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Retro Review: THE UNCANNY (1977)

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THE UNCANNY
(Canada/UK - 1977; US release 1980)

Directed by Denis Heroux. Written by Michel Parry. Cast: Peter Cushing, Samantha Eggar, Ray Milland, Susan Penhaligon, Donald Pleasence, Alexandra Stewart, John Vernon, Joan Greenwood, Catherine Begin, Roland Culver, Chloe Franks, Renee Girard, Katrina Holden, Jean Leclerc, Sean McCann, Donald Pilon, Simon Williams. (Unrated, 89 mins)

Pioneered by 1945's DEAD OF NIGHT, the portmanteau horror anthology format became a durable subgenre in the 1960s with TV shows like ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and THRILLER, and on the big screen with Roger Corman's 1962 Poe entry TALES OF TERROR and Mario Bava's 1964 classic BLACK SABBATH. The UK's Amicus Productions went all-in on the trend with titles like 1965's DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, 1967's TORTURE GARDEN, 1970's THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, 1972's ASYLUM and TALES FROM THE CRYPT, 1973's VAULT OF HORROR, and 1974's FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE. Horror's game-changer came with the release of 1973's THE EXORCIST, and despite attempts to stay current by upping the gore and T&A factor, the anthology, as well as the other kinds of more classically-oriented fare from Amicus and its more renowned contemporary Hammer, began to fall out of favor with audiences. The 1973 anthology TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS--with one segment devoted to a man's sexual obsession with an erotically-shaped tree stump--is easily the worst of the British portmanteau offerings, and the subgenre more or less faded away. The work of Stephen King would help revive the movement in America with 1982's CREEPSHOW and 1985's CAT'S EYE, but in the meantime, Amicus closed up shop in 1977 but co-chair Milton Subotsky kept the faith with a couple of tangential, Amicus-style stragglers. The wave of British horror anthologies dating back to 1965 came to a quiet end with 1981's generally lighthearted, Vincent Price-headlined THE MONSTER CLUB, which featured an obnoxious movie producer character named "Lintom Busotsky." Made at a time when slasher movies and innovative special effects were dominating the genre, THE MONSTER CLUB didn't even hit US theaters, instead going straight to syndicated TV.






An almost identical fate befell 1977's THE UNCANNY, which would be unseen in the US until it premiered on CBS in 1980. It establishes its British anthology bona fides by being co-produced by Subotsky and starring the ubiquitous Peter Cushing, but it's actually more a part of the Canadian tax shelter craze of the period. Shot and set in Montreal, THE UNCANNY is a triptych of unsolved, feline-related mysteries told in a framing device by nervous, paranoid writer Wilbur Gray (Cushing) to incredulous publisher Frank Richards (Ray Milland), who's having a hard time buying Gray's thesis that cats have a supernatural hold on their human owners. "London 1912" has wealthy, elderly spinster Miss Malkin (Joan Greenwood) cutting off her family and deciding to leave her vast fortune to her horde of cats, much to the chagrin of her scheming nephew Michael (Simon Williams) and her greedy housekeeper Janet (Susan Penhaligon). Janet manages to distract Miss Malkin's attorney (Roland Culver) and swipe the original copy of the new will from his briefcase and must get the other copy from her wall safe...but the cats have other ideas.


"Quebec Province 1975" has nine-year-old orphan Lucy (Katrina Holden, who would become an orphan herself a few years later and be adopted by her mother's friends Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland) and her cat Wellington sent to live with her aunt (Alexandra Stewart) and uncle (Donald Pilon) after her parents are killed in a plane crash. Her aunt takes an instant dislike to Wellington, but that's nothing compared to the scorn heaped on Lucy by her bratty, bitchy older cousin Angela (Chloe Franks), who resents no longer being the sole center of attention and sets out to make Lucy's life hell. Unfortunately for Angela, it seems that Lucy has been studying up on books belonging to her witchcraft-enthusiast mother. And "Hollywood 1936" has ludicrously-toupeed ham actor Valentine De'ath (Donald Pleasence) orchestrating the "accidental" death of his more famous wife Madeleine (Catherine Begin) on the set of his latest film DUNGEON OF HORROR. After a grieving period of a few minutes, De'ath insists to the producer (John Vernon) that the show must go on and suggests his wife's role be recast with his younger mistress Edina (Samantha Eggar), a woefully untalented ingenue who immediately moves into the De'ath mansion, much to the disapproval of Madeleine's beloved cats.

Director Denis Heroux and Samantha Eggar on the set of THE UNCANNY.


Written by Michel Parry (XTRO) and directed by Denis Heroux (JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS), THE UNCANNY has a few trips and stumbles along the way--while the grisliest segment by far, "London 1912" drags on too long, and there's some really bad dubbing of some of the supporting cast for no apparent reason, particularly Holden and Franks--but looking at it now on Severin's new Blu-ray (because physical media is dead), it's somewhat of an unsung gem from the waning, life-support days of the British portmanteau. It's always great to see Cushing in these things, and it's fun watching him be regarded with the kind of sneering, pompous derision that was late-career Milland's bread-and-butter. Anthology horror fans will also get a kick out of seeing a teenage Franks getting her just desserts several years after her unforgettable turn as Christopher Lee's witchcraft-practicing young daughter in the "Sweets to the Sweet" segment of THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. Like any decent film of this sort should do, they save the best segment for last, with some absolutely terrific work by Pleasence and Eggar, both of whom get to show off rarely0-utilized comedic skills as, respectively, the hapless Valentine De'ath--known as "V.D." to industry insiders--and his unbelievably dim mistress. Seemingly patterning her performance on Judy Holliday in BORN YESTERDAY, Eggar's scream queen screech is even worse than that terrible actress at the beginning of Brian De Palma's BLOW OUT, and is prone to obliviously saying things like, "Oh, V.D., I love you!" Lost in the shuffle thanks to a drastically changing genre landscape following the demonic horrors of THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN, THE UNCANNY probably seemed hopelessly antiquated in 1977, and it's little wonder why it completely bypassed American theaters. But time has been kind to it, and looking at it now reveals a surprisingly enjoyable mix of horror and inspired humor that's deserving of some appreciation. And of course, it doesn't miss the opportunity to deploy "What's the matter...cat got your tongue?" as an EC Comics-worthy punchline.


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