I love genre cinema. I will always have a soft spot for horror, action, sci-fi, and all the subgenres that exist inside those larger categories. What I have never felt any real connection to are those films that exist in the realm of pure sleaze. You know the ones: the films from the ’70s and ’80s, filled with ugly violence and sex that is the opposite of titillating, usually shot on cheap film stock with semi-amateur casts. But knowing these films have a large following and several companies devoted to restoring them makes me wonder what I am missing. With that in mind, I am going to do a deep dive into the world of sleazy exploitation. This is My Exploitation Education.
This trailer is NSFW:
I have heavily relied on the excellent streaming service Exploitation.TV when finding films to watch for this column. That has led to watching and writing about movies that are usually anywhere from thirty to forty years old. While it has been great to watch so many vintage exploitation flicks, I feel the time has come to expand my education to take in current exploitation films as well as the classic variety. With that in mind, I turned to a title this week that sounds like a Tom Waits song but is actually an Australian film from 2015 that would have fit quite nicely on a 42nd Street theater screen circa 1982.
I have a feeling the filmmakers behind CAT SICK BLUES will take it as a compliment when I say that it is a movie that I don’t exactly like, but I still cannot look away from. Entertainment value is largely nonexistent, but there is something compelling about the film that I cannot put my finger on. Such is the mysterious alchemy with some horror films that work despite their ugly, mean-spirited nature. And make no mistake; this is a very ugly, mean-spirited movie.
The film starts like a traditional slasher flick. Two women smoke weed in their small apartment while watching people do stupid things in YouTube videos. After watching one of the lamer cat videos to ever grace the Internet, they are disturbed by the sound of a stray cat knocking things over on the roof of their building. Not surprisingly, it’s not a cat that is making the noise. What is surprising is that the trespasser who is destined to decapitate the young woman trying to chase off the feline, is a tall man wearing a cat mask and gloves specially designed to look like cat paws—complete with functioning claws.
Co-writer/director Dave Jackson wastes no time with a false mystery, establishing that the killer is Ted (Matthew C. Vaughan), a socially awkward gent given to fits of seizures and staring longingly at his dead cat that he keeps in his freezer. Ted believes that if he takes the lives of nine people and drains their blood into a large vat, he will bring his dead cat to life. It’s safe to say that Ted is not playing solitaire with a full deck.
Meanwhile, Claire (Shian Denovan) is facing the very real possibility that she may have to get a real job. Her cat Imelda used to be a viral video sensation, but has recently fallen ill and is not interested in performing for the camera any longer. As she contemplates shooting a video of the ailing cat to create a video to get “sympathy hits,” an obsessed Imelda fan shows up at her door. The fan loses control of his emotions and kills Imelda, throwing the cat’s body out the window of Claire’s upper floor apartment. In an ugly turn of events, he then rapes Claire, while her Imelda camera catches the entire sexual assault.
From there, CAT SICK BLUES goes even darker—which is difficult to do, given the fact that there are two murders, a cat is killed, and a woman raped in the first fifteen minutes. Ted, being a cat lover in the most extreme way, learns about the killing of Imelda and the attack on Claire and becomes obsessed with her. He goes to a pet grief support group that Claire attends so that he can…well, I’m not exactly sure even Ted knows what he wants, but he sleazes his way into her life for a short time before continuing his killing spree, which gets more absurd and blood-soaked as it goes along.
Jackson has a hard time finding a consistent tone as the film skips back and forth between Ted’s messed up slasher exploits and Claire’s more grounded, painful PTSD in the wake of her rape. I found it hard to go from an absurd scene of Ted slaughtering four women while wearing a giant mock up of a cat penis to a pointed moment as Claire discovers her rape video has leaked online and watches a series of awful YouTubers create smug, “edgy” reaction videos to it. Separately, these scenes work fairly well in the genres in which they exist. The gushing blood, slow-motion presentation of the murders, and use of a dreamy pop song juxtaposed with the violence make for a stylish, inventive, over-the-top horror sequence. But then watching Denovan give a raw, heart-breaking performance as she watches strangers cruelly make jokes at her rape video is far more horrifying than anything in Ted’s section of the film.
The strange thing is that while I don’t think this mash-up of slasher film theatrics and straightforward dramatic storytelling ever coheres in a consistent way, it is the push and pull between the two extremes that Jackson is playing with that makes CAT SICK BLUES a weirdly fascinating watch. That said, weirdly fascinating does not always equal entertaining.
The image of a man wearing a cat mask, functioning claws, and a giant cat phallus is clearly one that Jackson considers outlandish enough to make Ted a memorable slasher villain. But he overuses that imagery to the point that an hour in, I was no longer noticing any of these visual cues. Ted simply becomes another insane horror movie villain in a mask murdering women. At least Jackson does have a character call Ted out on his actions when he claims that he only killed people in an attempt to bring back his dead cat by correcting him that he didn’t indiscriminately kill—he targeted women. The murders in the film are so absurd that it is hard to get offended by them, but the fact that the filmmakers understand how misogynistic it is for Ted to only kill women and then go with that plot point is a headscratcher. There are certainly moments in the film where Jackson wants the viewer to feel sorry for Ted, but that idea is undercut by his actions against/issues with women.
If you have not yet figured it out, I find CAT SICK BLUES to be an utter mess. Even as I write this, I am wrestling with why I find it such an intriguing flick. The tonal shifts are so sudden they could induce whiplash and left me exhausted. It overstays its welcome by a good twenty minutes. And I feel it is a mistake to try to make Ted sympathetic at all when Jackson has a much more well rounded character in Claire for the audience to identify with. But I cannot deny that—even with only a few of the film’s overt attempts at shocking transgression landing with any sort of impact—there is something about it that demands the viewer’s attention. It is not a movie for all tastes—hell, I’m still not certain I like it—but once seen, it is hard to forget.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)