It is hard to imagine that three films could be more different from one another despite sharing the same characters and thematic material than the three Cat People films: the original 1942 classic of atmospheric horror, its family-oriented 1944 sequel The Curse of the Cat People, and the more-is-less 1982 remake. The sequel seems little related to the original, yet the two share a subtext that seems an afterthought in the third.
The 1942 Cat People was reportedly inspired by an RKO Pictures executive who wanted to create a horror monster different from the overworked creatures in the Universal films. Producer Val Lewton didn't share the executive's enthusiasm for the concept of "cat people," but the executive found it good to be king, and Lewton had to make the idea work. Together with director Jacques Tourneur, he created a film that was innovative both for its psychosexual element and its unseen monster.
Tourneur worked from the idea that his viewers' greatest fear would be that of the unknown. There was no room in the budget for a monster anyway, so this is a prime example of why "budget" and "quality" have no relation to one another. The psychosexual element likewise appeared as shadowy hints because of Hays Code standards that prevented overt discussions of sexuality, and the film benefited from this subtle treatment.
Horror films of the era tended to feature a monster, an external threat that attacks the protagonists. This changed after around 1960 and especially after the releases of Psycho and Peeping Tom, psychological horror films in which the danger came from internal human impulses. Cat People was a predecessor of this trend and may well have been a big reason for this change in approach.
The film begins, sweetly, with the meeting of the two main characters, Irena and Oliver. Irena is spotted by Oliver at the zoo, where she draws sketches of the panthers. She lives near and frequents the zoo, and at night she sings lullabies to the lions from her apartment window. Oliver is taken with Irena. He gives her a kitten as a gift, but it hates her. So do all of the animals in the pet store, who shriek in terror when she and Oliver exchange the kitten for a canary.
Irena's backstory has a folk tale element that is reinforced by the film's occasionally poetic dialogue. Her Serbian village of origin had centuries earlier been connected with Satanism and spiritual corruption, and this evil showed as the ability to change back and forth from human to panther form. A Christian conqueror purged the land of the evil, an event commemorated by a statuette in Irena's apartment, but some survivors fled to the surrounding hills. To Oliver, this is mere folk legend, but to Irena it is very real. She has shunned romantic relationships for fear that her animal nature will be released, and she is convinced of the existence of something evil within her, something that the pet store animals were able to sense.
Oliver makes no attempt to understand Irena's feelings. He tells her that she's being silly and treats her fears as an obstacle to be shoved out of the way. Irena is convinced enough that she agrees to marry him, but she becomes alarmed when a mysterious feline woman appears at their wedding banquet and addresses her in Serbian as "my sister."
The turning point comes when Irena inadvertently scares her canary to death. This makes her doubt her humanity, and her relationship with Oliver begins to fray. Irena's fear of contact has prevented their marriage from being consummated, and Oliver loses patience. He sends her to a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd, who reinforces Oliver's belittling attitude but with an intimidating edge. Oliver's coworker, Alice, meanwhile becomes the target of Irena's jealousy as she draws closer to him.
This brings about a sad chapter in the story. Alice is compatible with Oliver in a way that Irena is not. Irena's aloofness distances her from Oliver to the point that they become strangers living under the same roof. The situation is manipulated by outsiders with ulterior motives: Alice worms her way into Irena's place with Oliver, while Dr. Judd, who wants to release Irena's impulses for reasons of his own, sabotages the marriage by encouraging Irena's silence. Feline mayhem results.
UNDER THE SKIN
Linda Rohrer Paige, in Literature/Film Quarterly, published a detailed discussion of how Irena's ability to transform represents a woman who refuses to remain dependent in a male-dominated society. That analysis seems to hold up well, as Oliver and Dr. Judd continually attempt to bring her under control. This represents a neat avoidance of Hays Code restrictions, under which women were not supposed to have been depicted as independent and successful. It may have helped that Irena's condition was tied to moral decline and evil.
Oliver's profession relates to this, as he works at a firm that designs ships. Freudian and folk symbolism view ships as symbols for women, so Oliver is positioned as a creator and controller of women. The very tools of his trade are used this way: he keeps the panther at bay by holding his T-square like a crucifix.
This also explains why the domesticated pets reacted so violently to Irena's presence: they were threatened by her wildness. She could hang out all day at the zoo, and those animals didn't care. The kitten's affection for Alice shows her to be a more suitable, controllable match for Oliver.
Hays Code regulations also prohibited miscegenation. Irena technically was of the same race as Oliver, but she was foreign enough that audiences might have felt that she was "too different" for Oliver. Keep in mind that the US was at war with Serbia at the time this picture was made. All of this contributes to the sense of a marriage that is doomed to failure.
Irena's independence leads Oliver to bring her to a psychiatrist. Psychology at the time was often used as a weapon to control women. If you've seen Session 9, you might remember the discussion of the trivial and odd examples for which women were once institutionalized. That was factual. Note how quickly Dr. Judd threatens to have Irena put away, and how he speaks openly of the doctor-patient relationship as "a battle of wills."
Male control is present in Irena's backstory, with its persistent image of the panther pierced by a sword. Irena's fear that her flesh will be penetrated is ultimately confirmed, and it is an early example of the "sex=death" equation. Dr. Judd also falls victim to this: he's the one who, um, "penetrates" Irena with his sword, and he pays the price for meddling.
THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE
The Curse of the Cat People is essentially a children's film. The writer and main characters return from the original, but Tourneur had since been "promoted" out of the horror department. Robert Wise, who had been the editor of Orson Welles' greatest works and who himself would later direct several films that are regarded as classics, was one of the sequel's directors. The two movies' themes are very dissimilar: This still has a supernatural theme, but is not truly a horror film. Despite the title, there are no cat people. Its protagonist is a child, which enhances its fairy-tale feel. The childlike simplicity of Simone Simon's performance was a big reason why the original was effective, so teaming her up with an actual child seems natural.
The themes of female independence are again explored. Oliver and Alice have married, moved from the city and settled down in the suburbs to raise Amy, their daughter. Amy has a reserved, distant manner and a strange look in her eyes. She seems more like the daughter of Irena than of Alice, who senses that Irena's presence haunts the house and that Amy is cursed.
Amy is a dreamer whose parents are threatened by her private world, a place kept apart from them. Events come to a head when nobody shows up for Amy's sixth birthday party, and it is discovered that Amy mailed the invitations from a "magic mailbox," an opening in a hollow tree in which they still sit. After yet another scolding for her nonconformity, Amy makes a birthday wish to "be a good girl."
Amy is left even more alone when her classmates are angered over not having been invited to the party. A voice calls to Amy from a reputedly haunted house, and she is given a gift that the family servant identifies as a "wishing ring." The ring is given by Mrs. Farren, the house's elderly resident who has a connection to the family's past. Amy wishes for a friend and says that the wish was granted, though she appears to play alone.
Her imagination threatens her parents further when she sees a picture of Irena, and identifies her as the new friend. Oliver reacts much as before and attempts to stifle Amy and suppress her imagination. Alice is bothered by the punishment, but is told by Amy's teacher that "it's best not to interfere."
The mysterious Serbian woman returns, now with a name. She is Barbara Farren, the disowned daughter of the elderly Mrs. Farren. Barbara emerges as the film's threat, as her mother's favoritism of Amy brings out her feline jealousy. A final confrontation with Barbara leaves Oliver finally willing to abandon his insistence on conformity and to accept Amy as she is. He still doesn't believe that she really sees Irena, but is at least willing to indulge her.
The film world of 1982 was very different from that of 1942. Hays Code restrictions against sexual and violent content had been lifted, and the B-movie system was no longer in existence. Cat People was remade with the freedom to depict all of the things that had been hidden or suggested in the original, and director Paul Schrader was given a large budget to work with. All of these differences turn away from the things that had made the original so effective, so it's a foregone conclusion that the remake would not live up to the original. It didn't, but not for the expected reasons: It blends too many genres into a single flavorless mess and has no one outstanding element.
The remake is a mainstream director's effort at horror. It features many slick touches meant to appeal to moviegoers that might otherwise be uninterested in horror: a rising-star lead actress in Nastassja Kinski and an established co-star in Malcolm McDowell, a supporting cast packed with experienced talent and recognizable faces like Ruby Dee, Lynn Lowry and John Larroquette, a moody, electronic, Tangerine Dream-style score by hit producer Giorgio Moroder, and a theme song by David Bowie. Hit-maker Jerry Bruckheimer was in charge of the production.
A prologue places the cat people's origin in Africa, although there's nothing remotely African-looking about either of the leads. The setting is moved to New Orleans, which seems almost a clichéd choice for a movie that explores sexuality, violence and/or the supernatural. Irena goes there to meet her brother Paul, from whom she grew up apart. This is a convenient way to explain why the brother and sister have different accents, neither of which is a New Orleans accent. Kinski's German inflections show through at times, and no attempt is made to conceal McDowell's British accent. McDowell was in fact cast based on the idea that American audiences are partial to British-accented villains.
Paul disappears shortly after Irena's arrival. He returns days later with a disturbing demand that she have sex with him, as they are of a race that will turn into panthers when sexually aroused and so can only have sex with one another. Yes, the film goes there. Paul's attempts at sex with normal women only lead to a trail of dead hookers, and Irena's presence means that he is constantly aroused.
It is surprising that this movie was not targeted as a video nasty, considering its combination of strong violent, sexual and gore content. Paul's attacks are depicted as the product of sexual frustration, an idea that was carried out more effectively in the Filipino cheapie Brides of Blood. One of Paul's hookers loses her bra for no apparent reason when attacked. The swimming pool fear scene is the one scene played out intact from the original, with the exception that it is now topless. Who swims topless in an indoor pool, where there are no rays to be caught? Not that tan lines are a concern for that albinette who plays Alice.
Kinski is uneven but does a good job of portraying Irena as an innocent. The newly emphasized sexual theme makes this film similar to Ginger Snaps in its picture of a monstrous sexual awakening, but it seems like the movie merely raises the subject without really exploring it. That's the big problem with this movie: it is stylish but has little depth, and that's a fatal flaw for a horror/mainstream hybrid film. There's little room for error when trying to create the next Rosemary's Baby, a film that will appeal to both audiences, as the result will likely not satisfy either group. A movie that fails to realize ambitious ideas will look pretentious to the horror fans and will justify mainstream audiences' already low opinion of horror.
This film suffers from that effect. It has some moments of fear, but the attempt to eroticize the story comes off as ham-handed. The relationship between Paul and Irena is flawed because they're thrown in a room together and we're informed that they are brother and sister, but there's no onscreen evidence of anything familial between them. Is the problem here that the script was written by the unheralded Alan Ormsby, otherwise best known as the obnoxious thespian from Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things? Schrader wrote frickin' Taxi Driver, so you know he touched up this script.
The root of this problem likely lies with the scourge of any big-budget Hollywood set of the early 1980s: the principals' well-documented cocaine addictions. Who's got time for depth? Worse yet, Schrader's head was clouded not only by drugs but also by his affair with Kinski. He may have miscalculated her appeal and expected the audience to share his fascination with her, but she doesn't have enough screen presence to carry such a featured role. She also looks like a mouse. Her co-stars look more catlike than does she.
The fearsome cats are the real strength of this film. They always bring a sense of unpredictability and danger to their scenes, and screenshots don't capture the tension of their movements or the surprising ferocity of their roars. As in the aforementioned Brides of Blood, sound effects are essential to this film. Don't bother watching it on a device that is not hooked up to a good stereo system any more than you would watch Avatar in black and white.