Contemporary Hollywood seems obsessed with franchising sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots and although our short-term memories have led us to believe this is a new phenomenon, it is actually as old as Hollywood itself. Back in the day before home video the only way to find a new audience for an old movie was to remake it; when sound was introduced all the major studios remade their largest box-office hits as “talkies”. At times remakes can work; they are elegantly updated to find a new audience. Other times we get The Incredible Hulk, which was nothing above a piece of loud shit and an embarrassment to the career of a great actor. But sometimes we get something completely new; this was the case with Cat People (1942) and Cat People (1982). Made forty years apart from each other these movies could not be more different from each other and yet they explore the same themes of irrational fear and sexual repression, in their own way. And are equally effective, once again, each in their own way.
The original Cat People epitome of art through aversion; director Jacques Tourneur had a tiny B-movie budget to work with. Because couldn’t use gore or special effects to draw out fright Tourneur turned to implying everything by creating an eerie atmosphere of unseen threats. As the audience you barely see anything happening in this film. Yet, there is something genuinely scary about that.
The film follows the everyday life of Irena (Simone Simon), a young and sexy Serbian immigrant to the US, who upon disembarking in New York immediately falls in love with the lovable Oliver Reed. There is one problem though: Irena truly believes she is descendant of a Satanist tribe who worshiped cats; if she ever lets herself enjoy any form of sexual pleasure she would transform into a panther and kill her lover. And her lover need not be Oliver. Alice, a co-worker of her husband, heightens the tension by creating a love triangle, of sorts. Whether Irena is infatuated with Alice, or she is jealous of her relationship with Oliver is left up to the viewer.
Pretty sexy, no? The film was made in 1942 so censorship laws would obviously not allow the sex scene to happen. But there is so much anticipation for it that no amount of nudity and teasing could match it in tension. The same goes for the film’s suspense; you never 100% know if Irena can actually transform into a panther. The film is about ideas, and although it might not play well with today’s literal audiences at its time it was a hit; unexpectedly becoming Universal’s top grossing film that year (above Citizen Kane).
The 1982 version of Cat People was an updated version for the audience at the time. This version had nudity and an original score by David Bowie (that Tarantino recycled in Bastereds). Because lesbianism was no longer a big a taboo in 1982 as it was in 1942 this time around the film revolved around the idea of incest; this time around Irena (Nastassja Kinski) has a brother Paul. Like their parents they are the last of the cat people. There is great tension here; Irena is in love with another man whom, like the 1942 Irena, she is afraid will kill if the ever “mated”. Paul naturally dislikes this man and Irena is fearful of Paul knowing quite well what he is capable of.
The 1982 version is much more visceral. But it works as that, director Paul Schrader knows his way through gory imagery. The film also has excellent use of location by setting itself in New Orleans. There are so many wonderful sights within the States, which the film industry under-uses (yet they are over used in photography all the time). Setting it in New Orleans over New York added a whole new level to the magic within the film.
I always get the feeling that if a movie was remade today and be different from its source, as the second Cat People was to the first that audiences today would rant about its unfaithfulness. I believe readapting to fit a new audience can be valid, that is what gave us Nolan’s vision of The Dark Knight. Still, the speed in which reboots and remakes are happening says something about our attention span. Hopefully, Hollywood can wait until 2022 to remake Cat People; lets keep each one 40 years apart. It would be an interesting experiment on cultural changes.
If they do remake it they have to answer to the Lol-cat phenomenon in some way. If you think they can’t be scary, think again: