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It is an age-old adage of horror cinema that we are more scared by what we don’t see than what we do see. No matter the explicitness or stomach-churning sights that the big screen can conjure up, nothing can match the limitless terror our own minds create. Whether or not you believe that’s true, it’s certainly been a driving ethos for the genre since its early days. Horror novels and stories are chock full of moments of fear wherein the author says the monster or ghost or paranormal force is simply too petrifying to describe with mere words. It became such a cliché that even Clive Barker called it out in regards to H.P. Lovecraft, joking, "There's only so many occasions in a book when the author can tell me that the monster was so terrible he doesn't have words to describe it before I become irritated."
The early days of horror cinema took a page from this book, partly because of the medium’s limitations and partly because the insidious grip of the Hays Code limited what studios could show and forced directors to get creative. For Val Lewton, the head of horror at RKO in the 1940s, it was the philosophy that defined his career as well as a whole new age of cinematic terror. For a salary of $250 a week (around $3,800 a week in today's money), Lewton was tasked with writing a steady stream of horror movies for the company. He was given free rein as long as he followed three rules: The budget had to be under $150,000, the run times had to be under 75 minutes, and all film titles would be supplied by his supervisors. While he produced delightfully fun movies like The Ghost Ship, Isle of the Dead and I Walked With a Zombie, it was his first project that became his magnum opus: 1942's Cat People.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur and written by DeWitt Bodeen, Cat People was a smash hit upon release, making almost 60 times its budget back, even with mixed reviews, although over time it gained prominence as one of the horror-noir's most influential titles from the Golden Age of Hollywood. The movie is a potent example of the power of suggestion and subtext over mere visuals. While the advertising for the film played up the luridness of its concept, with the poster declaring its protagonist to be "marked with the curse of those who slink and court and kill by night", Cat People is a remarkably subtle affair, albeit one that never loses its sense of tension or unease. It’s a film about violence that never shows any on-screen, a story about sex where you never see any sex.
French actress Simone Simon plays Irena, a Serbian fashion designer who meets a handsome man at Central Park Zoo (where she has been sketching black panthers) and quickly falls for him. The relationship seems perfect but something is keeping the pair apart. Irena is convinced that she is the descendant of a race of people who are cursed to shift form into panther when they become sexually aroused. If Irene gives in to her desires for Oliver then he will surely suffer the consequences.
The Hays Code heavily restricted what could be shown on screen in Hollywood from the 1930s through to the mid-1960s. In order to clamp down on supposed displays of immorality on-screen, the production code spelled out what was considered unacceptable for public consumption. Miscegenation was on the list (interracial relationships), as was ridicule of the clergy, but the main offender was "licentious or suggestive nudity" and "any inference of sex perversion". You couldn't show sex. You could barely show a kiss that lasted longer than a couple of seconds (Alfred Hitchcock famously got around this in his film Notorious by having Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kiss on and off for an extended period of time). If sex or sexual desire was shown, it had to be framed as a bad thing. That's why so many femme fatales in noir end up dead. The punishment of sexual women in pop culture is nothing new, but the Hays Code made it law.
Cat People doesn’t escape this trap – Irena famously ends up dead, struck down by a car after turning into a panther – but it does highlight the ludicrousness of the code and its hypocrisies. Through shadows and suggestion, it exposes how repression damages not only the individual but everyone around them. Repression, like trauma, cannot be easily explained and often feels like an almighty force one can never overcome. Society can force you to keep things under wraps or to not acknowledge their existence, but it should surprise nobody when things eventually bubble over and cause such pain. Something that should be pleasing and a sign of love for Irena can only bring her pain, partly because of her family but also because that’s how the entire world has framed a woman’s pleasure. You seldom see the panther because that’s not the real monster of Cat People: it’s forced repression.
The thing about remakes is that so much of the work behind them is just ensuring that the final product justifies its own existence. You can play it safe and simply recreate the original film (although that didn’t work out too great for Gus Van Sant when he remade Psycho) or you can move in a radically different direction and risk alienating fans. You also need to make a film for the times. A film about sexual repression means something totally different in the 1940s than the 1980s. So, when it came time to remake Cat People in 1982, director Paul Schrader knew his take on sexuality had to be, for lack of a more previous term, blunter.
You can’t make a subtle story of hidden desires and the fear of women’s sexuality in the pre-AIDS, post-disco era of America, where debauchery reigned supreme and without fear for a brief period. Paul Schrader, the guy who wrote Taxi Driver and directed American Gigolo, knew that all too well. Schrader, never one to shy away from the brazen or lurid, embraced Cat People’s concept and made it so very ‘80s (think neon and nudity and music by David Bowie). When discussing the film during a round-table on screenwriting with The Hollywood Reporter, Schrader described his ethos for the film with his trademark candor: "I said: "What if, instead of shooting the monster, he fucks it and then puts it in a cage and builds a shrine to it?" And that's what we did."
Schrader’s Cat People still features a cursed woman dealing with the paranoia of her own lust. Nastassja Kinski plays Irena, an orphan who moves to New Orleans to be reunited with her lost twin brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell). But there’s no ambiguity here. She’s definitely a cat woman, and the only way she can achieve sexual climax without killing anyone is by having sex with someone just like her. The major problem there is that the only available partner is her brother. He’s desperate to consummate their union, having struggled to find an outlet through sex workers that always end up dead. If the ’42 film was about subtly conveying the societal taboo of female desire, the ’82 remake is about taboos of a different kind, ones that are undeniably monstrous and offer no true freedom.
Describing the film as containing “more skin than blood” (although rest assured, there’s also plenty of blood), Schrader parallels the sexual dynamics of the story with the Greek myth of Dante and Beatrice. To both Paul and her love interest Oliver (John Heard), Irena is an object of obsession, a creature put on a pedestal after the first flush of devotion rather than someone to be understood on her own terms. Sex with Irena offers either salvation or catharsis, but never for Irene herself. It even ends with Irene forever enshrined by Oliver, a new exhibit for him to gawk at for years to come.
The '82 remake views Irena and her curse in more mythic terms than the allegory of the original film. The sweaty New Orleans backdrop, including possibly the world's most depressing zoo, heighten the unreal nature of Irene's sexual repression. She's far more primal than she ever is in the original - and also way more naked - and her predicament is never played for realism. How could it be? She's a cat person who can only be cured by f*cking her brother!
Irena isn’t necessarily repressed as she is uninterested in sex until she finds someone worth desiring, then she has no understanding of her emotions or how to deal with them, and that’s before the incestuous panther problem. The remake has lots of nudity and violence because it’s the ‘80s and that’s how Paul Schrader does things, but instead of making the point too obvious, it further emphasizes repression and sexual release as an idea of annihilation. Sex consumes all, as does the desire for and inability to be fulfilled by it. Sex and violence are inextricably connected. They call it bloodlust for a reason.
Irena does not die at the end of the remake. Rather, she chooses to remain a leopard forever rather than risk killing Oliver through her desire. As she tells him, she wants to be back with her own kind, but she is now the last of her kind following the death of her brother. Oliver relents and soon Irena is the newest panther in the New Orleans Zoo, a display for him to gaze upon knowingly among the tourists. Repression offered no freedom for Irena; instead, she chooses a life behind bars free of her body, her new form and mind awakened by sex. As for Oliver? He is as imprisoned as Irena, forever connected to the obsession he helped to create.
Both versions of Cat People work together to tell two sides of the same story. Sexual repression is a vice that will only harm, and even when the results of one’s awakening are monstrous, they remain better than the alternative.