A monthlong series in which Mr. Dossey looks at feline films, fine or otherwise.
A Talking Cat!?! is a low-budget VOD masterpiece from Roger Corman protégé David DeCoteau, whose filmography numbers into the hundreds and spans every genre imaginable. Cat!?! is his approach to a family film and stars former child actor Johnny Whitaker as Phil, a recently retired coding genius unsure how to approach his day-to-day life without looming deadlines to distract him from his hopelessly awkward son, Chris (Justin Cone). Chris is a sweet nerd in love with Tina (Janis Peebles), a popular girl who asks him to tutor her in English while she swims in his pool. Across the woods and behind Phil’s house lives a small family led by single mother Susan (Kristine DeBell), whose son, Trent (Daniel Dannas), and daughter, Frannie (Alison Sieke), both face questions about their life paths as adulthood nears. Duffy (Eric Roberts), that titular cat, struts into their lives to offer advice with but one caveat: He can only speak to any given human once. Can he use his wise feline advice to bring these families together? One thing is for sure: This is the kind of job only a talking cat can solve, probably.
DeCoteau sets most of the tale in a dilapidated Los Angeles mansion filled with visual non-sequiturs. Car-husk couches, strange artwork, modernist furniture, crumbling landscaping. The house is so gigantic that the little decoration he uses stands out against the excessively enlarged living space. It feels like a porno mansion because it is a porno mansion. DeCoteau’s longest running series was 1313, which pioneered the softcore gay VOD subgenre. The 1313 series includes titles such as 1313: Haunted Frat, 1313: Boy Crazies and 1313: Giant Killer Bees. Exploitation cinema has a true visual language all its own; what sets A Talking Cat!?! apart from other lo-fi crap for kids is that it is shot with the pure “get it done and give them something to see” aesthetic of an artist whose defining silver-screen achievement was framing buff men in lily-white briefs fighting CGI monsters.
Dialogue that would otherwise play innocently in a lesser film has a tinge of eroticism. Chris and Tina’s initial discussion about how to study — as she offers to bathe for him while he reads basic high school English — is as awkward as it is hilarious. Chris can’t swim, so when Trent shows up randomly at his house and asks to strip down and take a little dip … well, that’s not a scenario too far off from a different MPAA rating. It’s shot as such! This is an exploitation film with all the buildup and none of the erotic catharsis. Everything about Cat!?! over-the-top and excessive on a genetic level, but never explicit. After all, it’s a movie for children.
Cat!?! has been compared to other “so bad it’s good” classics like The Room or Fateful Findings: movies that are legendarily lousy, campy, unintentionally hilarious. It’s an apt comparison, but what sets this delightful trash apart is that it’s not by a first-time egotistical madman. This a rush job by a director who churns out schlock in a single week. A team molded by the early days of VHS and DVD and now the VOD streaming wars, where simply having content is more important than the content of that content. Make no mistake, though: This is so bad it’s good.
I haven’t even mentioned the true star of the show. Roberts voices Duffy, the monotone fur-baby stray who wanders in and out of the human’s lives. He narrates the movie, mostly, except in the short instances where he directly converses with disbelieving humans. When that happens, a shitty animated mouth is superimposed on the cat performer, appropriately matching Roberts’ shitty off-the-script read of his dialogue. Roberts reportedly recorded his lines in 15 minutes. Believable, because the audio also sounds like it was recorded in the back of a car or maybe a broom closet somewhere, complete with bizarre echo and wavering audio levels. It could quite literally be a phone-in performance. Roberts is as prolific an actor as DeCoteau is a director, both working men who work.
Unlike Garfield, where Bill Murray’s disaffected performance raises artistic pondering, Duffy’s utterly off-putting audio design complements every other otherworldly element of A Talking Cat!?!. In many ways, this is kitten’s first schlock film. Me-ow!
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