APRIL 19, 2012
A remake of a much lauded horror film starring Malcolm McDowell is the last thing I could imagine wanting to see again, however Cat People is one of those movies that I’ve long wanted to see, but not because it was a horror film. No, it’s actually one of the first films produced by none other than Jerry Bruckheimer, before he hooked up with Don Simpson and changed the way we look at explosions. It’s actually the only genre film on his resume, really – some folks have claimed the Pirates films are horror, but come on. There are enough actual horror movies in the world to last a lifetime (or 6 years anyway); we don’t need to pretend that comedic adventure films count just because they occasionally have a skeleton or something.
Anyway, it’s not really recognizable as a Bruckheimer production, though it DOES give off a similar vibe as The Hunger, which was directed by future Bruckheimer collaborator Tony Scott. Not only does it have a Bowie connection (he did this film’s theme song), but both films are highly sexualized romantic dramas set against the backdrop of a traditional monster. The Hunger had vampires, but Cat People is sort of like a werewolf movie, complete with a transformation scene and the obligatory “guy wakes up naked covered in blood” bit. The only difference (besides the obvious wolf/leopard change) is that our “werecats” were born this way, not bitten and changed.
This actually provides the bulk of the story’s main thrust, which surprised me as I thought it was just going to be a sexed up version of the original. The Malcolm McDowell character has no equal in Val Lewton’s original – he plays the brother of Nastassja Kinski's Irena (rest of the important characters’ names are the same), and reveals to her how their curse works. Basically if they fuck they become leopards, and they have to kill someone to turn back into human form (which would be an amazing “problem” for a handsome superhero – he could bang a lady, go out and kill some supervillain, and pretty much have the best life ever). Her only other option is to sleep with her brother (hey-o!), which will remove the need to kill but keep her as a leopard forever. Basically, it’s a shit deal no matter what, because going through life without getting it on is hardly an enticing thought either.
What’s cool is that this still allows the film to more or less follow the basic plot of the original, in that she meets Oliver (John Heard) and falls in love with him but can’t consummate their relationship. She also gets antagonistic toward Alice (Annette O’Toole), Oliver’s coworker – though here they are zoo wardens instead of architects, which gives them a more central presence in the story of a loose leopard killing hookers (that would be McDowell). The passage of time can be a bit vague – at one point Kinski appears to leave New Orleans for months but it might have just been a few days – but I like that they kept the two tied in smaller ways while overall being a very different movie.
Well, with one exception. I liked that they kept in the “love triangle” and such, but the attempt at redoing the pool scene was a misguided choice. Not only does this version not suffer for scare scenes (an early one with Lynn Lowry is quite creepy), making it less essential in the overall scheme of things (the pool scene was one of only 2-3 scares in the original), but it’s also rushed and simply not scary. Plus it’s extraneous; at this point Alice and Ollie hadn’t really shared that connection like they did in the original, so Irena had no reason to be jealous yet. O’Toole disrobes in the process (who DOESN’T swim naked in a public pool?), taking some of the weight off of Kinski (who appears nude for most of the film’s second half, it seems), but apart from a show of equality it doesn’t really fit, nor does it measure up to a scare from 40 years ago. Hopefully when they remake this again in 10 years they’ll either get it right or just not even try. It’s like the Chainsaw remake – they knew better than to try to do a dinner scene.
I actually liked this one’s ending more (spoilers for 30/70 year old movies ahead!). In the original they leave it ambiguous if Irena was a cat person or not, but there’s no such mystery here – we see her in early stages of transformation, even. But instead of dying, her and Oliver make love one last time, and then we cut to sometime later where he and Alice are now together but Irena is confined in their zoo, presumably not allowed to kill anyone and turn back. Oliver feeds her and looks sad – it’s a melancholy but undeniably romantic ending, and resolves everything. Nothing against ambiguous endings in general, but in the original there wasn’t really a lot of action or suspense, as it focused more on the love triangle. This one is a little more well-rounded, is what I mean.
And the score! Loved it. Bowie’s theme was quite good, but Giorgio Moroder’s cues were just incredible, and made me want to run home and pop in my Over The Top DVD to enjoy his work there all over again (but alas, I had to keep watching the films on the list for the next Chiller special I’m doing). And the print was beautiful as well, so the themes weren’t marred by missing frames and warped soundtracks like some older films might suffer from. Universal very rarely delivers anything less than a great print to the New Beverly, and for that I laud them, especially in these increasingly dark times where the studios are ditching their 35mm vaults in favor of inferior digital copies.
It’s a bit long and some of the storytelling is a bit clunky (particularly McDowell’s introduction), but overall I found it to be the right kind of remake, where the concept is the same but it’s otherwise a very different film. You could watch the two back to back and enjoy them both for different reasons, unlike say Psycho where the only reason to watch the remake is to either torture yourself or simply conduct some sort of experiment. A couple years ago I remember reading that a bunch of Lewton’s titles were sold to a new company with the idea of remaking them – not sure if this was in that bunch and/or if that is still in the works, but I’d love to see a few others reinterpreted in a similar manner, where the respect for the source material is carefully balanced with the need to deliver something fresh.
What say you?