If I told you I thought Cats was the scariest movie I’d seen this year, you would think I was making a joke – either at the expense of Cats, a box office bomb that internet movie critics have been gleefully ripping to shreds, or at the horror films that came out this year, which would be rather unkind seeing as we got some real gems. The Lighthouse, Dr. Sleep, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, It: Chapter 2, and Black Christmas were all excellent films (which I just listed in order of scariness for your convenience), so the horror genre didn’t exactly suffer from lack of good entries this year. It was a good year for horror!
So maybe you’ll take me more seriously if I say, with complete sincerity, that Cats was the scariest movie I’ve seen this entire decade. And it was, my friend. It absolutely was.
Horror movies get compared to nightmares often. Likewise, incompetent movies are often compared to fever dreams. Cats made me realize we make those comparisons too lightly. A nightmare is often completely disjointed from reality, from cause and effect, because it’s an assembly of feelings and images conjured by an unconscious mind. The pervading sense of dread in a nightmare does not need to follow logic, and thus often doesn’t. Nightmares function in such a way that they don’t need to make sense for you to feel terror – a nightmare can say “This door is terrifying,” present no reason why the door is terrifying, but still make you feel terror at the sight of it. Logic and reason aren’t a fact. You don’t need a “why” to understand a nightmare. Indeed, the lack of explanation is part of what makes them so haunting.
This is the way of Cats.
I have seen the stage version of Cats. Not the London or Broadway runs, of course, but a well done, decently budgeted community theater version. I’ve seen recordings of one of the bigger budget productions before. The critique I’m making here isn’t of the stage show, which is strange, but in a mostly fun and harmless way. Cats works as a theater production because plays aren’t bound by the same strict structural rules as feature length films – a play can be a meandering, plotless series of character introductions, which is what Cats the play is. The 2019 film adaptation was hampered by this fact, though, and one could argue that the faults of the film lie in the fact that the source material is ill suited for a film. It is, yes, but that’s not the sum of the movie’s faults. There are things the play got right that the film gets woefully wrong, and it results in things that were harmless and fun becoming a nightmare to witness. Cats (2019) is the result of source material that was a bad choice to adapt being adapted incompetently, and the result is horror.
The biggest difference between the play Cats and the film Cats is artifice. The costuming in the play is never realistic – these are people dressed to resemble cats. They have fake ears and they wear makeup that makes them look vaguely feline, but you’re never convinced they’re really cats. They have patches of fur provided by wigs, fur coats, leg warmers, collars, etc., but are mostly clad in jumpsuits that have been painted to resemble fur. It’s symbolic, the way Kermit the frog represents a frog while not actually looking much like one (frogs aren’t bipeds, frogs aren’t made of felt, frog’s don’t have frills around their necks, etc.). The play even works with that symbolism – in one number, an older cat named Jenny Anydots is first presented wearing a shaggy fur coat, but when the tempo changes to a frenetic pace, she sheds the coat to reveal she’s wearing a flapper-style dress beneath it. Cat’s don’t wear coats and dresses (unless humans force them to) – it’s artifice.
The film Cats, however, goes for realism. There are no leg warmers, no wigs. Instead there are humans crammed into cat skins using a CGI effect that is as ghoulish to witness as my description has made it out to be. Because the CGI was literally painted on the actors instead of using mo-cap, they don’t even fit inside those skins well – you can see the human heads and hands squirming in different positions out of sync with the skin, and it’s hellish to witness. Jenny Anydots still strips in this version, but instead of shedding a coat, she rips her own skin off, which is red on the inside just for added horror, to reveal a second set of skin in a skimpy dress beneath.
Why did anyone not see how that was a problem? How did they not realize how this choice turned something playful and fun into a nightmare? How did they not know that removing a coat is different than ripping off your skin?
What is artifice in the play is forced to become reality in the movie, and as a result the reality of the movie is a nightmare. It is hellish. But then the movie goes out of its way to add terrors where none were there – in the play, Jenny Anydots is mentioned as training mice and roaches to clean and behave nicely. In the movie, we see the mice and roaches, all of which have human faces poorly composited onto their CGI bodies, and then Jenny Anydots eats them. She doesn’t do that in the play – it’s not even mentioned in the lyrics. The mice have children’s faces. Human children’s faces. And she eats them. She fucking eats them.
It’s a relentless nightmare. It’s horrifying. I’m still struggling to process what I witnessed. It triggered my flight response and I am not joking. At one point I took my coat and wrapped it around my eyes because I needed to escape.
There are a few breaks in the movie where it’s not totally frightening – after the Bustopher Jones number (which was almost as wretched as the Jenny Anydots scene), the movie calms down for a bit and by that point you’ve seen enough of the freakish cat monstrosities that you’re not quite as unsettled as you are in, say, the opening scene where it feels like they’re about to tear a newcomer cat to shreds. It’s a shame that the breather in question was “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer,” a song that should fuckin’ slap but in this case was performed with far less energy than it needed, but I needed to catch my breath and compose myself. There are some moments where the horror is so strange and ridiculous that it’s simultaneously funny and scary – Idris Elba’s villain character, Macavity, is sort of the personification of this, and you welcome his presence because it always heralds something so bizarre and nonsensical that your mind briefly slips into a pleasant shock at the sight of it. There are even some moments of genuine pathos scattered here and there – you have to give it to the actors, they were trying their fucking hardest here.
But through the whole film there’s a pervading sense of dread and tension, which is made all the more palpable because you’re not entirely sure why you’re full of dread and tension. The cats themselves feel it – they act as if there are HUGE THINGS AT STAKE, but you’re never really told why that is. They’re all competing for the chance to die and be reincarnated, and have to appeal to their cult leader Deutoronomy for the chance to, again, die (and be reincarnated). Why… why do they all WANT to die? Why am I rooting for one of them to die? I mean, I can make my own reason, but in the context of this story, which wants me to like these cats, why am I supposed to want them to die? Why is this competition so important? The cats feel the stakes are SUPER high, but I don’t know what the stakes are, and the cats get terrified and pissed for no discernable reason. It’s all so damn tense, and dreadful, and I can’t figure out the logic behind those feelings but I feel them all the same.
It’s a nightmare. It’s a literal nightmare.
If you’re a fan of horror, I can’t recommend this enough. You will never experience a terror like Cats anywhere else, except perhaps in your own dreams.