Geek Cinema: The Thing and Cat People comments

  • Location: Egyptian Theatre - 6712 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood
  • In Person: Cinematographer Dean Cudney, campera operator Raymond Stella

UPDATE: This was originally posted on June 15. I'm bumping it up in order to include this link to a thread on the DVD Maniacs forum. Some unhappy campers objected to my criticizing the film. Although their initial reactions were a tad uncivil, I did manage to engage one of them in a friendly debate.

The American Cinematheque's tribute to the sci-fi films of 1982 launches tonight with a double bill of remakes: John Carpenter's THE THING and Paul Schrader's CAT PEOPLE.

Neither film did particularly well when released; both were compared unfavorably to the originals: the 1951 THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, produced by Howard Hawks, and the 1942 CAT PEOPLE, produced by Val Lewton. Carpenter's remake was seen as too explict, thanks to the heavy-duty make-up and mechanical effects provided by Rob Bottin. Schraeder's film was dismissed for similar reasons, plus the fact that the whole thing was outrageously silly.

Exactly how either film qualifies as "geek cinema," I don't quite know. I suppose the Carpenter film has been embraced by fans over the years. I don't think it really sustains itself as well as it should, in terms of creating a mounting sense of inescapable paranoia, but it has a certain integrity and doesn't cop out with a happy ending. Perhaps being embraced by a small but faithful following qualifies the film for "cult" status; geekness is another matter.

CAT PEOPLE is another matter entirely. The film inexplicably received a rave review in Cinefantastique magazine (this was before I became editor and was able to put a stop - or at least severly diminish this sort of nonsene), but in general it was rightly dismissed as pretentious trash. The problem is not so much that the film fails to live up to its highly regarded source material as that it reduces what was a fairly subtle and sophisticated approach to the level of crass exploitation - while pretending to deliver something sophisticated.

Like the 1940s CAT PEOPLE, the remake focuses on a woman (in this case Natasha Kinski) who believes she will turn into a lethal feline if sexually aroused. The original played a clever game, keeping audiences uncertain if the transformation was real or just the figment of a paranoid imagination. In effect this turned the usual horror movie formula on its head. Most horror films feature skeptics who are proved wrong and come to admit the existence of the supernatural; CAT PEOPLE, on the other hand, plays with the idea that superstitious beliefs may be the real source of madness and horror.

Schrader's version simply takes the kitty transformation for granted. In effect, his movie tries to justify the paranoia that the original sought to undermine. Unfortunately, this creates an overtly misogynistic film in which the true source of horror is rooted in the concept of unleashed female sexuality. Sex almost literally equals death, in a manner just as explicit and repulsive as any mindless slasher movie. And the film's only solution to the problem is to take the ravenous female beast and - literally - lock her up in a cage.

This might have worked as some kind of crazy fever dream - a Freudian nightmare worthy of in-depth analysis because it stirred up dark and troubling themes that should not be denied examination just because they touched on offensive topics. Sadly, Schrader's approach is so incompetent that instead the material becomes laughable. Near the end, when Kinski is being tied to a bed (so that she will not harm her lover when she changes) it's hard to hold back the chuckles as you try to imagine how her panther body, with its completely different skeletal structure, could possibly maintain the position she is assuming in human form. Thankfully, the film does not try to answer the question.

Even more silly is the attempt to generate a sense of repugnance over the incestuous undertones in the plot. Malcolm McDowell plays Kinski's half-brother, who suffers the same feline-transformation syndrome. His proposed solution? Have sex with his sister! (The theory seems to be that, since both will change into panthers, they will be safe; it never seems to occur to him that real-life wildcats do sometimes kill each other.)

Anyway, the problem here is two-fold: First, the two characters are brother and sister only in a narrow biological sense; they have been raised separately and are complete strangers to each other. The second problem is the casting. McDowell is as British as can be with his blond hair and blue eyes, whereas Kinski's dark eyes and hair color mark here as obviously Continental. In short, the two are clearly not brother and sister, so every time Schrader tries to up the "ick" factor in this regard he comes across like a desperate little pervert trying to generate some heat with his own private fantasies while the audience just sits back and laughs.

The thing that puzzles me about this film is the way certain people will desperately try to defend it in spite of its egregious flaws. I've lost track of the number of times I've been speaking to people about what's wrong with CAT PEOPLE, and they come back at me with "Well, that's an expression of Schrader's Calvanist background." (Back in the 1970s, Schrader (when he came to attention for scripting TAXI DRIVER and working on an abandoned draft of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND) was fond of giving interviews in which he referred to his Calvanist background. )

Oh yeah? What does that have to do with anything? Even if it's true, it doesn't excuse anything, but people lay it on me as if it explains everything away. Sure, the film says women are scary evil predators who will kill you if you have sex with them, and they should be locked up in cages - but what the hell, that's just Calvanism, right? I live to see the day some Neo-Nazi filmmaker churns out some over-the-top anti-Semitic propaganda feature. Will these same defenders step up and proclaim, "Well, that's just an expression of his Nazi background"?