Saturday Editor’s Pick: Cat People (1942) & Cat People (1982)

by on March 25, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

1942-version playing Sat March 24 at 7:30, Thurs March 29 at 7:30, and Sat March 31 at 9:00 at Anthology Film Archives [Program & Tix]
1982-version playing Sat March 31 at 4:30, 9:00 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]

We just couldn’t resist this delightful programming coincidence. Anthology has let their retrospective subject Sara Driver curate some of her cinematic influences and favorites, and she admirably chose producer Val Lewton’s low-budget masterpiece.

Meanwhile, across the river BAM continues their toast to musician-in-residence Dr. John with “New Orleans on Film,” and screens Paul Schrader’s kinkier Southern remake.


We couldn’t choose, and arguably you don’t have to either, as multiple BAM shows provide a fascinating double bill tour between meticulous subtlety to absolute extremity.


David Thomson on Schrader’s version, for Film Comment:

The film as a whole is a rampant, fierce entertainment-frightening, erotic, bloody, funny, and passionate. It is a study in sexual mythology that boldly links New Orleans, a remote once-upon-a-time, and a dreamscape that reminds one of Cocteau and The Night of the Hunter, as well as VaI Lewton.
Psychologically, it is a lot more profound than Lewton’s original Cat People, and as a narrative it seldom overlaps with the old DeWitt Bodeen story. There are a few deliberate references to the Jacques Tourneur film, and it’s up to buffs to decide whether or not they surpass the shocks in the 1942 version. Above all, Schrader has extended the horror or exploitation genre, producing a fantasy in which every color, every piece of decor, every movement, and every sound conjure up the sub-conscious. It’s a film that viewers will dream about long afterwards, and not just with fear and loathing. Cat People has as much love as sex, as much resolution as violence. The collaboration with visual consultant Ferdinando Scarfiotti, photographer John Bailey, and composer Giorgio Moroder goes far beyond the considerable achievement of American Gigolo. There is an authority and grace to this film that are as exciting and as ambiguous as the calm that prevails at the end.

He also asks the director, “Why New Orleans?”:

It’s the most un-American of cities. It’s flown under so many flags it doesn’t know what part of the country it belongs to. So it has the feeling of a town where anything can happen, can exist. It is a magical town.


Thomson is equally doting on the Lewton original, in Have You Seen…?

Val Lewton was so artistic, and so smart, that he grasped this rare insight: You don’t actually show the frightening thing. The Lewton method is still a model: artistic restraint and fiscal moderation going hand in hand, reveling in the natural suggestiveness of film itself. Tourneur’s profound understanding of sequence construction was Lewton’s greatest asset, and it needed only a face like that of Simone Simon for the audience to have a handhold on the dream.
But Lewton was both very intelligent and highly neurotic , and the tone of his movies is rooted in that combination and in the overall feeling that quite subtle or intricate states of mind could be conveyed through violent states of denial. And so in the great works of horror, just as in the best of surrealism, there is a creeping awareness of narrative arcs that are the imprint of repressed emotions.


Martin Scorsese insists that “In its own way, ‘Cat People’ was as important as ‘Citizen Kane’ in the development of a more mature American cinema,” and screened it for his Shutter Island collaborators, commenting “”I can’t tell the structure — it’s so dreamlike, the essence of mystery…”


Don Druker on the original for the Chicago Reader:

Like most people with a cat phobia, Val Lewton, the legendary producer of RKO’s horror cycle, was fascinated by them. His first film (1942), eerily directed by Jacques Tourneur, is dedicated to his fetish. Based on a wholly fabricated Serbian legend about medieval devil worship, Cat People describes the effects of this legend on the mind of a New York fashion designer (Simone Simon) who believes herself descended from a race of predatory cat women. More a film about unreasoning fear than the supernatural, this work demonstrates what a filmmaker can accomplish when he substitutes taste and intelligence for special effects.

J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

Possibly the only American movie thus far to feature a Serbian “monster,” this Freudian chiller was the first movie Jacques Tourneur made for Val Lewton’s “B” unit at RKO; championed by savvy critics like Manny Farber and James Agee, it helped save the studio and jump-started Lewton’s career as the most literate horror maven in Hollywood.


Billy Stevenson for A Film Canon:

The first – and strongest – instalment in Val Lewton’s RKO horror cycle, Cat People clarifies the extent to which the Universal horror cycle was one of special effects, in place of which it raises atmosphere to a pitch that imbues the most everyday things with an uncanny intensity: “I never cease to marvel at what lies behind a brown store front.” More specifically, Tourneur extrapolates an entire aesthetic from the panther’s stare, such that the most tangible sources of fear tend to be tactile, mobile patches of extreme blackness, from which occasional flashes of light gesture towards some amorphous malignity – most creepily in a scene that takes place in and around a darkened, rippling swimming pool, but most poetically in the form of an architect’s office, blackened apart from the upward stabs of light tables. That said, this new, atmospheric aesthetic is clearly indebted to the older, more theatrical one. Not only is theatricality refined and deflected into a pervasive aestheticism – the protagonist’s (Simone Simon) house seems more like a museum, or an artistic approximation of the zoo across the road, than a realistic dwelling-place – but psychoanalysis, or at least psychiatry, is in the foreground, with the critical difference that it is now invoked as a specific doctrine, rather than as a mere possibility. In particular, the conflation of sexual longing with death marks the beginning of Lewton’s fascination with the death-drive, as well as Tourneur’s most artful evocation of it as an unnerving, distant cry.

John McElwee has a fascinating dissection of the promotional campaign for the movie, at Greenbriar Picture Show.


Leo Goldsmith for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

Female sexuality is a rich source of a certain kind of horror—the kind of horror that plays upon the anxieties that prudish bourgeois men have about their wives’ sex lives. Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton’s 1942 classic, Cat People, exploits these fears about “ancient sin” and “corrupt passions” while also making use of popular concerns about the “atavism” of Eastern Europe. Ollie is an exceedingly regular guy, a stranger to unhappiness with an insatiable appetite for good ol’ American apple pie, and so his marriage to the slinky, brooding Irena is doomed from the start. Unable to drop her Serbian superstitions, naturalize, and “lead a normal life,” Irena retreats into herself, denying her husband even the most discreet of smooches. But of course, this prudishness has the adverse effect of driving her husband into the arms of another woman, and therefore, of inflaming Irena’s own feline-female jealousy and rage.
The genius of Cat People lies in its deceptive simplicity and its literal and figurative obscurity. The acting is rather cheesy, and the dialogue is often hilariously unsubtle (there’s a cat reference every three minutes), but what seems like a straightforward horror tale of metamorphosis and cruel animalistic drives rarely reveals itself in any obvious way. Simone Simon, in the role of Irena, is always as docile as a kitten, and we are unable to picture her as the savage pantheress she fears herself to be. The film plays a skillful game with its audience, neither fully giving nor withholding an image of the dreaded cat-woman. Instead, deep in the rich, chiaroscuro lighting of the film, the viewer sees — or thinks he sees — the shadows of a beast lurking and prowling toward its victim. Tourneur’s film thus utilizes a literal inscrutability that tests the viewer’s ability to discern what is in the frame.



Mark A. Viera with some background for Bright Lights Film Journal:

At a Hollywood party, some giddy person had tossed him a catchy title: Cat People. “Let’s see what you can do with that,” Koerner told Bodeen the next day. Lewton was crestfallen. “There’s no helping it,” he said to Bodeen. “We’re stuck with that title. If you want to get out now, I won’t hold it against you.” Bodeen needed RKO’s $75 a week — and wanted to work with Lewton. “When I first knew Val,” said Bodeen, “he was only thirty-seven, a huge, burly, kindly man with a quick sense of humor. He was extremely shy, and easily hurt if his superiors failed to go along with him on story and production plans.”
The plot of Cat People was not so different from Universal’s werewolf fables. A Serbian girl, Irena (Simone Simon), turns into a panther when jealous of her husband’s coworker, Alice (Jane Randolph), or sexually aroused by an unethical psychiatrist (Tom Conway). Lewton’s approach to the material, though, was quite different.


“We tossed away the horror formula right from the beginning,” Lewton said. “No grisly stuff for us. No masklike faces, hardly human, with gnashing teeth and hair standing on end. No creaking physical manifestations. No horror piled upon horror.” What he counted on to frighten his audiences was something more elemental than the fear of a walking mummy. “The stories he produced,” said Bodeen, “are dramatizations of the psychology of fear. Man fears the unknown — the dark, that which may lurk in the shadows. . . . That which he cannot see fills him with basic and understandable terror.” What Lewton finally conceived was a format in which to tap this well of fear. “Take a sweet love story,” he said, “or a story of sexual antagonisms, about people like the rest of us, not freaks, and cut in your horror here and there by suggestion, and you’ve got something.” Suggestion meant not showing the source of terror. This was unthinkable for Universal, but essential to RKO’s low-budget strictures. Bodeen’s script met those terms. “In the darkness,” he wrote, “to one side of them, there is a sound like a snarl. . . . From the darkness, following them, there is a whisper of light, padded feet, a delicate tick, tick of claws scraping the floor. . . . Now there comes again, pursuing them, the whispering tread of soft paws.”



Brad Weismann for Senses of Cinema:

The film can be dissected according to any number of theoretical approaches, and, as such, is a bit of catnip for intellectuals. Its incredible popularity at the time can probably be ascribed to its forthright discussion of sexual feeling – and its seeming demonisation of the same. The brief shot of water glistening on the heroine’s naked back as she crouches, sobbing, after a kill, is one of the more disturbing moments in 1940s film. But the armchair Freudianism underneath the film’s most wearisome bouts of imagery (doors, keys, swords) has long ago lost its punch.
In Irena’s case, the burden of proof increases exponentially, due to her sex. The completely unacceptable source of her transformative power, and the ease with which she is dismissed, insulted and preyed upon, mark important points, culturally, for pre-feminist America. Irena’s otherness only reaches those she kills or nearly kills. The film’s most unbelievable moment is also its most visually impressive – a drafting room, lit at night only by beams shining up from the now-antiquated “light tables” used by design firms, in which crouch and cower Oliver and the “regular gal” he is friends with at work (and turns to when his marriage is stymied), the two of them stalked by Irena in the form of a black panther. As Oliver lifts a T-square and (none-too-convincingly, thanks to actor Kent Smith) sings out, “In the name of God, Irena, leave us in peace!” Cat People reaches a kind of nutty transcendence. Shadows are flung upward, a pragmatic tool is pressed into supernatural service, and a beast relents.



Bernardo Bertolucci listed Schrader’s remake as a “Guilty Pleasure” to Film Comment:

I thought it was very brave to remake such a masterpiece. And in some way Kinski is also haunted by something-always, in her life. She was a very good choice.


Time Out Film Guide:

Beauty is the beast in Schrader’s erotic update of RKO’s 1942 horror classic. Kinski’s ambivalently bewildered Irena, subject to feline metamorphosis when aroused, is the deadly composite of sex-kitten and femme fatale: the virgin who literally develops claws (and more) in bed. Caught between her similarly cursed brother’s pleas for incest, and her zoo-keeper boy-friend’s ostensibly more natural desires, she’s ironically caged as much by current notions of psycho-sexual ‘liberation’ as by the bars which await her. The seductively exotic surface of this mythically underpinned fantasy might be offset for some by much graphic gore, but if you can buy the romantic metaphors for the primitivisms of sexual obsession, the film delivers down the line.


Andrew Wright for The Stranger:

Cinematic brimstone manna for pubescent Cinemax viewers, Paul Schrader’s unjustly neglected 1982 remake of “Cat People” leaves the watcher uneasily poised somewhere between needing a wet-nap and a steel-wool shower. Working again with “American Gigolo”‘s visual consultant Ferndinando Scarfiotti, the director’s interpretation of the wittily Freudian source material is chock full with the promise of tantalizing sex and violence, which is ultimately delivered so nastily that it’s difficult not to feel guilty for enjoying it. Schraeder, a dude who knows a thing or three about temptation himself, here delivers one lulu of a cautionary tale: What you want to see may not really be what you want to see, no matter how much you think you want to see it.
Nowhere is this poisoned voyeurism more evident than in the opening shot, which quite literally unearths the film’s joint fascination with turn-ons and snuff-outs. Beginning with a patch of hallucinatory, nuclear-Antonioni colored desert, a wind slowly, sensually, blows across the surface of the sand to reveal a polished human skull, and then another, and another, and yet another, until an entire boneyard is uncovered. All this, while David Bowie and Georgio Moroder are moaning orgiastically on the soundtrack. Just writing about it, I want a cigarette. And a hairshirt, possibly.


Ed Howard for Only the Cinema:

Schrader’s Cat People nods to the original in many ways, following its basic premise and even recreating a few key scenes in homage to Lewton’s shadowy, evocative horror, but in most ways it’s quite a different work. Schrader minimizes the horror of the premise, pushing it even further into the background than Lewton, who often used his horror frameworks as mere excuses to explore deeper subtexts, ever did. Schrader is interested in the baroque eroticism of the story more than anything: the idea that there exist people who, when they make love, are transformed into vicious black leopards, and must kill before they can resume their human forms. Schrader uses this outlandish set-up to create a lush, absurd, sexually ripe film in which sex is dangerous and shiver-inducing, in which the promise of release carries with it an electric charge of terror.
It’s a familiar dichotomy, the good girl and the bad girl, the familiar and the foreign. In the original film, it was the fear of literal foreignness that Lewton was exploring, but here it’s a more metaphysical fear/attraction to the unknown, the mysterious and frightening. The film alternates this blossoming sexual tension with dark humor and moments of suspense and horror, but Schrader never really tries to resolve the film’s different moods and modes into a coherent whole. Instead, the goofy humor — like an ape intently watching a TV soap opera, or an eccentric cab driver who suggests that the only zoo worth visiting is the Bronx Zoo — is allowed to jar uncomfortably against the truly grisly bursts of gore and the open sexuality.
In making the film all about mood, about the resonances of the underlying themes, Schrader is in some respects drawing on the example of Lewton, whose films always made the tangible horror secondary to the psychological and emotional subtexts of the stories. In most other ways, though, Schrader doesn’t even try to compete with Lewton, a wise move since the original Cat People is a near-perfect horror film, a rich and evocative work that maintains its ability to elicit deep chills even today. Schrader’s film, despite its obvious debt to the original, strikes out in a different direction, amplifying the sexuality and violence underlying the original story, allowing these dangerous forces free reign. If the resulting film is messy and jagged, with loose ends dangling shredded and bloody as though a leopard had taken a big meaty bite out of the script, that’s to be expected from such a raw work. Schrader risks, and occasionally falls headfirst into, silliness and tackiness in order to get at the silly, risky, frightening, exciting feelings of love and lust.



Roger Ebert
for the Chicago Sun-Times:

This is the stuff of audacious myth, combining the perverse, the glorious, and the ridiculous. The movies were invented to tell such stories. Paul Schrader’s “Cat People” moves boldly between a slice-of-life in present-day New Orleans and the windswept deserts where the Cat People were engendered, and his movie creates a mood of doom, predestination, forbidden passion, and, to be sure, a certain silliness. It’s fun in the way horror movies should be fun; it’s totally unbelievable in between the times it’s scaring the popcorn out of you.

“Cat People” moves back and forth between its mythic and realistic levels, held together primarily by the strength of Kinski’s performance and John Heard’s obsession. Kinski is something. She never overacts in this movie, never steps wrong, never seems ridiculous; she just steps onscreen and convincingly underplays a leopard. Heard also is good. He never seems in the grip of an ordinary sexual passion, but possesses one of those obsessions men are willing (and often are called upon) to die for. “Cat People” is a good movie in an old tradition, a fantasy-horror film that takes itself just seriously enough to work, has just enough fun to be entertaining, contains elements of intrinsic fascination in its magnificent black leopards, and ends in one way just when we were afraid it was going to end in another.



Jeremy Richey selects a few highlights from Schrader on Schrader:

“I became obsessed with Kinski. So the story of the film started to become very personal, so much so that I wasn’t really aware of how perverse it was getting.”
“I like existential horror. I think the greatest metaphor in the cinema is in THE EXORCIST, where you get God and The Devil in the same room arguing over the body of a little girl…I mean THAT’S a horror film, that is truly great. In the same way, ROSEMARY’S BABY has deep spiritual connotations. I like those kind of horror films.”
“When you shoot any film there are always a couple of tapes with you lug along with you and you play them in your office continually with the sound off…On CAT PEOPLE the tapes I took along were BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ORPHEUS…there will never be another Cocteau.”

“I don’t think much of the original film. It was interesting in its use of shadows and so forth, but I didn’t find it very good and I was pertrubed that people were trying to compare the two…I wish I’d changed the title because then there wouldn’t have been the comparisons.”



Ed Gonzalez says not to compare the Schrader to the original:

While it’s arguably a failure as a genre film, 1982’s undervalued Cat People is distinctively a Paul Schrader creation. Adapted from the classic story by DeWitt Bodeen, Schrader’s film should not be compared to the 1942 classic by the great Jacques Tourneur. (Unlike frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese, Schrader was a non-fan of the Tourneur film.) Unjustifiably compared to the original film upon its release, Schrader’s Cat People is more of an erotic reinvention of the Bodeen story. The bloodline of feminist horror may have begun with the original Cat People but De Palma’s Carrie (much like Ginger Snaps) found a linkage between puberty and body horror. Cat People goes one further, linking fear of penetration with a young virgin’s acknowledgement of her cultural past. Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) finds her long-lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) in a voodoo-friendly New Orleans. Soon after a black panther takes a piece out of a local whore, Irena goes to work at a zoo manned by love interest Oliver Yates (Oliver Heard). The late, great Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s elaborate set designs imagine New Orleans as a post-feminist kingdom whose traditions are on the brink of destruction. For added measure, Giorgio Moroder’s synth-laden score heightens the film’s exotic textures. Churches and posters (here, Marilyn Monroe’s classic Seven Year Itch pose) fabulously hint at Irena’s sexual awakening. Though Schrader keeps the Fangoria crowd at bay with a series of grisly tableaus, he remains less concerned with the body-horrific than he does with the rituals of sex—mandatory and otherwise. Once Irena embraces her inner-pussy, she must naturally be tamed; the film’s infamous bondage sequence fascinatingly blurs any and all notions of what is consensual.


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