Jacques Tourneur’s “Cat Folks” (1942) is a kind of black and white horror film discoveries that solely added to my lifelong film obsession.
Right here is an unabashed B-movie, certainly one of many from Hungarian producer Val Lewton, that means a lot from its pulpy title and delivers, rather than low-cost thrills, a suggestive, extremely psychological, and considerate exploration of human character.
Lewton made different movies with Tourneur (“I Walked With a Zombie” is amongst their most well-known), however the sinister, dreamlike really feel of “Cat Folks” has me revisiting it not less than yearly. I’ve subjected my movie courses to it each semester, with most college students balking on the movie’s subtlety, whereas others would hook up with it on a deeper, extra private stage.
Tourneur’s “Cat Folks” stars the hypnotic, pretty Simone Simon as Irena, seen drawing a caged panther in a zoo. She befriends Oliver (Kent Smith), who’s understandably smitten along with her.
After a brisk courtship, Oliver proposes they marry. Whereas Irena is taken by Oliver and initially unthreatened by his chemistry with Alice (Jane Randolph), Oliver’s buddy and work associate, Irena’s gradual jealousy creates pressure throughout the three.
A much more troubling downside is that Irena, a Serbian in New York, believes that she comes from tribe of Cat Folks, who flip into panthers when sexually aroused and homicide anybody with whom they mate.
This element is defined in essentially the most chaste approach doable for a movie from 1942.
However, “Cat Folks,” on a subtextual stage, is concerning the worry of intercourse and the way sexual intimacy turns us into animals. The movie can also be a psychological puzzle, as Irena’s questionable way of thinking and a few visible clues permit us to ponder if her perception within the Cat Folks is ludicrous or believable.
Whereas “Cat Folks” is a horror movie, it positions its heroine as each the potential villain and, if checked out one other approach, a sufferer of her husband’s lack of expertise and empathy.
Tourneur’s “Cat Folks” is among the many most influential movies of its style, with its wealthy atmosphere, use of sound and shadow and emphasis on sexual longing and repression. It’s a terrific movie.
Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake is strikingly just like the unique when it comes to the essential story and recreates its most well-known sequences however offers a special and never altogether profitable expertise.
It opens with visuals akin to a toddler’s fairy story illustration (or, maybe, a picture proper out of the 1944 horror-lite, little one’s fantasy-like sequel, “The Curse of the Cat Folks”).
Fairly than permit the suggestion of Tourneur’s movie and indulge within the thriller of whether or not the title characters are actual, Schrader’s movie literalizes the lore of the Cat Folks. The prologue is intense and exquisite, courting ridicule and largely avoids it.
Pushing in on lead Nastassja Kinski’s eye as her character introduction was a pointy selection. Set in New Orleans, Kinski’s Irena meets her brother, Paul (alcolm McDowell, a decade after “A Clockwork Orange”) on the airport. The reunion is affectionate, although it later leans within the path of incest, as Paul not solely declares himself as one of many Cat Folks to Irena but additionally explains that solely they might mate, as intercourse with a human would end in one particular person reworking right into a leopard and the opposite ending up useless.
Irena turns into interested in a zookeeper named Oliver (John Heard), although his skilled relationship with Alice (Annette O’Toole) presents Irena with a romantic rival.
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Schrader’s “Cat Folks” is peculiar and eerie. At one level early on, Kinski is strolling by way of the zoo and practically runs right into a peacock, a second that may both be an accident or simply knowingly peculiar.
Kinski’s Irena has an otherworldly presence to match Simon’s, however the emphasis on psychological thriller, unrequited love and sexual aching made the journey of the unique Irena much more compelling. The 1982 “Cat Folks” takes too lengthy to arrange the love triangle and prolongs the inevitable within the third act.
Having the unique specializing in a love triangle between a complicated couple and an outsider, whose social abnormalities make her an ungainly match of their circle, proved masterful. Right here, Heard and O’Toole as zookeepers is a straightforward, uninspired selection.
They’re zookeepers, get it? They wish to maintain Irena’s wildness in a cage.
The triangle within the unique wasn’t so on-the-nose. Nearly as good as O’Toole is on this, Randolph’s scene-stealing flip as a complicated and frank co-worker infatuated with Smith’s Oliver was, likewise, a extra gripping dynamic.
There are visible and audio pleasures in Schrader’s movie, as Giorgio Moroder’s cool rating and David Bowie’s intoxicating single “Placing Out the Fireplace with Gasoline” are apparent highlights.
Tourneur’s type, together with his shadowy, insinuating black and white imagery, may be very totally different from Schrader’s movie, with its placing lighting design.
Total, the comparisons aren’t favorable: within the unique, a well-regarded scene has Irena working into one other of the Cat Folks, as a separate lady with a feline look sees her in a restaurant, says “Moi esestra” (“my sister” in Serbian) and runs off, a chilling second.
It’s recreated within the ’82 model with an identical determine casually saying to Irena, “Mi Hermana,” which doesn’t have the identical impact.
The unique has a stroll n’ stalk sequence that’s nonetheless scary, with the sudden look of a bus pulling up with a hiss as an efficient soar scare. Within the ’82 model, the second falls flat. Likewise, the brand new model of the swimming pool scene, now solely notable for the nudity. “Cat Folks” is healthier served psychological than literal.
It’s odd however true that the unique, regardless of being 50 years older, nonetheless has this one beat.
Hungarian producer Lewton specialised in low-budget psychological thrillers that may very well be bought on the idea of their title however provided excess of low-cost thrills. Whereas Tourneur had Lewton, Schrader has Jerry Bruckheimer.
If something, the emphasis on imagery and music is a mirrored image on Bruckheimer, who at this level was finest recognized for his involvement within the music trade. Not for nothing, what most individuals have a tendency to recollect about Schrader’s “Cat Folks” is David Bowie’s ”Placing Out the Fireplace” and never a lot else.
On this present day in 1983, David Bowie launched Let’s Dance. Because of the title music, in addition to “Trendy Love,” “China Woman,” and “Cat Folks (Placing Out Fireplace),” it bought 12 million copies worldwide, making it Bowie’s best-selling album. pic.twitter.com/cTHGQpsFMr
— Eric Alper 🎧 (@ThatEricAlper) April 14, 2022
The gore in Schrader’s movie is vivid and gross however all of the wealthy subtext and psychological explorations, of the sin ready beneath Irena’s pores and skin, are actually made literal. Schrader’s movie naturally goes additional than Tourneur’s, however carrying an R-rated has not made for an improved imaginative and prescient.
“Cat Folks” simply surpasses Schrader’s prior directorial effort, the over-praised “American Gigolo” from 1980 (which has aged terribly). Nevertheless, Schrader’s different horror entry, the deeply troubled “Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist” (2005), which is assumed frightening however feels unfinished, is a stronger work than his “Cat Folks.”
The ultimate scene, presenting a quasi-solution for Irena, is sort of kinky, sort of tragic however largely an anticlimax.
In a physique of labor that features adapting “The Final Temptation of Christ” and writing “Taxi Driver” for Martin Scorsese and (to call only a few) directing “Blue Collar” (1978), “Patty Hearst” (1988) and “First Reformed” (2017), something Schrader does deserves our consideration and willingness to take a stroll alongside his all the time difficult tight rope.
Schrader’s “Cat Folks” is a kind of films I return to each 5 years or so, in hopes that I’ll prefer it higher or see one thing I beforehand neglected. I discover the movie intriguing and entertaining, however Tourneur’s movie, which I watch yearly, is definitive.
Whichever model you see first, these two movies, separated by 40 years, supply wealthy contrasts in strategy whereas telling the identical story. Each movies are, beneath the floor, concerning the worry of intercourse, introduced as a grownup fairy story about how, actually, we’re all cat folks, simply holding again the impulse to scratch.