Some of the most effective horror cinema relies on what I call “irresistible revulsion”: that hideous feeling of seeing something so unnatural and wrong that nevertheless draws you in and squirms underneath your skin, never to leave again. It’s nightmare fuel at the subatomic level, disturbing your soul and your psyche to the point where you feel slightly less connected to reality after having seen it. You relish the distance between the world that you knew and the one that you now inhabit, but you mourn its loss intently as you reckon with this new unease at the core of your being.
Robert Morgan’s horror short “The Cat with Hands” is a brilliant three-and-a-half minute exercise in irresistible revulsion. Opening on a figure silhouetted in the pulsating marble eye of a cat, it knocks the viewer off balance from the first frame and never allows any respite from the disconcerting terror of its deceptively simple plot. An old man (Livy Armstrong) stands next to a well in the woods and tells a young man (Daniel Hogwood) the story of the creature that comes from that very well. An eldritch Dr. Frankenstein performing surgery on itself, the creature steals body parts one at a time from unsuspecting victims in order to appear more human.
Flashbacks to the creature’s emergence depict an eerie cat with human hands that takes a liking to the face of an unfortunate young boy (Victoria Hayes) who has discovered the secret that lurks in the well. Their interaction is halting and gentle at first; though the boy comes to a violent end, his final moments are gruesome not because of an abundance of gore but because of a horrifying loss of self. The creature steals his face, leaving a terrifying blankness where the boy’s features once rested. When the viewer sees the boy’s face sitting where a feline face should be, it evokes a soul shudder with its calmly disgusting incongruity.
The sound and editing contribute to this quiet detachment from the natural order. Echoes and sparse sound effects create a worrying sense of space, as if the viewer were in a vacuum just waiting to be filled with unnatural danger. Each cut is just a hair too abrupt, giving every shot an uncomfortable closeness that further erodes the viewer’s tether to reality. Time and space are warped in an exploration of a world that lies just outside the one we believe we inhabit.
Framed by a song about “a strange dream” set at a disconcertingly plodding tempo, the short film proves that even when we know that the world is not as it seems, we are not prepared for the unsettling horrors that lie at the edge of our perception. Dreams and waking, myths and reality…there is no comforting boundary between these things to keep us safe. Ideal for fans of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Jan Švankmajer, and the Brothers Quay, “The Cat with Hands” is a masterful horror short that obliterates the lines between the self and the terror that surrounds us, using irresistible revulsion to make the viewer question everything that they think they know.
Watch “The Cat with Hands” here.