Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cat People: Both Parts Must Die

In theory, I do not mind remakes. My thinking is that remakes are essentially no different from the restaging of plays, except that they cost a lot more, and are frequently in no way necessary. Even so, if a filmmaker can bring something interesting to an already-told story, then why kick up a fuss? Over the years, we've had at least two excellent versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, David Cronenberg has improved on Kurt Neumann's already highly entertaining The Fly, and John Carpenter successfully returned to the source material, a novella by John W. Campbell, that was largely ignored in Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby's tremendous The Thing from Another World. So there's reason to be at least not quite so relentlessly negative when another remake is announced. Wait and see, be positive, all that shit. (Furthermore, the arguments against any and all remakes tend to sound like thoughtless and impotent rage. One I hear a lot is that the remake will rake in a truckful of cash, and all these young kids won't even be aware of the original, but I got news for you: superior the original may well be, but those young kids wouldn't have given a damn about it anyway.) Of course, there are any number of films -- like 2001, for instance -- whose hypothetical remakes would probably cause me to vomit in annoyance, but my exception for those films, I have to admit, is essentially arbitrary, and hypocritical.
Where things get really hairy, however, is when the filmmaker behind the remake begins talking shit about the original. Even if the original is bad, it's a classless move, and frequently the original has at least something going for it, or nobody would want to remake it in the first place. In his collection of film essays and criticism, Harlan Ellison's Watching, an enraged (of course) Harlan Ellison, speaking on the topic of homage, throws out this:
Was any attempt made by concerned parties, to hire a spiritualist who might pierce the veil and get Val Lewton's reaction to writer[sic]-director Paul Schrader's quote in the May-June issue of Cinefantastique, just prior to release of Schrader's remake of the 1942 Lewton-produced Cat People, that "Val Lewton's Cat People isn't that brilliant. It's a very good B-movie with one or two brilliant sequences. I mean, we're not talking about a real classic"?
I first read that passage well before I'd seen either version of Cat People, and for whatever reason, at the time, Schrader's words came off far more snide and harsh than they do now. I mean, he does say the original is "very good", and that it has "brilliant sequences". But what particularly sticks in my craw now is the patronizing attitude towards B-movies, which I think a man like Schrader, who has a deep and abiding love for film noir, should have gotten past in the 1960s, at the latest. What, does he think the only film noirs that are truly great are those that were afforded A-movie budgets? In any case, I would be very curious to hear Schrader's thoughts on the subject now, given how history has not only elevated Lewton's Cat People, but relegated his remake to the bargain bin.
Of course, history often gets things wrong. I've read enough great novels by forgotten writers to know that. But history was pretty much on target this time around. Personally, I would rank Lewton's Cat People somewhere in the middle of the nine horror films he produced (with massive creative and stylistic input) between 1942 and 1946, but that should be viewed less as a middling take on the film than as a testament to the very high regard in which I hold Lewton's work as a whole. Cat People was the first horror film Lewton produced at RKO, and with it the template was already clear: psychologically based horror, whether it featured supernatural elements or not, with sharp, literate writing, gorgeous, shadow-cloaked cinematography, moral complexity, ambiguity, and powerful sequences of suspense and terror. Lewton didn't cut his teeth on horror, and made these films because he was assigned to; he approached the genre as an outsider, a state of affairs that often yields fascinating results (see also Tom Alfredson, whose first horror film was the exquisite Let the Right One In, the American remake of which is coming soon).
Summarizing Cat People at this stage strikes me as a bit pointless, and besides I hate that shit, but suffice it to say it tells the deceptively simple story of the sexless marriage of the mysterious and ethereal Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) and lunkheaded good egg Oliver Reed (Trent Smith). The "sexless" part stems from Irena's considered belief that her Serbian ancestors were evil witches, who were able to take the form of cats, primarily (only?) when in the throes of sexual passion. So because she loves Oliver, she refuses to have sex with him. Oliver takes this all pretty well, only taking the step of referring his wife to a psychiatrist (the great Tom Conway, who had all the on-screen class and charm of his more famous brother, George Sanders, but none of the off-screen assholism). Though Oliver's a sweet guy, he eventually drifts, after having a touching conversation with his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph) about how, until his relationship with Irena, who he loves, he'd never been unhappy.
Lewton, Tourneur, and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen keep the truth of Irena's condition -- is it psychological, or is she really what she says she is? -- ambiguous, almost to the end (all the way to the end, according to some, but it's pretty hard, lack of on-screen cat transformations notwithstanding, to psychologically explain away certain moments, and sounds), and one of the things that's so fascinating about the film, and about the performances of Simon and Smith (some would say he's wooden, but I say he's playing the character) in particular, is that often the film plays, or could have played, straight, as a snapshot of a crumbling marriage, and of Irena's mental breakdown, the kind of breakdown that would warn all concerned parties to hitch the next train out of town, before she starts shredding everything around her, cat or not cat. This is a result, no doubt, of Lewton making a horror film only because he had to, and making it about cat people because RKO already had the title. Later Lewton films would be more straightforward (though no less complex) entries into the genre, but with Cat People he was injecting his real-world concerns, interests, and phobias (he didn't like cats, or being touched) into material that, in less sophisticated hands, would have played out as a half-assed, low-grade pulp knock-off of the kind of werewolf movies that were popular at the time.
Which is sort of funny, when you think about it -- as I said, Cat People was handed to Lewton by RKO, who said "Here's your title, now make a movie." A lazier producer would, without question, have told a thinly veiled werewolf story. That's not the story Lewton told, but guess who did tell that story? Paul Schrader. In his film (written by Alan Ormsby), Nastassja Kinski's Irena doesn't know about her true nature, and has to learn, Lawrence Talbot-like, about the family curse that dooms her to a life of cat-transformation any time she meets a guy she'd like to do sex to. Except that, apparently, this has never happened to her before, since not only is she a virgin, but she's never turned into a cat before, which means she's never experienced sexual desire before. From the standpoint of narrative logic, this makes no sense. Whatever Lewton's reasoning was (and I strongly suspect his reasoning had nothing to do with my current point), having his Irena know full well what she was not only made her a much more interesting character, but also obliterated a whole host of storytelling problems. Schrader's film rejiggers quite a few elements of the original story, saving it from being a "pointless" remake, but it perhaps should have either rejiggered fewer, or more. I can't tell which, but Schrader being Schrader, and 1982 being 1982, there was no way anyone involved in the remake was going to dump the sex-makes-her-a-vicious-cat angle. So maybe lose the idea that she's not aware of it, but of course that would have meant losing the character of Paul (Malcolm McDowell), Irena's brother, whose entire purpose, from what I can tell, is to be the one who tells her about their family origins. Well, that, and to introduce a nonsensical incest subplot (the only way they can have sex and not becomes cats is to have sex with family members, you see), which isn't consummated in any case, a fact that mitigates the film's already fairly high sleaze factor by a smidge.
But, you know, the thing is, Schrader's Cat People isn't really all that bad. It's not. It is, in fact, a good deal better than I remembered. Kinski is wonderful, McDowell is very good, there's a nice energy and pacing in the first half or so, and, occasionally, strong images, such as those that accompany the astonishingly Last Temptation of Christ-like opening credits, and the shot of blood slowly splashing over Irena's white shoes, on its way to a floor drain. Also, the panthers in this film are very striking, which I mean sincerely. But it's still just a sexed-up, 1980s-style tweak on the werewolf legend, and, in fact, one could easily say that Paul Schrader's Cat People is just Tony Scott's The Hunger, but for werecats. Or rather, one could, if not for the fact that The Hunger came out one year later. So facts have defeated that point, but one thing I think can't be argued is that Schrader's film broke no new ground in horror cinema, and in a number of ways it's in lock-step with the formula of the genre as practiced in the 1980s. For example, Ed Begley, Jr. has the thankless role of the unfunny funny guy, which means you know he's doomed, and indeed he is. There are also a great many tits, which I have no problem with, and even, ahm, blooming from this particular story they come off as gratuitous. It's also a fairly gory film, so with your stock victims, your tits, and your gore, you have all the trappings of a more or less typical 80s horror film. No trails are blazed, whereas that's exactly what Lewton was doing in 1942. Even back then, no one was pulling as far back from genre tropes as Lewton was, and no one was creating so much dread by showing so little. And that restraint, of course, was just the tip of the iceberg.
Which, again, I have no problem with -- the tits, gore, and lack of trailblazing, I mean -- and I wouldn't even bring it up (okay, I might, but not like this) if not for that Schrader quote in which he condescends to B-movies. Words hurt, Paul Schrader, and if you're going to express an ignorance of the true meaning of the term "B-movie" -- an ignorance I can't believe you ever actually possessed, even in 1982 -- you're probably going to be called out when you make one, which is what your Cat People is, at least going by your definition of "B-movie", which is very narrow and reductive anyway. So "trashy", I guess, is what both you and I are going for here. And no, I don't believe Paul Schrader will ever actually read this. I just got caught up in things.
The other funny thing about all this is that you can sort of sense Schrader straining to bust out of those trashy binds, and that's not a compliment. One thing about B-movies, whether they were trashy or not, is that they often had a sense of pace, something that completely deserts Schrader's Cat People in the last half hour. The film shrugs off the sense of narrative fun and excitement it had been riding, in favor of a last quarter that just drags interminably, all to make a point about being trapped by sexual desire, which was already there anyway, and was already there in the Lewton film, too.
Again, though: Schrader's film isn't that bad. And I wonder, if it hadn't been a remake, if history wouldn't have been kinder to it (I'm sure it has its rabid defenders, but it's unlikely they'll turn the tide). But of course, it is a remake, and that's the curse of of such films -- without the film being remade, the remake would never exist, would never even be conceived of, and unless what's being offered is of especially high quality (a not inconceivable notion, as I've shown), the remake will come and go in a blink. Profitable, maybe, but not much else can be hoped for. It's a tough road to hoe, when you think about it, especially on the screenwriting end, which must be a just about entirely thankless task. But give it a shot anyway, if you happen to feel like it. I won't bitch. Just, you some respect.


Anonymous said...

Great work.

I adore the Lewton version (it's one of my standbys when a friend expresses a desire to "watch an old horror movie") but I've never seen the Schrader version. But oh look- you mentioned the tits and the whatnot and it just jumped 300 places in my Netflix queue.

I'd pay damn good money to see someone try a modernized version of the followup to the original. That's a movie that seems more hypnotically batshit every time I see it.

bill r. said...

Thanks. Yeah, it's worth seeing. I especially would like to alert you to the presence of one Annette O'Toole. But honestly, when you see it, tell me I'm wrong about those opening credits. Did Paul Schrader advise Scorsese on his LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST credits, or is it some wild coincidence, or am I just way off?

CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE is a great movie, but even though I prefer it to CAT PEOPLE, I'm less familiar with it. Even so, yes, it's batshit, and brilliant.

Will Errickson said...

Thank you for calling Schrader out on that crappy, insensitive comment. I first read it when I picked up Schrader on Schrader way back when and was astonished he'd said something so clueless. That was even before I'd seen Lewton's original! That said, I *loved* the remake (I'm not strictly against remakes either) as a teenager in the '80s, but I didn't expect it to be any good when I watched it as an adult. But like you, I found it a bit better than its reputation suggests. And Annette O'Toole--!

bill r. said...

Will, there are a lot of people in the movie business, or in the writing-about-movie business (Schrader's been in both) who could have made that statement, and I wouldn't have thought twice about it. It would have been no less ignorant, but it wouldn't have been surprising. But coming from Paul Schrader is downright astonishing. Of all people, he's a guy who should know better.

And Annette O'Toole--!

That Michael McKean's one lucky fucker.

Roderick Heath said...

Fine, probing piece, Bill. Schrader's comments do reveal something to me about the reason why his remake ended up a disorientating mess - although Carpenter and Kaufman interrogated and subverted the models for their remakes, they clearly also loved the models, where Schrader obviously felt a bit detached from his. That's a trait in a lot of acclaimed directors turning their hand to the horror genre, and one that's ruined a lot of films.

I too used to rank the original Cat People as fairly middling, but my last couple of viewings have really brought the film's disquieting poeticism home to me.

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bill r. said...

Thanks, Rod. As I said, I do think non-genre filmmakers can make pretty extraordinary horror films (Lewton!), but I feel like Schrader thought he could blow the roof off while sticking to what he perceived to be essential elements of some mythical "formula". I think THAT is what kills some horror films made by acclaimed directors new to the genre -- the belief that some kind of formula must be adhered to.

And I only think CAT PEOPL is middling in relation to Lewton's other horror films. I still think it's damn good.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

I actually put CAT PEOPLE at the top of Lewton's output, largely because it's a Lewton-Tourneur film, and Jacques Tourneur was no slouch himself. A lot of his films (including his other Lewton films) thrive on atmosphere and suggestion, but what gets me about CAT PEOPLE is how much readable semiotics he packs into the images. From the opening shot of getting a ball in a hole (nudge, nudge, SHOVE!) to the shadowed crosses in the design office, with stops along the way for suggestively cropped paintings in the psychiatrist's office and Irina's panther-ear bows, the movie's images have a kind of dense readability that's unique in Tourneur's work.

And oh god, that door shot on their wedding night!

bill r. said...

A lot of people rank CAT PEOPLE at or near the top of Lewton's films. With the exception of THE 7th VICTIM, my favorite tend to be the ones other people rank a bit lower -- THE BODY SNATCHER, BEDLAM, etc.

But really, I do think CAT PEOPLE is a wonderful movie, so don't get me wrong. Tourneur was the furthest thing from a slouch, but of his Lewton work I prefer I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, and I prefer OUT OF THE PAST and NIGHT OF THE DEMON over either.

The bedroom door scene is something. I was listening to Greg Mank's commentary track, and he was singling that one out as a moment where Tourneur and Lewton were trying to get one over on the censors, or rather one the censors had problems with, and I thought "Is he going to mention, you know, where her head is positioned?" He never did, though.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

BODY SNATCHER is delightful, not least for the chance to watch Lugosi and Karloff acting at each other. Meanwhile my friend Ian W. Hill desperately wants to do a remake of THE SEVENTH VICTIM set in the 90s downtown theater scene, which would be a hoot. But hell, choosing a best Lewton horror film is tough---they're all so good.

Will Errickson said...

I heard a year or three ago some film company had bought rights to a bunch of Lewton films to do remakes. Haven't seen/heard anything more. However, anyone unfamiliar with Roky Erickson's 1978 song "I Walked with a Zombie" should avail themselves here:

Arbogast said...

Thank you for this comparison, Bill. I enjoyed Schrader's Cat People back in 1982 and it was one of the first DVDs I bought... yet I've never rewatched it. Meanwhile, the original Cat People, which I never owned on video and which only recently came out on DVD, is often respun here.

I'm with you on the original's essential worth (while thumbs-upping Rod's championing of its disquieting poeticism) vis a vis the other Lewton horrors and with the value of the remake. I like them both but I think Lewton's insights are the more enduring.

Schrader's comment reminds me of Francis Ford Coppola's insistence, around the time of the release of Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1992, that Bram Stoker's original novel was "unreadable."

Bryce Wilson said...

I have a certain affection for Schrader's version. Because of both its trashiness, and unabashed lack of irony.

I don't have it in me to hate a movie wherein Malcolm McDowell solemnly explains the destiny of the Cat People. Also Annette O Toole! Appealing! And um erm Perky!

This also has the distinction of inspiring one of my favorite *ahem* catty Pauline Kael comments, "That every shot looks like the cover for an album that you would never want to play."

I completely agree. The key difference being that I would totally play those albums.

bill r. said...

Fuzzy - BODY SNATCHER was my first Lewton, and not only got me into Lewton, but into Karloff. It's one of his greatest performances. But it may hold such a high place for me partly by virtue of being first. The most fascinating and disturbing to me is probably 7th VICTIM.

Will - I heard that, too. And, in fact, at the time I was outraged. Outraged! But I've mellowed, and would watch the films if they ever got made. I don't see that happening at this point, though.

Arbogast - I absolutely believe that Lewton's insights are more enduring, at least partly because I don't know what insights Schrader/Ormsby bring to the table. Maybe I wasn't watching closely enough, but even though I largely enjoyed his film, I didn't find it especially "deep".

And I'm guessing Coppola never cracked the book.

Bryce - I don't have it in me to hate a movie wherein Malcolm McDowell solemnly explains the destiny of the Cat People.

In a dream, yet!

Kael's line is clever, I guess, but I don't quite see it, myself. I think that's actually kind of an unfair jab.