IN 1940, my father, 38 and young by industry standards, was given his first movie to produce. Orson Welles, much younger than my father, had just put RKO in debt with "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons." To recoup its losses, the new studio head, Charlie Koerner, hired my father to make a series of cheap horror movies to play second bill on double features. That was 40 years ago and now director Paul Schrader has just opened his baroque version of my father's 1942 psychological horror classic and late-night TV staple, "Cat People."
The original "Cat People" cost $100,000, made $4 million, and saved RKO for a time. That movie changed my father's life and the life of our family. My father, a shy man who always stuttered on the telephone and abhorred physical contact, became known as the Sultan of Shudders. As a child of 6, I was considered too young, too easily impressed and open to suggestion to see "Cat People." Not until after my father's death eight years later did I see the movie. I was disappointed. The Sultan of Shudders had produced a naive morality tale without monsters, ghouls or gore. To tell the truth, I felt a little ashamed. At the time I probably would have loved the literal treatment Schrader brings to the new "Cat People," 1982-style. But now the buckets of blood and abundant nudity, no matter how vivid and enticing, only make more evident the poetic economy of the original.
It is the present permissiveness--granted and taken--to show all and tell all that makes the current "Cat People" so unconvincing. Now I see that it was the restraints of the time that helped my father avoid such current goodies as an arm wrenched from its blood-gushing socket. Every limitation--tight budget, studio constructed locations, even the puritanical codes and self-censorship of the time--helped the first creators of "Cat People" to avoid the obvious. As Joel E. Siegel points out in his book "Val Lewton, The Reality of Terror," my father and his director Jacques Tourneur discovered that it is the unknown that frightens people most. Give the audience a dark deserted street, and they will scare themselves. Over and over, the creak of joists in the night, the drip of a faucet, the beating of one's own heart can create ultimate terror and represent for each of us our own vulnerability.
The original "Cat People" ran just over one hour. The new one takes two hours and adds a feline brother for the cat woman and some potential incest to fill the time. In the original story, Irena believes that she will turn into a man-eating cat if she allows her animal sexuality expression in a kiss. The new "Cat" provides innumerable new erotic complications that fail to make the new story more plausible than the original, but which do manage to slow down the pace. The 1942 version has Kent Smith as kittenish Simone Simon's sympathetic but bewilidered new husband, a stalwart naval architect. The new Irena's current love is portrayed by John Heard, as a congenial but compliant zoo curator. Through bondage and sexual means he turns beautiful, androgynous Nastassia Kinski into a caged specimen for his keep. My wife suggested that the movie would have been more interesting if he had been pursuing her for his collection all along.
The new "Cat People" has a series of brutally graphic killings to keep Irena's new-found brother human after his periodic congress with prostitutes. The present carnage contrasts sharply with of the original. In 1942, Irena may or may not have killed her suavely lecherous psychiatrist Dr. Judd in a play of shadows that shows him impaled on his own sword. He suffers this fate after he misdiagnoses her as mixed-up rather than possessed by evil. So much for brutality and sexual therapy '40s-style.
In addition to the literalness of the killing, the new film includes shots of the panther as it bursts through the placenta-like skin of the initiated Irena. In the original, Irena's transformation, if it takes place at all, is left to your imagination. This new version is startling, but not truly frightening. My father knew that it is the animal within that most frightens us. Irena's battle to control her beast is a struggle everyone can understand. In the new film Irena's problems seem merely physical. She would be all right if only she would sleep with her brother. For the original Irena there is no fix except death.
There are some parts of Schrader's "Cat People" my father would have liked: the theatrical use of color, the sense of New Orleans as a locale, Irena's night foray after rabbits so reminiscent of the bizarre stroll though the cane fields in "I Walked With a Zombie." In "Apache Drums," my father's last film and his only one in color, he had his Indians played by Santa Monica lifeguards, stripped and painted in iridescent color. This effect almost seems a precursor of Schrader's gaudy vision. Of course my father would have appreciated the macabre rhyme brother and sister sing together about biting off people's heads. He used to listen while my mother sang me a little lullaby about cathedral bells, the last line of which went: "Here comes a candle to light you to bed and here comes the chopper to chop off your head."
People often ask me if my father was afraid of cats. He told me that he once had to make a rare appearance on the set to shock the black leopard in the film with an air hose to make it leap. I know that he didn't pay much attention to my pet cat Bootie, a lazy Persian male. One night, however, before dinner my father went out on the patio and found some severed gopher heads that Bootie had left as prideful family gifts. He looked sick and refused to eat dinner that night. "We'll just eat without him," said my mother, and we did.