Back some time ago, I reviewed the Midwich Cuckoo films, an odd trilogy that consisted of the original Village of the Damned (1960), a remake with the same title in 1995, and an odd offshoot, Children of the Damned (1964). It turns out this is not the only horror franchise to follow such a pattern. For there is Cat People (1942, 1944, 1982).
Both Cat People, the 1942 original and the 1982 remake, revolve around an exotic-looking woman named Irena, who discovers she cannot get sexually excited without turning into a murderous feline. In both movies, Irena does not wish to be a killer and looks for ways to avoid this fate. And the 1982 film pays homage to its predecessor by copying several of its key scenes.
Otherwise, the two films could hardly be more different. The 1942 film is a low-budget black-and-white production in which Irena is descended from devil worshipers who turn into cats. She isn’t sure herself if she’s a cat person or not, but she lets her fear keep her from consummating her marriage. Unfortunately, her husband is increasingly attracted to a colleague at work, while Irena’s psychiatrist decides seduction should be part of his “treatment” of her. Thanks to the Hays Code, the sexuality is never explicit. Thanks to the budget, neither is the horror. We see shadows, not monsters. They can be threatening enough.
The “remake,” made as a Hollywood feature film with “name” stars, doesn’t so much echo the first film as ring a new set of changes on the same ideas. Irena is now the descendant of predatory cats who sucked up the souls of humans sacrificed to them. She’s not too sure of exactly what she is, either, but faces a long-lost brother who wants to convince her so that he can have sex with her. And her “good guy” human lover is a bit less patient that his 1942 predecessor. There’s enough nudity, explicit sexuality, and some gory scenes to get an R rating in the United States.
Fittingly, the cat woman in each film was played by a foreign actress. Simone Simon was a French actress whose brief career in the United States was severely limited by her accent and temperamental behavior. She’s got an off-beat beauty and wide-eyed innocence about her, which makes it curious that her two most notable American roles were as evil women, here and in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). Nastassja Kinski, who has a German-Polish background, was then at the peak of her career in the United States. She successfully played Irena as a very young woman at first uncertain of her sexuality, who struggles to come to terms with it as it unfolds.
It’s hard to say which film is better, since their tone and plots are so different, even to the point of Irena resolving her problem in different ways. The original does a good job of suggesting horror, though some of its techniques are shopworn now. But I believe that the remake is the richer film, in spite of the usual rule that explicitness is a sign of shallowness. Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Irena’s brother is by turns horrifying and comic, sometimes both. While Irena’s decisions toward the end become increasingly tragic as she herself slips into a sort of insanity much more complex that the psychological turmoil of her 1942 predecessor.
And then there is 1944’s The Curse of the Cat People. Despite the title, despite the trailer, despite three of the leading actors returning to reprise their roles, this is NOT a horror film, and it’s not really about cat people, either. It’s actually the story of a young girl, precocious, introverted, lonely, and imaginative. She conjures up an imaginary friend who, in Turn of the Screw fashion, may or may not be supernatural. Ann Carter (1936-2014), playing the little girl, carries this film. Her performance is a gem. But too many people, for some strange reason, such as the entire promotional campaign for this film, thought they were going to see a horror film, and it did poorly.
If you like old-fashioned horror films, 1942’s Cat People is a worthy example. Modern horror? I think 1982’s Cat People strikes an interesting balance between psychological horror and the sex and gore we’ve come to expect. Besides, it features a David Bowie song, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” that’s so popular it’s appeared on other movie soundtracks, including this year’s Atomic Blonde. I’m not sure whom to recommend The Curse of the Cat People to, but it’s a pity Ann Carter’s performance is probably mostly seen by disappointed horror fans.