Strays (1991)

FEBRUARY 21, 2023


I've wanted to see Strays for a while now, because there are so few killer cat movies (due in part to the fact that they're nearly impossible to train like dog actors) and as a cat owner who has been scratched a time or two, I figure I might find them "scary" (relatively speaking). But the reason I ended up *owning* a copy is laughably depressing: Scream Factory was having a sale and if I spent over $50 I'd get free shipping, so after adding the two things I wanted (which totaled around $40), I poked around for a relatively cheap movie that wouldn't be all that much more than the shipping charge. After twenty minutes of clicking I decided on Strays, and then... the other two items (Space Truckers and a Carpenter vinyl) got canceled because they ran out of their stock. So all I got was this, the movie I didn't really want to own and only found because I enjoy seeing the words "free" somewhere.

Anyway, as expected, it was fine. It was a basic cable movie in 1991 (USA if memory serves), and I'm sure it served its purpose of giving someone like me a breezy way to kill two hours and maybe be inspired to buy a new kind of soap, or that double disc collection of the best '80s power ballads. But it has no real use as a standalone blu-ray (even one you buy to get free shipping!), because not only is it completely featureless save the trailer, but who in their right mind would want to watch this movie a second time? It's barely even a movie, and you can tell because it's bookended by padding scenes and it's still only 84 minutes long with credits. In fact there are TWO generic "maybe a sequel?" setups at the end: one in which we see one of the titular strays has survived (dun dun DUNNNN) and another in which another family moves into the house (dun dun DUNNNNN... DUNNNN!!!).

The overlong opening is about an old lady who feeds the strays and is killed for her trouble, and no one ever mentions her again. Granted, it's how we establish that the house our hero family will move into is both available and relatively cheap, but it goes on much longer than it should, setting the tone for this awkwardly paced (but not without entertainment) movie. Hell the family doesn't even move in right away; they come check it out and debate for a few minutes over whether or not they'll take it, which is the sort of scene I hate because there's no real value to it: the conversation can only go one way (if they don't take it, there's no movie) and the concerns could have been explained in a line of dialogue from someone begrudgingly carrying a box into their new/not really wanted home. It takes about 40 minutes for the damn cats to finally do something, and while it's amusing (they pee all over the owners' bed and clothes), by which point I'm sure most of those old USA viewers had probably nodded off (as I did; it took two sittings for me) or changed the channel, only checking in when whenever they landed on instead went to commercial.

Weirdly, the movie generates more suspense from a love triangle than the damn cats. Our hero couple is played by Timothy Busfield (at his most Dreyfuss-y, which doesn't help when you mentally track back to what likely led to the movie's existence in the first place) and Kathleen Quinlan, and they score the house from Quinlan's sister, Claudia Christian. In exchange, Busfield's lawyer character is helping Christian with her divorce, which seems to be the end result of her infidelities - a habit that seemingly doesn't stop with her brother-in-law. At one point she full on kisses him on the mouth right in front of her sister (not a quick peck, either), and makes innuendos throughout. Meanwhile, Busfield is constantly defending her against Quinlan, who being her sister has been putting up with her crap all their lives, so it seems like there's a real possibility the two of them end up in bed, maybe with a cat lashing out on Quinlan's behalf. Hell, it's almost kind of set up that way: Busfield is allergic to cats and wants them gone, but Quinlan and their daughter take a liking to two of them (they think it's just the two; there are like a dozen that seem like normal cats but are led by a Church-like jerk cat).

Beyond giving the movie some tension the cat scenes rarely managed, the temptation stuff only served to remind me of Of Unknown Origin, in which Peter Weller faced off against an angry rat that spent some time psychologically torturing him before stepping up its game (and when his wife was out of town, his secretary put some moves on him, but he rebuked them). That movie worked by contrasting Weller's home life with his office life, where his coworkers seemed baffled about his newfound rat obsession and we see how this once fastitidious, detail-oriented man sort of went to hell. We don't get anything like that here; Busfield and Quinlan don't even stay mad at each other for long; the cats attack their dog (off-screen, and the pooch lives, thankfully) and they basically forget all about her sister trying to usurp him for herself. And there's precious little of the outside world; beyond the four principals I think there are only four other people in the movie: a vet, a phone repairman, the old lady at the beginning, and Busfield's secretary (who we only hear over the phone anyway).

Things finally pick up in the last 20 minutes or so, when it basically becomes a realtime account of Quinlan and the daughter trying to escape the cats around the house as Busfield races home. There's some pretty hilarious stuff here (Quinlan, god bless her, keeps a straight face while wrestling with a cat puppet), with most of the sequence revolving around different ways she can get the cats wet (because cats hate water, the vet told us earlier), kind of destroying the house and reminding me yet again of Origin. And we get the long awaited payoff of the family's broken microwave cord (which is the most blatant safety hazard this side of Clark Griswold, despite having a kid, a dog, and two cats!) when Busfield holds the frayed part between his hands and basically Jaws 2's the attacking feline. Honestly I assumed it would just start a fire and give them another obstacle to avoid as they made their climactic escape, but this was better. Kept the house standing for Strays 2: Still Strayin', which I assume is probably actually in the works somewhere since TV networks can't let a damn thing go anymore.

Anyway, it's sadly among the weaker killer cat movies I've seen, reminding me why the best examples either use them as one of several threats (Pet Sematary) or use them in shorter tales (The Uncanny, the "Cat from Hell" segment of Tales from the Darkside). The fact that they can't really be trained to do much means there's little believable action (drink every time the soundtrack utilizes a screeching hiss when the onscreen cats are clearly just running around doing their thing) and too much padding things out with other things that, no matter how well the writer and director (in this case Shaun Cassidy (!) and Jaws 4 DP John McPherson) excecute them, will never be as entertaining as the promise of legit actors pretending a cat can do anything besides give you a few scratches or generally annoy you.

What say you?


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