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Cats Entertainment

I like the dark. It’s friendly.

Those six words made my heart beat a little faster the first time I heard them. I think they must have that effect on a lot of horror fans who’ve discovered the world of Val Lewton through his first production, Cat People for the first time. Those six words seem to sum up everything I’ve felt about horror since I was about four-years-old, sitting in my room, surrounded by books that I’d fashioned into a wall to keep the Twilight Zone from getting me. I felt snug and secure in my little circle of books and I liked that, but it didn’t mean that I was going to turn off the show that had frightened me into the corner of my room. I liked being scared too–liked the balance of fear and security that came with horror movies. It’s that lazy old roller-coaster analogy that people like to throw around because it’s often so apt. There’s something oddly comforting about allowing a little fear into your life, particularly when there’s the security of a television or a movie screen (or a wall of books) to separate you from all of the awful ideas and images on the other side. Horror movies have always been comforting to me in that way.

So yeah, the line got to me, because it seemed like something I already knew or should have said before, but didn’t. And the wonderful thing about that line is that it hangs over the rest of the movie like a shadow. That sense of friendly darkness sucked me in and made it all too easy to fall in love with this story and its characters.

Speaking of which…

Cat People is, in a way, about what happens when an old horror story crosses the threshold of fiction and makes its way into reality. It’s about a young Serbian-born woman living in New York who believes herself to be a descendent of a village corrupted and destroyed by witchcraft and devil worship. The young woman, Irena (Simone Simon) believes that her ancestors are part of a group of witches that escaped execution and eradication by, among other things, having the ability to change themselves into panthers. When she meets the man of her dreams, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) she refuses to make any loving physical contact with him (she won’t kiss or sleep with him, even after they get married), for fear that the old stories are true and that through her arousal she’ll become a panther and kill him.

Things begin to spiral out of control when Irena begins to suspect that her husband and one of his female co-workers may be in love. This sub-plot leads to two of the best scenes in the film, and perhaps two of the best examples of creating an atmosphere of dread through the use of lighting, sound design and editing that I’ve ever seen.

I’d seen the Paul Schrader remake with the David Bowie theme song (it’s not even a pimple on the ass of “Magic Dance”) from 1982 a few years ago and so my expectations for this film were in a very odd place. Schrader’s movie is highly sexually charged in the most obvious of ways. At one point, Natassja Kinski’s face splits open while she’s having sex and a panther puppet burrows its way out of her face. The scene lacks real sexuality, scares and worst of all, subtlety. None of those criticisms have anything to do with the version that was made 40-years earlier though, and thank fucking god, because Schrader’s over-the-top vision of this story actually made me sleepier than a movie in which we never see a single murder (we get the remnants of a dead sheep at one point and a mauling depicted completely in shadow). That’s not to say that the remake is without merit entirely–the opening sequence is bizarre and beautiful in its own way–but what makes the original interesting all these years later is its ambiguity and willingness to keep its characters and audience in the dark equally.

Like I said, we never see Irena change into a cat in this version of the story, which places a different emphasis on the horror, taking it away from the exploitative to the psychological. Her character arc is actually pretty similar to the one we see in David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly in the sense that we’re watching characters that we love slowly lose themselves. That’s pretty much why I love both of these films. Character-based horror just ages better than most exploitation (I love it, but can’t watch most movies based on gore more than a handful of times).

I lost my goddamned train of thought so I’ll wrap it up now.

The movie is great. If you’re into this era of filmmaking, you could do a whole hell of a lot worse. If you’re not, this might be a good way to get into it. Personally, this feels like a comfort film to me–something that I can throw in the DVD player whenever I want to feel a certain way or decompress a bit. The movies that do that for me are few and far between. I’m a firm believer in the notion of watching a movie to death (particularly now that I want to explore new films, instead of losing time with a film I’ve already seen more than a handful of times). But I think this movie has more going on beneath the surface than most, from the visuals to the psychological underpinnings of the story. What can I say? I like it.

Again, my apologies for the tone of this review. I get caught up in the tone of the movies I watch when it comes to discussing them and this was a little more serious than something like The Man Who Fell To Earth. For the sake of writing something fun the next time out, I’ll be talking about Hell’s Ground, which is Pakistan’s first ever gore film (it’s a zombie-slasher!).

Until then…


3 Responses

  1. I’m so happy to be reading movie reviews from you again, Miles, and don’t apologize for the serious and insightful tone–you’re better at that than any professional reviewer I know of. Your reviews have the same effect that reading a Harold Bloom book like Genius does–it makes me want to go check out a ton of new shit. It ain’t a bad thang!

  2. I’m so glad you liked the movie! I love this movie with a white hot passion – and we have the entire remastered Val Lewton collection which is great and I encourage you to check it out.

    As much as I love Cat People, I think I like Curse a little more. It’s such a heartbreaking movie and I like the redemption of Irena. While the films bear little relation to each other, I liked checking in with those characters again.

    AND – if you liked the psychological ambiguity of this movie I would suggest that you check another film by Jacques Tourneur called Night of the Demon. I don’t think it reaches the heights of Cat People, but it’s pretty good and surprisingly effective little horror show.

  3. Thanks guys. I’m pretty pumped on writing again. The energy is flowing and whatnot.

    And yeah, I saw Curse of the Cat People too. Luckily I knew what I was in for before the movie started because TCM has been playing the Scorsese narrated documentary about Lewton and his films for the last month or so (watching that was enough for me to finally dive in and check some of this stuff out).

    I don’t know that I can go with you on Curse being better than the original though. I can see why you’d say that, because it’s certainly a more emotionally affecting story–and the girl who played Amy is pretty goddamned amazing–but the original was more the movie I was in the mood for at the time. I will say that I thought the mother/daughter relationship between the old woman and Elizabeth Russell’s character was a nice call back to the original film as well as genuinely creepy and sad in its own right. The scenes that allow that relationship to play out are probably among my favorites in either of the two films.

    Jacques Tourner is well represented in my queue. I stocked up after the documentary, so you should be hearing more about him in the near future. For now, I’m writing another mini-opus about Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. There’s a lot to say about that one. After that is Hell’s Ground, which doesn’t have subtitles and features a mixture of Urdu and English, so that should be interesting too.

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