Directed by Carlos Brooks
“This cat? He’s not scary. He’s evil.”
Why Did I Get This?
This disc was a screener copy that was lying around an office I worked in back around 2011/2012, and had a little audio gadget in the sleeve that growled like a tiger every time you opened it!
I was basically curious to see it, as it sounded like a great idea – what if you and an autistic child were trapped in a house during a hurricane while a starving tiger stalked you through the building?
To be honest, I was also curious to see what the press-release boasted was a “very real and very hungry” tiger, as well as “a star turn from hell-raising rocker Meat Loaf”, because he was the only member of the cast I’d heard of at the time (although the cover boasts Briana Evigan starred in Step Up 2: The Streets, and I now realise her stepdad is played by the guy who killed Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood).
The “star turn from hell-raising rocker Meat Loaf” counts for approximately three minutes of uncredited screen time at the opening of the movie. However, considering his recent departure from this mortal coil, I figured this would be a good pick for the next Late Review, so here goes…
Just a quick heads up before you watch the trailer – it gives away a few big story beats towards the end, so if you’re keen to avoid spoilers, probably best skip it and the Late Review until you’ve watched the movie.
That being said, it’s less than 90 minutes long and available in full on YouTube, so y’know… what’s keeping you?
The Late Review
As always, the Late Review will cover the film in some depth, so you can expect spoilers below – scroll straight to the next heading to avoid them!
After their mother dies, Kelly (Briana Evigan), and her autistic brother Tom (Charlie Tahan), are living with their stepfather Johnny (Garret Dillahunt), who wants to open a safari ranch. When a hurricane hits, Kelly and Tom find themselves trapped in their home with a Bengal tiger which has not been fed for a fortnight.
I’ve been curious to see this one for a while, especially since reading the press release that came with the disc which boasted “no animatronics, no tricks – this tiger is very real and very hungry“. I mean, it doesn’t say “this tiger is real but does not share a room with the performers” at any point, but I suppose you have to make concessions to safety.
After the opening credits roll over shots of a gathering storm, there’s a lovely match cut from the swirling eye of a hurricane to a rolling wheel on a circus truck, and we’re introduced to Meat Loaf – Rock In Peace, Meat.
He’s meeting Garret Dillahunt’s Johnny outside a diner in the middle of the desert to sell him a tiger. He won’t shake hands with Dillahunt, and tells him he’s selling the cat against his better judgement, but having checked he’s got the appropriate permit, the tiger changes hands.
As you’d expect, Meat Loaf gives a pretty intense performance with the few pages of lines he has, snarling phrases like “circus don’t want him”, and “this cat… he’s not scary, he’s evil”. When he tells a story about how the tiger broke the back of a performing pony and ate it alive in front of a fleeing crowd, it’s not over the top, just heightened and terrifying, and reminded me what a performer he could be (and also made me want to rewatch his scenes in Fight Club).
Considering the story being told, the camerawork is also noticeably here. Firstly, it’s mainly handheld, rather than locked off when focused on the two actors, adding a little more intensity. Secondly, we also get a few POV shots from inside the tiger’s cage as it takes in their dialogue.
That’s split up with a few shots of the tiger looking moody in shadows inside a cage which were clearly shot somewhere else and spliced in, but helpfully remind you that there’s a genuine tiger involved in the making of this film… in case we could forget.
Next up, we see Kelly and Tom as she’s introducing him to his new school. Tom has autism, and Kelly is due to go to university on a scholarship, but they were left funds by their mother who recently died which should cover the tuition.
Now, autism on film is something that can really go wrong. I don’t have much experience with autism personally, but I know enough to know not everyone with the condition is a maths savant and/or professional assassin – the two main ways the condition seems to be portrayed, at least in US cinema.
Tom’s autistic tendencies seem to include the need for routine (he has to have his sandwiches cut a certain way and regularly watches an old home video of him with his late mother), a limited vocabulary (“eat now”), a dislike of being touched and of the colour red. He’ll scream loudly in frustration and hit his own head with his fists if things go wrong, and we see straight off the bat how good his sister can be at calming him down.
The scene at the school is a bit of an exposition dump, thanks to the head teacher and Kelly explaining their home situation, before it’s revealed the tuition cheque has bounced thanks to the step-dad emptying the bank account to buy a fucking tiger.
One of the things that passed me by during lockdown was the phenomenon that was Tiger King. I’m sure it’s very good, but I never saw it, and frankly, I’m not really that arsed about watching it now. From what I understand, it involves a redneck fella who bought a tiger, much like Dillahunt’s character whose big idea is to create a safari ranch and make some money now his wife has died.
There’s a brief shot of some other exotic animals in an outbuilding who are all terrified when the tiger arrives and proceeds to almost sever the finger of a Mexican ranch hand (no pun intended), but other than that, the exact details of the safari ranch are never really explained.
It would have been easy to portray Johnny as a stereotypical redneck who would verbally abuse his Mexican employees, but we see him speaking fluent Spanish with them, then giving the injured man a wad of notes and reassuring him he won’t be deported if he goes to the nearest clinic to have his finger saved. We also get a nice walk and talk with Kelly and Johnny through some of the grounds, before the crew get back to screwing plywood over the windows to protect the building from the approaching storm.
Prior to that though, we follow Kelly around the house looking for her stepdad and bumping into a new chest freezer in the kitchen which even on first viewing I figured would be Chekhov’s Chest Freezer – it’s ostensibly for animal food, but you know it’s going to come in handy later.
Night falls, and an exhausted Kelly puts Tom to bed, then drops her jeans down Chekhov’s Laundry Chute (and we get a quick insert showing her phone is still in the pocket), and goes to bed, completely unaware that someone has pulled the tiger’s cage up to the door and shut it in, before boarding it up.
Honestly, if you’re not already aware whodunnit, you might want to check your pulse.
We get one last surprise before Tigger arrives, and that’s a shot of Kelly getting out of bed, walking down the corridor into her brother’s room, then holding a pillow over his head to murder him.
Honestly, this was genuinely shocking, but quickly revealed to be a dream, as Kelly gets up for a drink of water as the storm rages outside, bumps into the freezer again, then notices a bloody great Bengal tiger padding around the house.
In fairness, she handles it really well. Not sure I’d have the common sense to back silently up the stairs into my room and lock the door. Pretty sure I’d just scream, fall over and get eaten immediately, but then I’m not the daughter of Lee & Herring favourite, Greg Evigan.
She goes through the motions of checking for escape routes but the windows are boarded up, then tries the landline to phone for help (which, along with the internet, is down because of the hurricane), then tries climbing down the laundry chute to retrieve her mobile when the tiger starts breaking down the door of the laundry room.
This stuff is genuinely tense, as Kelly drops the phone in her efforts to climb back up the laundry chute just as the tiger gets in. The phone rings, so the tiger smashes it, then a drop of sweat falls to the ground and the animal starts hurling its paws up into the chute after Kelly. She’s wedged into the tube as the tiger pads around below – I’m assuming this is a composite shot, with blue/green screen – and it looks really good.
At least, it certainly looks better than this shot a little later in the film, where Tom comes face to face with the beast as it tries to break through a wall…
Kelly’s a resourceful girl, not a damsel in distress. She uses a crowbar to break through walls (though not to try and prise off the window boards, which I found puzzling), tries to get into the loft only to find her stepdad’s screwed it shut, and throws perfume around the room she and her brother are hiding in, in an attempt to put Tigger off the scent. I’d never have thought of that, and it’s nice to see it’s not just a girl in tiny nightwear running around screaming, but a strong, capable woman protecting her kin.
There are moments, in fact, where the cinematography draws parallels between Kelly and the tiger. Shots of their eyes are often framed the same way, usually with shadows cast across them in noir-y ways. They’re both just doing what they need to do to survive, that’s all.
That includes creating makeshift torches from things she finds in her bathroom, and loading up her stepdad’s gun and actively going on the hunt for the damn thing – although this ends badly when she fires on an empty cylinder, blowing the element of surprise, and leading to a chase through the house, during which the tiger looks just slightly ‘off’. Presumably something to do with how the shots have been combined and the speed at which they’re going, but it’s a pretty minor quibble.
For me, the quieter creeping around the house is more effective and scary than the ‘running for their life’ stuff as the film progresses. There’s a great use of shadows and sound to suggest the tiger’s presence without actually showing it, which obviously owes a debt to Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People. Hell, there’s even a sort of Lewton Bus as we watch Kelly and Tom breathing silently while hiding in a closet, before a crash announces the tiger has just burst into the room they’re in.
Of course, Kelly and Tom hide in the freezer after hitting the cat with a flaming torch (a great effect, and one I’m not sure how they pulled off), then shooting it in the head (which, owing to the small size of the revolver and the thickness of the animal’s skull, only serves to annoy it).
It wasn’t clear to me whether Kelly expected them both to die in there, as she reassures her brother “you’re just going to go to sleep”. That would have been a bleak ending, but would’ve made sense.
Naturally though, they don’t die. Instead, they’re woken by Johnny unscrewing the wood from the front door, and step out to confront him. During a break in the pursuit, Kelly found new life insurance policies which would have netted Johnny $250,000 if she and Tom had died, so if she ever had any doubt he was a bad ‘un, that’s sealed it.
Just to put the icing on the cake, while attempting to justify what he did, she works out that he was actually responsible for her mum’s death, and as she confronts him the tiger leaps out of nowhere and starts eating him alive.
Kelly and Tom sneak out of the house, as a barely-alive Johnny spits blood and has his guts eaten by the creature, and the credits roll over more echoed shots of Kelly and the tiger.
It’s not Snakes On A Plane high-concept, but it’s not far off, and I imagine Tiger In A House was a title that was swiftly junked in favour of a William Blake reference.
Will it “keep you on the edge of your seat till its bloody finale“, as the press release promises? Yeah, maybe. It’s certainly tense and claustrophobic, and Evigan and Tahan do really well in their roles.
Evigan in particular is brilliant, convincingly conveying the frustration, exhaustion and unconditional love that comes with being a 20-year-old forced into the position of reluctant mother, then going full Ellen Ripley in the final act.
It feels like a curious experiment really, and I’d love to see some behind-the-scenes stuff on how the tiger shots were done, but at 74 minutes (80-odd if you include credits), it’s certainly an experiment I enjoyed and feel it was definitely worth a watch.