28 November 2011

A Cat People Trio!

Cat People (1942), Cat People (1944), Cat People (1982)!!!
By Kristin Battestella and Leigh Wood

Cough up your hairballs, sit back, and lick your paws for not just one, but three chances at feline mayhem: the 1942 classic Cat People, its 1944 sequel The Curse of the Cat People, and the update of the original Cat People (1982).  Meow!

Lonely and new to America, Serbian fashion designer Irena (Simone Simon) meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) at the zoo.  Though they are quickly in love, Irena fears the legend of her people- ancient stories of witches and evil folk who escaped the wrath of Serbian King John by turning into panther like cats.  Despite her hesitancy, Irena and Oliver marry, even though his co-worker Alice (Jane Rudolph) is also in love with Oliver.  Seeing psychiatrist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) doesn’t help Irena overcome her cat obsessions, and she becomes increasingly jealous of Alice.  Will her anger and passion unleash the evil she fears lies dormant within her?

The direction from Jacques Tourneur (I Walked with a Zombie, The Comedy of Terrors) is as near perfect as your going to find in forties horror- that’s forties horror produced by Val Lewton (Bedlam, The Body Snatcher), mind you. Complete with a great psychological debate on fear and belief versus real world facts, the audience still doesn’t believe we’re going to see a woman who becomes a cat despite Irena’s rising suspicions regarding her feline tendencies. Everyone tells her it’s all in her mind, there there Irena needs help.  Why not believe her?  When we do see all the creepy implications thanks to excellent use of shadow, lighting, great locations, and action photography, the suspense builds superbly in what we see, but don’t see, believe, but can’t believe.  This is film noir, right- not horror. But why can’t screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen’s (The Seventh Victim) tale be both? Of course, we know the effects in making things scary will be limited to the film making of the time, but the panther smoke and mirrors and actual cat uses are solid fun. All the suggestion and subterfuge needed is here, creating a highly stylized noir scare feature indeed. Even now, fifty years on when we know what is to happen, we are still surprised by the well-paced femme blend and sympathetic slinky.

Of course, Cat People also owes a lot of its heart to Simone Simon (Ladies in Love) and her wonderful performance. Irena is a lovely, adorable little gal, and we like her a lot. We feel for Irena when she’s afraid of an unseen badness inside her, and we still feel sorry for her when that feline itch rises to the surface.  Likewise, we’ve every reason to also love Jane Randolph (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) as the would be other woman we should hate.  It’s really almost a case of mistaken identity, the nice, good girl who’s bad inside going femme for femme against the bad girl who’s actually pretty good. Alice has also been a long suffering woman with a chance at happiness, and the sympathetic tug of war between the ladies makes for a great layer of friction amid the simply gorgeous costumes they get to wear! What lovely hats, pre war style, and class! The effortless way they handle cigarettes, strut suave with fur coats on their shoulders- the fashion and grace of the ladies adds another level of femininity and feline sexuality without being oversexed, obviously kinky or all out nudity in the way these things are meant to distract from the plotless horror of today.  The onscreen ladies are allowed to keep the sexy and be smart in examining power, feminine wiles, their loves, hidden lust- and it gives the audience choice, interaction, and juice.

Tom Conway (The Falcon’s Brother and George Sanders brother!) is a lot of fun as Dr. Judd, a man of his time who doesn’t believe the ladies’ preposterous evil notions but is drawn to the cat allure nonetheless. He’s the shrink, so we don’t doubt his intelligence or ability to help, but Conway looks very suave, almost too suave to be a doctor with his heart in the right place.  The stylized old school class, proper gloves, top hats, and a convenient cane with a sword go a long way in upping the peril, too. Kent Smith (The Spiral Staircase), however, is a little weak compared to the other players. Sure, he’s just a nice Average Joe and likeable guy, but almost too blandly so.  Oli’s meant to be a man’s man type, but it’s a little tough to believe he’d hold out while married to hot stuff Irena much less carry on an affair but not really an affair affair with Alice.  The focus on the ladies and the cat subterfuge emasculate our man in the middle and create a man of inaction.  It’s not that this is a bad thing; in fact, it’s a role reversal that was probably quite unexpected at the time.

Fortunately, Kent Smith, Jane Rudolph, and Simone Simon all return for Round Two in 1944 with The Curse of the Cat People.  Now that they are married, Oliver and Alice Reed fear for the strange behavior of their six-year-old daughter Amy (Ann Carter).  Amy doesn’t fit in with the other school children and spends her time on animals and imaginary fancies. After receiving a ring from a seemingly spooky old neighbor Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean), she wishes for a friend and encounters the ghostly Irena.

Little Ann Carter (I Married a Witch, The Two Mrs. Carrolls) is a dang cute addition and looks strangely enough like Simon to handle the cat connections. She’s also innocent, somewhat sad, and thus endearing despite this inexplicable turn from feline dangers to imaginary friends. Smith and Rudolph do loose more luster as well now that they are supposed to be Leave It to Beaver parents who end up arguing over the shadow of Irena. Simone Simon is of course again magical, even if she’s turned away from the feline wanton into some sort of medieval snow queen angel ghost.  Her wispy ghost is indeed heavenly!  Singer Sir Lancelot (The Ghost Ship) as the Reeds’ Jamaican servant Edward does a lovely job as well, but unfortunately, it’s a stereotypically of the time and thankless part.  Creepy Julia Dean (Nightmare Alley) is mystery worthy fun, too, but the would be dang decent cast can’t do very much with this bizarre new family friendly less femme cat direction.

The Curse of the Cat People isn’t a bad film, really it isn’t.  If you accept it as a nice family fancy snowy pseudo Christmas ghost story, it isn’t bad at all!   It just is emphatically not a horror movie or even remotely dark and spicy like its predecessor- which is probably what the returning audience from Cat People is expecting.  Though writer DeWitt Bodeen returns, two directors- newcomer Gunther von Fritsch (Snow Bear) and Oscar winner Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, wow) seem to have botched a few things up, namely the smooth, sexy, femme noir style of the original film.  The focus on the next generation necessitates things be tame, family not scary, and Curse plays more like a ghostly mystery with taunts, teasing, and the usual child troubles. Some of the mean school kids are a bit irritating, even if we’re supposed to care for onscreen children in peril, and the dated child acting may hinder some viewers more so than the complete sequel turnaround.  The snow scenery is also fake, and the house and garden set up is too television cardboard design, but the neighborhood haunted house looks good and creepy at least. Yes, Curse of the Cat People created an uphill battle for itself by deviating from the formula.  However, it’s also awesome to see a pre-war forties Christmas blended with all those faux winter bundle ups and long lady frocks that flow in almost medieval sweetness. Sigh.

But Thankfully, for once we have a very decent remake with 1982’s Cat People, this time starring Natassja Kinski as Irena Gallier, an orphaned young woman reuniting with her brother Paul, played by Malcolm McDowell.  Separated as children after the suicides of their circus performer parents, Paul mysteriously leaves Irena alone in New Orleans shortly after her arrival. Irena explores the city and takes a job at the local zoo with curator Oliver (John Heard) and his fellow zoologist Alice (Annette O’Toole).  Unfortunately, the zookeepers and their assistant Joe (Ed Begley, Jr.) have captured a very unruly black leopard.  Irena’s growing attraction to Oliver, the proximity of the big cats, and Paul’s strange desires, however, bring about certain changes in Irena’s clean cut behavior and cause her to question her family’s true, feline nature.

Director Paul Schrader (American Gigolo, Affliction) accentuates the great cat photography and animal camerawork with reds, warm colorings, and pops of cat eyes and eerie greens, creating a sensuous, sexy mood lit for ambiance- like a romantic dinner with neo noir mystery. This focus on the sexy is not the dark and sinister tone of a horror picture as we might expect. Cat People is naughty and freaky, with chills that turn on instead of going for all out scary. There is blood, yes, but its use is unexpected, again not in the repetitive ways of slasher sequels today.  The not often seen, but long suggested cat effects and animal transformations do the trick beautifully, allowing all the true feline frenzy to build for the final act.  All this latent leopard juice is of course heightened by the sweet, sweet theme music by David Bowie (newer audience will recognize its use in Inglourious Basterds), too. The intriguing back story of who all came to be cats or what it all exactly involves might be confusing in some spots, but enough of the tale is in place for the kinky debates. So, sex releases the animal in us? Killing while in cat form lets all the rage out and returns us to human form? It’s bizarre, and yet, there is a certain logic to the animal urges and innuendo. Why do we equate the feline ruthlessness with a misuse of femininity? How can we praise the beauty of powerful women yet fear and demonize the temptation it brings?

While some of the opening effects are a bit dated or low budget looking today and Cat People’s kinky start is a little slow and abstract, the naughty and natural feline dangers get going just fine and remain strong throughout the picture. In fact, we even feel some sympathy for these big cats being trapped in cages and misunderstood as to their conflicted needs. This lifestyle is, after all, perfectly natural to them.  Why do we resist it? Pieces and plot elements of Bodeen’s original 1942 script survive in Alan Ormsby’s (The Substitute) updated screenplay.  The feline pursuit with a Lewton bus trick and the subsequent pool sequence are a complete ode to the original Cat People- just there are a few more boobs tossed in here! Even with the delightfully smart use of skin, that same what you don’t see shadows and cat sounds suspense is allowed room to shine.  The various big cats used for Cat People, mostly black leopards but a few lions and tigers, are simply lovely indeed. Feline fans will both enjoy their spotlight and yet dislike all the cages, rage, and violent portrayals.  These pesky incestuous implications are also not for prudes, nor the bondage. You heard me.

Wow, Nastassja Kinski (Tess, To The Devil a Daughter, Terminal Velocity) is eighties virginal hot for Cat People, going braless and strutting through a delicious looking New Orleans.  Yes, Irena isn’t totally styled in the near slutty femme we see today, but we like her in all her forms- good girl, naked, cat- nonetheless.  Irena is innocent and almost too good to be true- it’s saucy and endearing at the same time. Even if we know the juicy cat tendencies are coming, the audience is still surprised when the wonderfully creepy Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, Star Trek Generations) brings the familial twists to a head. His Paul is suspicious from the start, clearly jonesing for his sister, and this back and forth of predator and prey invests us in Irena’s cat journey all the more. It almost seems as if this Cat People should be the big and saucy sequel to the original instead of The Curse of the Cat People.  So, this is what those dastardly cat kin have been up to in the last forty years!

Poor good guy with a case of cat corruption John Heard! His new Oliver can’t help but find Irena alluring despite the intelligence and better judgment we know a zoo curator must have. Heard (Home Alone, Awakenings) would seem on the prowl to start, scaring Irena upon their first meeting- but he is soon the one helplessly caught up in the unsavory.  The sex scenes between Oliver and Irena are steamy indeed, even if we don’t actually see much. Whom is it going to be more painful for anyway? Annette O’Toole’s (Superman III) Alice is the would be Mary Ann to Irena’s latent Ginger.  They begin as quick and intimate friends but obvious female tensions soon arise.  It’s a catfight, literally. Though it was probably not the intention at the time, it seems everyone in Cat People is a familiar face. John Larroquette (Night Court) appears briefly as a jerky suit pressuring the zoo, and Ed Begley Jr. (She-Devil) pulls out all the fun bad animal puns before being taken down a notch.  The glorious Ruby Dee (A Raisin in the Sun) isn’t fully utilized enough as Paul’s “Like Tamale” housekeeper, Female, nor is good cop Frankie Faison (The Wire).  Although Lynn Lowry (Shivers) and Tessa Richarde (Bronco Billy) do provide fun eye candy, as if there was any other kind!   

Cat People is a classic early horror treat that fans of straight classic films, noir mysteries, and students of Hollywood horror beginnings should know and love.  The Curse of the Cat People comes on a double bill DVD and in collector sets with its precursor, which does keep it easy to find even if it has practically nothing to do with the first film.  Just don’t compare Curse to Cat People when you watch, as it should indeed be seen at least once, perhaps at Christmas.  Where our 1944 entry is definitely kid friendly, and there’s nothing majorly overt in the original outing, the updated Cat People edition, however, is not for kids. In 1942, the original had to be chaste, but forty years on, the remake was free to unleash the titular folks in all their glory, and indeed, it does.  Purrrrrr!

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