A little bit of background here: I have been trying to write/post about these two films for, oh, about two years now. G will likely correct me on actual accuracy of that, but rest assured that the bottom line is, I’ve been thinking about these two films for a long time now. Both involve themes about not giving into passion whether it be sexual, animalistic or simply the darker side of one’s nature, they approach themes of the power of suggestion in psychology. But the two films, pardon the pun, different animals.
Both films feature a young woman named Irena who believes she is descended from a line of cat people; humans who upon having sex or when sexually aroused, transform into large panther-like cats. Both feature a love interest of Irena’s and find locations in zoos. However, that’s where the similarities end. In the 1942 film noir version, based on Lewton’s short story “The Bagheeta” published in 1930, Irena is a Serbian-born fashion designer who marries an American marine engineer named Oliver, and staves off of consummating their marriage because of her fear and belief that she is one of the last of a race of cursed cat people who when aroused, becomes a cat and kills. Eventually, she starts to stalk her husband’s assistant, thinking they are having an affair. She stalks Alice, the other woman, on her way home and later attacks her psychiatrist. In a fit of remorse, she goes to the zoo, opens the panther’s cage and commits suicide. This version is interesting as it pioneered a precursor to the ‘jump scare’ during one of the Irena/Alice stalking scenes. It was named for Lewton, the producer, and called the ‘Lewton Bus’. The audience expects Irena to turn into a panther at any moment and attack Alice. At the most tense point, when the camera focuses on Alice’s confused and terrified face, the silence is shattered by what sounds like a hissing panther—but is just a bus pulling up.
The 1982 version has Irena rejoining her brother, Paul, in New Orleans. Orphaned and separated in foster homes after their parents died, they reunite and Paul leaves her in the care of his housekeeper. She visits the zoo and is drawn to the large cats and befriends Oliver, the zoo vet. She takes a job at the zoo but this leopard that has just been captured, mauls and kills a zoo assistant and escapes. Paul finds Irena and tells her about her their werecat heritage, their parents were brother and sister, and that if werecats have sex with anyone other than another werecat they’ll transform and remain as a panther until they kill a human. She gets involved with Oliver, even though having sex with him would be kinkier than anything found on the Internet. Paul is killed, and so Irena asks Oliver to help her be among her own kind by binding her down and making love to her. She transforms and we next see Oliver petting a panther he calls Irena in the zoo. This super erotic film is a different beast than the 40’s version, with Jerry Bruckheimer as an executive producer and David Bowie performing one of the title songs.
The similar themes of denial of desire is an interesting note here. The tones are miles apart from black and white to super sexual saturated colours (almost giallo-like) and understated implied transformations, the suggestion to out-and-out stating of it. Both lead characters are told that they’re descended from these Cat People and that they themselves believed it so much that the strength of their convictions influences the beliefs of other people around them.
Given the hyper-sexual nature we attribute to felines in the first place, both films have dark undertones, colored in the carnality. The striking and deadly beauty of big cats are traits most of us would like to have ascribed to us, be it power and strength or agility and grace. The theme of duality with a dark and catlike nature is a theme that has interested us since the Egyptians first held cats in a high regard. Even in Scooby-doo’s episode Make A Beeline Away From That Feline talks about how a woman is hypnotized to believe she’s a cat creature. The idea of staving off temptation, resisting arousal and passion is interesting as well, and presented in a much less creepy way than, say, that song Blurred Lines. We WANT to give into our animal side, we WANT to run wild, but as humans we understand the cause and effect of our actions and we try to smother them like a fart into a fancy throw cushion at the in-laws. I recommend watching the two back to back and see what conclusion you come to… and see if your not fighting the desire to put four on the floor, drink some milk and purr….
Hugs and hisses…
Little Miss Risk
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