined from the violence falls flat & unnerving.
It’s possible that the exact discomfort I’m describing is what Gunn was aiming to achieve in Super. The director makes a cameo in the film (in the context of the Holy Avenger television show) as the Devil & it’s possible that’s exactly how he sees himself. He promises to deliver certain genre goods in his films (Kick Ass-style dark comedy in this case), but merely uses them as a vehicle to deliver something much more misanthropic & grotesque. It’s a classic Devil’s bargain. I enjoy so much of what Super grimly delivers & maybe Gunn’s turning that sinful delight against me with this distasteful line of rape humor. Who’s to say? All I can really do is note the discomfort & wish for better.