Cat People (1942) vs. Cat People (1942)

Damn. Black and white cinema can be so beautiful.

Meow, baby!

Posted: Jan 20, 2018 8:50 AM

Sex and violence is as American as Mom and apple pie, even if we like to pretend otherwise. The only time Donald Trump is ever popular with anyone in Washington DC is when he’s bombing somebody half the world away and what did all the people saying #metoo today think was going to happen after we spent the 1990s turning porn stars into mainstream celebrities and winking at a President sexually exploiting an intern young enough to be his daughter? Prostitution was as much a part of the Wild West and six-shooters or cavalry charges and why do you think we still have military bases in Germany 70 years after WWII and almost 30 years after the end of the Cold War?

KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown is taking a look at sex and violence through the years by pitting one of the defining early films of the horror genre against its definitively 1980s and fairly gonzo descendent. It’s “Cat People” (1942) vs. “Cat People” (1982) in a battle that proves the Bechdel test isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Whatever else you might say about the 80s, you didn't have to have huge boobs to be a sex symbol.

"What do you mean they put a chemical in the pool that reacts to urine?"

The original film is a brisk 73 minute testament to the power of implication. It has essentially no on screen violence or sex, yet managed to burn itself into a public consciousness consumed with global armageddon. “Cat People” (1942) concerns a young Serbian lass named Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) who falls in love with a New York City engineer named Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). They meet, fall in love, and marry without ever kissing, let alone having sex, because Irena is tormented by the conviction she’s one of the demonic Cat People from her homeland and sexual excitement or jealousy will cause her to transform into a savage black leopard. And if you’re wondering how an ancient Serbian legend could involve an African animal no ancient Serb would have ever seen, you’re thinking about it too hard.

Oliver tries to love and help Irena, even sending her to a psychiatrist (Tom Conway) who frankly seems like he should be the star of his own monster flick franchise, but his frustration eventually pushes Oliver into the arms of his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph), who is exactly the sort of girl this Big Apple boy should have fallen for in the first place. That doesn’t sit well with Irena and the fur, so to speak, really flies.

“Cat People” is all about desire and deviancy, with the cat monster as a metaphor representing Irena’s profound alienation from her own sexuality. And it’s not even clear for much of the movie if there’s an actual monster or it’s all just in Irena’s troubled mind. Existing within the strict production codes of 1940s Hollywood, the result is a weird soap opera without a villain propped up by some very strong visuals toward the back of the film and the fact that Simone Simon’s accent is just thick enough that you can never tell if she’s a very good or very bad actress.

If nothing else, “Cat People” is an example that stories should only be as long as they absolutely need to be. Add even an extra 20 minutes to this movie about sex that can’t even say the word “sex” and it would implode from its own pretension, but the lightning pace of the plot keeps you from noticing how little anyone does or says in the film. You’re carried along on the personal charisma of Simon and Kent Smith and gradually mesmerized by the increasingly interesting images of director Jacques Turner.
Like most of the early entrants to the genre, there’s not a lot that’s truly horrifying about “Cat People” (1942) any longer…unless you start thinking about the most likely not ASPCA-approved treatment of the big cat in the film…but like the best of them, it remains watchable decades later.

With all the nudity, violence, gore, and synthesizer music you could ever expect from an 80s horror flick, “Cat People” (1982) is in some ways the Platonic ideal of a remake. It takes the same themes and intention as the original and expands on them in ways that make perfect sense but would have been impossible to even imagine in 1942. Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) is a young woman brought to New Orleans to reunite with her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell), 20 years after they were separated by their parents’ death. She meets a young zoo curator named Oliver Yates (John Heard) and his apparently on-again-off-again girlfriend/coworker Alice Perrin (Annette O’Toole). Irena even gets a job in the zoo gift shop.

But things go to hell when Paul tells Irena that neither of them are human. They are werewolf-like beings who change into black leopards whenever they have sex with a normal person and the only way they can change back is to murder someone. Which, as Paul explains, means they can only be happy having incestuous sex with each other. That doesn’t thrill Irena as she rejects Paul and runs into the arms of Oliver, with disastrous results.

“Cat People” (1982) could have been nothing more than another relic of the “erotic” filmmaking that used to be an honest-to-goodness sub-genre of cinema before the adult section in the back of the local video store made it superfluous. There’s a lot of nudity in it but, outside of Annette O’Toole going topless, very little of it can be called gratuitous. Unlike umpteen or so movies starring Shannon Tweed, this thing isn’t an excuse to look at naked people. It’s a legitimate attempt to tell a tale of sexual fulfillment and the pain and destruction that results when it isn’t achieved. By refusing Paul’s sexual advances, Irena is not only condemning them both to physical emptiness but she’s putting the lives of other people in mortal danger and the solution Irena comes up with gets more and more disturbing as you ponder it.

There’s also a good deal of graphic violence in “Cat People” (1982), though the special effects have not aged well. There’s a scene where a character gets his arm ripped off that will provoke more laughs than shock in modern viewers.

What might be the most interesting thing about comparing these two motion pictures, however, is their starkly differing presentations of women. “Cat People” (1942) is a good demonstration of the paradox that a culture that restricted women pretty severely still produced so many strong and engaging female character in fiction. The ladies in the original, even the supporting and bit players, have personality and conviction and feel like there’s more to them than what we get to see. Alice has no role in the plot except to come between Oliver and Irena, yet there’s depth and dimension to both the character and Jane Randolph’s portrayal of it. It’s an old observation but the clear and well defined rules of what was and wasn’t permissible for a woman allowed storytellers to make them strong and smart and sassy and evil and conniving and desperate without having to worry about threatening or undermining their male co-stars. Men and women occupied different and distinct roles in society, which meant there was no dramatic or thematic competition between them on screen. In other words, it was easy for Katherine Hepburn to be strong because it never made Spencer Tracy weak.

40 years of women’s liberation later, however, and the female characters in “Cat People” (1982) are sad sacks without agency who can only react to what happens to them. Remake Irena and Remake Alice are pale imitations of their predecessors. Their existence is defined by the men in their lives. Or to put it another way, the problems of Simon’s Irena pre-dated ever meeting Oliver and would have existed whether she met him or not. They are HER problems. Nastassja Kinski’s Irena only has a problem because of her interactions with Paul and Oliver. Take them out of the equation and Irena’s contentedly virginal life would have continued.
This Throwdown narrowly goes to the original “Cat People,” which surprised me. I mean, the remake does have topless Annette O’Toole. But that a 1942 movie about sex can have anything to offer viewers of the early 21st century is fairly remarkable. “Cat People” (1982) has its own charms but they are a little more prurient and a little less persisting.

Cat People (1942)
Written by DeWitt Bodeen.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur.
Starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph, Jack Holt, Henriette Burnside, Alec Craig, Elizabeth Dunne, Mary Halsey, Theresa Harris, and Dynamite.

Cat People (1982)
Written by Alan Ormsby.
Directed by Paul Schrader.
Starring Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O’Toole, Ruby Dee, Ed Begley Jr., Scott Paulin, Frankie Faison, Ron Diamond, Lynn Lowry, John Larroquette, Tessa Richarde, and John H. Fields.

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