The Best Killer-Cat Horror Movies You've Never Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week we look at savage felines big and small but mostly big!)

Culture and horror cinema is filled with references to cats being the demon spawn of the pet world, and until recently I saw no reason to disagree. We brought home two black kittens that had been found in a dumpster, and they've thanked us by being adorable, playful, and loving... while still being the demon spawn of the pet world.

Still, though, there aren't a lot of great movies about killer housecats. Sure they pop up in anthology films like The Uncanny (1977), Cat's Eye (1985), and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990), but they don't make for a great core threat. A few minutes with Uninvited (1988) or Strays (1991) are more than enough to prove as much. Thankfully there are bigger cats like lions, tigers, and pumas, oh my. Popular, well-known horror movies focused on big cats include The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) and... that's it really? They show up hungry in movies as diverse as Day of the Animals (1977) and The Jungle Book (2016), but movies focused on killer cats? They're out there.

Keep reading for a look at six good to great horror movies about ferocious felines thirsty for blood!

The Black Cat (1981)

A small village in rural England sees an uptick in deaths with no clear explanation. We know, though, that it's the black cat skulking across the cobblestone streets and rooftops who appears to have some kind of vendetta against the locals. First, it mesmerizes a guy into crashing his car, next it locks a pair of necking teens in an airtight room, and then it scratches a drunk guy until he falls to his death. It's racking up quite the body count, but is it actually to blame?

Lucio Fulci is a director best-known for gory descents into hell, and his run from 1979 to 1982 is overflowing with gut-chewing glory in the form of Zombie (1979), City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981), The House By the Cemetery (1981), Manhattan Baby (1982), and The New York Ripper (1982). While this flick features some bloodletting, it pales in comparison to the geysers of gore in those surrounding movies. Fulci is instead more focused on style and atmosphere as he builds the mystery involving the cat, the mysterious man who may be controlling it, and the woman who seems destined to wind up bricked in behind a wall.

As the title suggests the film is inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's short story, but as the synopsis above implies it's a very loose inspiration. The film doesn't really reveal its source in Poe until nearer the end when wacky Patrick Magee traps our hero behind a wall unaware that the cat's in there too with plans to rat him out to the cops. It's an engaging tale all the same thanks to the cat action and the mystery as to its involvement – a mystery it teases to the very end depending on who you believe.

The Black Cat is available on Blu-ray/DVD and streaming from Amazon.

Black Zoo (1963)

A woman walking alone at night on a city street is suddenly stalked and killed by a tiger. It's shocking, but it won't be the last such attack in the city as a madman is targeting those who've crossed him. And his preferred method of murder? Highly trained zoo animals. Obviously.

Michael Gough, best known as Batman's butler/surrogate father Alfred in Tim Burton's big screen adventure from 1989, gives a deliciously good performance as the seemingly mild-mannered Michael Conrad. He chews the scenery like the beasts chew his enemies, and his antics are paired with some thrilling animal footage that sells their ferocity and his control over them. The guy in the ape-suit "boxing" a woman to death is far from a highlight, but the big cat action looks and feels legitimately unnerving including the opening tiger attack, a later lion encounter, and more.

Our killer walks a fine line between brilliant madman and bonkers dude, and the film ensures viewers see both sides of his life. He's married, seemingly well to do, and father to a mute son, but he also heads up a small collective who praise the big cats in his private zoo as special creatures of the earth. Yeah, he's a nutter. When his wife catches him berating the help – literally punching and slashing them actually – it becomes clear even to her that he's up to no good. At a sleek 88 minutes, the family drama never threatens to overwhelm the genre thrills leaving viewers with an engaging ride into madness and murder.

Black Zoo is available on DVD from Amazon.

The Leopard Man (1943)

A leopard used in a saucy nightclub act escapes into the night, but hey, pets wander off all the time. It becomes an issue, though, when a young woman is found mauled to death. And then another woman is killed. And then a third. Are these the acts of a wild beast, or are they murders committed by the most dangerous animal of all.

Without spoiling anything for this 75-year-old film, the deaths here aren't wholly due to the teeth and claws of the big kitty. The cat's still menacing and a real threat, and its scenes work to unnerve thanks to the unbridled threat the animal poses. Director Jacques Tourneur's best known for the classic Cat People (1942), but his interest in the animals carried over to this thriller that blends horror and suspense into something special. He even recycled the same black leopard.

The film's plot features the expected animal action, but it also exists as one of the earliest American movies to explore the antics and machinations of a serial killer. (Okay, fine, I spoiled the 75-year-old movie.) It doesn't go deep on this particular angle – the film's only 66 minutes long – but it offers an interesting approach to the madness of a man by taking his actions and intents seriously.

The Leopard Man is available on DVD and streaming from Amazon.

Prey (2016)

Holland isn't known for being home to animals bigger than a dog, but when bodies start turning up in the countryside torn to shreds and partially eaten a celebrated zoo veterinarian realizes that's about to change. A lion has come to the Netherlands, and it's heading straight for the streets of Amsterdam for a slightly different reason than most tourists. Soon it's chewing its way through the populace with only the vet, a one-legged hunter, and a horny cameraman standing in its way.

It's a rare feat to make a good "animal attack" movie these days as improved attitudes about animal welfare have limited their use in stressful situations. The substitute is often some combination of practical effects and underwhelming CG, and few things take the kick out of nature horror like unnatural-looking animals. Dodgy CG rears its head here too, but it's good enough when paired with the film's goofy approach. It's serious enough when the lion's munching down on people – including not one but two kids! – but it's always chewing with just a little bit of a smirk too.

That inherent blend of silliness and suspense should come as no surprise to fans of writer/director Dick Maas who previously gifted us with a killer elevator in The Lift (1983), a SCUBA-certified slasher in Amsterdamned (1988), and a murderous St. Nicholas in Saint (2010). The genre thrills are executed with energy and excitement, the laughs are intentional and frequent, and the damn thing is just a blast from beginning to end.

Prey is not currently available.

Roar (1981)

A man's family comes to visit him in Africa, but while they're excited to see him they're not quite prepared for the experience heading their way. He misses them at the rinky-dink airport and gets delayed getting back home meaning they get there first – and they're surprised to find dad's collected some pets along the way. Dozens of lions, tigers, jaguars, panthers, pumas, cougars, and more have the run of the house and land.

Consider this my one cheat entry for this "killer cat" installment as the big cats don't actually kill anyone. That said, though, this is still the most terrifying of the films on this list. Why? Because the cat action is real, frequent, and ridiculous. As the marketing infamously declared, "No animals were harmed in the making of this film... 70 cast and crew members were." It's an odd thing to brag about, but you can't argue with the results. Lions swarm the screen burying the cast beneath their fur and claws, and it's legit anxiety-inducing.

And yes, odds are some of you have seen this one thanks to its 2015 re-release, but enough of you still haven't making it fair game for this column. It's really quite the experience, and while it remains a tense and thrilling experience on re-watch the humor of it all also comes through on repeat viewings. It's essentially a bonkers piece of slapstick cinema with a cast of people who've actually lived this experience including Tippi Hedren, Noel Marshall, and Melanie Griffith. They all take some scrapes here with Griffith enduring a particularly harrowing "attack" that almost left her scalped.

Roar is available on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon.

Savage Harvest (1981)

An African drought leaves people and animals alike thirsty for rain, but for one pride of lions, it's reason enough to expand their hunting range. A family at a remote farmhouse feels the brunt of the animals' desperation as they and everyone around the homestead become prey.

Few movies scared me as a kid as much as this sun-drenched nightmare. Knowing the lions are simply trying to survive makes them less than monsters, and seeing as the family are just normal people as opposed to poachers, hunters, and the like makes them innocent victims. It was a different kind of horror movie for me at the time – the horror of nature and circumstance as opposed to evil and intentional cruelty.

There are some bloody demises here along with a couple excruciating kills that see human victims screaming in terror and pain. It's honestly enough to make the PG rating feel like a mistake of some kind. While frightening, the film also serves as a pretty solid survival tale as the family tries to work out an escape plan leading to some truly suspenseful sequences and some nifty MacGyver-ing in an attempt to build protection from the lions. All this plus Tom Skerritt!

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