Of all the remakes I’ve rewound in this column, I’m not sure there is a pair of movies as different from each other as Cat People (1942 and 1982). One is a masterpiece of imagination, its scares generated from atmosphere and mood. The other leaves nothing to the imagination, its scares sacrificed for sex and gore. It’s not hard to guess which movie is which.
The reasons for the different approaches may not be surprising; nevertheless, I find them fascinating, because they are a reflection of the times in which they were made. In 1942, director Jacques Tourneur (I Walked with a Zombie, Curse of the Demon) had no budget and special effects were somewhat primitive. In 1982, director Paul Schrader (American Gigolo, The Comfort of Strangers) had a budget and special effects; a more restrained approach would have seemed primitive.
More than the resources of the director, it was perhaps the expectations of the audiences that influenced the different styles of Cat People. The 1942 version was an answer to box office hit The Wolf Man (1941). The 1982 version was an answer to box office hit An American Werewolf in London (1981). What seems simple now was shocking in the 1940s; but, by the 1980s, excess was the norm.
What’s remarkable about Cat People (1942) is the fact that it remains scary today. (I love my Universal Monsters, but I don’t consider The Wolf Man “scary”.) It transcends the genre to become not only a master class for suspense, but also for cinematography in general. It’s a must-see for any filmmaker studying light, darkness and shadow. And ultimately it proves what we’ve learned time and time again: what you don’t see is more frightening than what you do see.
The fantasy aspects of both movies are sometimes discounted in favor of the psychological. Indeed, you don’t have to be Freud to analyze their heroines: beautiful women who become monsters when they are sexually aroused. It’s a little more complicated because the women are aware (to varying degrees) that something bad will happen if they consummate their relationships and they struggle not to succumb to their desires.
Again, the differences between the movies are more interesting due to the eras in which they were made. In 1942, how do you portray themes of sexuality in an appropriate way? As subtly as you portray themes of their horrors, it seems. Of course, the heroine (Simone Simon) remains fully-clothed. She’s a classic beauty, her sexuality oozing from her suit coat and collared shirt. It’s all about chemistry between her and the leading man (Kent Smith).
In 1982, there’s no such thing as subtlety. The heroine (Nastassja Kinski, cementing my nickname for her, “Nasty Kinky”) rarely remains clothed. She’s a unique beauty, her sexuality oozing from her barely-legal body itself. It’s all about chemistry between her and the audience, because there is none between her and the leading man (John Heard).
To quickly visualize the fundamental difference in approach between the two versions, you need only watch the swimming pool sequence. The 1942 version demonstrates everything magical I’m trying to convey about Jacques Tourneur’s movie. While the 1982 version is similar, it’s easy to sense the more sexual themes that Paul Schrader wanted to explore.