[Posted as a contribution to the Val Lewton blogathon.]
Coincidentally, just at the time that TCM kindly sent me a screener of their new Val Lewton documentary The Man in the Shadows (which I will probably stack on top of the TCM John Ford and Bette Davis documentary screeners that I mean to watch one day when there aren't any movies to see), along with two Lewton movies (Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie), I had Paul Schrader's remake of Cat People from Netflix sitting neglected next to my TV while I busied myself with my end-of-year catch-up. Since I haven't seen any other movies produced by the legendary horror pioneer, I don't have any wider perspective to offer to the Lewton blogathon, but I can take a look at how the two versions of Cat People compare.
Lewton's original, made in 1942 and directed by Jacques Tourneur, was his first film as a producer and seems to have set the tone for the rest of his horror work, which was marked by foreboding atmosphere and an emphasis on implied menace rather than in-your-face monsters and bogeymen. It was successful enough to spawn a 1944 sequel, The Curse of the Cat People, as well as the 1982 remake, of course. True to Lewton's reputation for moody, subtle evocations of fear, the movie relies more on hints and innuendo than action, and for a great deal of the brief (73-minute) running time, it's unclear whether anything supernatural is going on at all. Shy Serbian Irena's belief that she is under an ancient curse is treated as a possible psychological disorder, and used as a metaphor for her fear of intimacy (or her husband's and male psychiatrist's fears of female sexuality).
French actress Simone Simon makes Irena naive and introverted, the kind of person who'd be afraid of her own sexuality even if she weren't worried it would turn her into a killer jungle cat. And bland, square-jawed Kent Smith portrays Irena's beloved as the most cluelessly unsupportive husband of all time. Unable to understand Irena's angst and possible kinkiness, he notes to his co-worker (equally boring, she is of course in love with him) that he's never before in his life been unhappy, and consequently doesn't know how to process the feeling. This exotic yet demure woman baffles the all-American male, and ends up having to sacrifice herself rather than unleash her deviant sexuality on the world. Hubby and his lame co-worker find the path to their love cleared, and he doesn't exactly seem broken up about it.
Simon's Irena isn't really scary per se, although she has a certain uncontrolled menace about her, most notably when she stalks her rival in two tense sequences, one on a street and the other at an indoor pool late at night. But her husband's revulsion to her seems all the more pathetic given that she appears unlikely to ever give in to her carnal urges. By contrast, Schrader foregrounds all the sexual subtext of Tourneur's film, making his version into a perfectly excessive, indulgent example of '80s cinema (it's also got a fairly decent but very dated synth score by Giorgio Moroder). The remake is 45 minutes longer than the original, and heavy with goofy mystical back story, overexplaining where the original simply sketched out some basics (of an equally silly back story, granted).
It's also rife with nudity and sex, and adds incest and more obvious bestiality to the mix. As Irena, Nastassia Kinski never passes up an opportunity to take off her clothes, which is much appreciated but makes the movie seem like something that would have gotten a lot of late-night airplay in the early days of Cinemax (and very well may have, for all I know). Instead of the simple, pure love between Irena and her milquetoast husband, we get a more complicated relationship between the new Irena and her beau, played by a perfectly cast John Heard, perhaps the human embodiment of blandness (and even he shows off his pasty behind!). It's not just that Irena fears her animal nature might come out if they have sex (of course here it's having sex; in the original it was just kissing) - it's also that her nutso brother (played by the always nutso Malcolm McDowell) is on a killing spree and wants to sleep with her, since the only people they can have sex with without turning into giant cats are each other.
Schrader's movie ends up much sillier than the original, and goes a long way toward supporting Lewton's less-is-more philosophy on horror. The more we learn about the background of the cat people, the more we witness their transformations, the more McDowell goes on about the glories of feline empowerment, the more Heard is drawn in by Kinski's, er, animal magnetism, the less scary the movie becomes. Its attitudes toward sex are in their own way as quaint and cheesy as those in the original, but are less powerful for how explicitly they're presented. Plus, Kinski is a bit of a sourpuss (pardon the pun) compared to Simon's more playful performance. Though the plot diverges significantly from the original, there are a few sequences that are lifted wholesale (the stalking at the indoor pool, an apparent fellow cat-person branding Irena her "sister"), but stripped of their former context they just seem forced, and inconsistent with the remake's sleazier tone.
We complain about all the unnecessary horror remakes now, ones that add extra gore and sex to classic (and not-so-classic) movies, but here we can see that even 25 years ago, the same thing was happening (and from a fairly respected director). I wouldn't be surprised to see a new and even worse Cat People on the way sometime soon.