Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Cat's in the Bag and the Bag's In the River

For the second year in a row, I attended a big Halloween movie party held by a dear friend of mine. She likes to dig deep into the oddball with the aim of showing her guests stuff they'd NEVER find of their own accord, and all of the stuff at the end of my challenge this year came from her collection (I was staying with her for six days; I was a captive audience). Perhaps the most oddball thing on the menu this year was Felidae (1994, directed by Michael Schaack), an animated horror movie from Germany that makes all kinds of bank from its idiom. It looks like a lost Don Bluth movie from the 1980s--All Cats Go to Heaven, perhaps--but that resemblance is a trap. The filmmakers are ruthless when it comes to springing that trap.

This starts out like film noir, with its noir protagonist moving to a new town only to discover something ugly squirming beneath. Someone is killing cats, and Francis, our hero, wants to know who and why. The movie then sends him on an odyssey through the cat underworld in which he encounters various lowlife cats, a femme fatale who gives it up for him immediately, a sinister laboratory, and an apocalyptic cult. By the time we get to the cult, the movie has turned into something beyond film noir. Not exactly a giallo, perhaps, but definitely on the horror spectrum. The scenes of violence done to cats in this movie are a stiff tonic for anyone who moons over cute pictures of kitties on the internet or snuggles up to a feline companion at night. Watching the cat cult indulge in mass self-electrocution is one of the stronger images I've seen this month, though the scenes of a cat genocide that populate this film give these a run for their money.

Felidae gets by on the juxtaposition of animation and atrocity, and not just any kind of animation. This is specifically the idiom of Disney and Bluth, which is surely not accidental. It plays a little bit like The Aristocats crossed with Suspiria, truth be told, down to the multi-color design of its mayhem. But if Felidae gets by on this combination it only just manages it, because it doesn't have the richness of Disney's animation, or even of Bluth's. The animation is very much second rate here, to the film's detriment. Some of the character designs don't register right, either: Although most of the cats read as cats, one or two of them read as some other kind of unidentifiable creature and not as cats at all. I found this distracting. Mind you, this was surely not an expensive production, but 1994 is fairly late in the game to be skimping on the animation, especially given that Studio Ghibli was already a player on the world stage and that the Disney renaissance was still in full flower.

This film needs the atrocity to sell itself in such a marketplace, and the atrocity itself is no big thing if it's not animated. It's a Catch-22, and if this was a marketing strategy, it failed big time. The movie also hamstrings itself with a palpably awful theme song (by Boy George, no less!) and a lackluster English language dub, though the latter is hardly the filmmakers fault, so I guess they skate on that. The atrocities in this movie conjure up other kinds of associations. Given that this is a German film, the emphasis on genocidal scientific experiments and on the idea of a kind of super-race of cats has additional resonance. The specter of the death camps is inescapable. Of course, one doesn't need that subtext to be horrified at vivisection, which is another of the film's dominant nightmare images.

Felidae is good at nightmares. It saves its most lavish and un-Disney-like animation for its nightmare sequences featuring Gregor Mendel as some kind of puppeteering war criminal. These scenes are more reminiscent of Gerald Scarfe's nightmare animations for Pink Floyd than they are of Bluth or Disney. I wonder how the movie would have played if the entire thing had been animated in this style, though that's only an idle speculation. It's good at imagining what kinds of societies cats might build for themselves. This it filters casually through the mechanisms of the whodunnit, as Francis comes into contact with various strata of cat society, each with a patois that subtly paints their world. My favorite piece of lingo in the movie is the way the cats constantly refer to humans as "can-openers," which seems very much a hard-boiled phrase. I like it. As for the rest, well, the movie has more texture than one might expect based on the first impression provided by the animation. And Felidae does fulfill one of my primary cinematic needs: it's utterly sui generis. I've never seen another film like it.

Nota bene: we watched this movie on a European DVD. It's never been released in Region 1, so if you go looking for it, good luck. Or, if you like, you can watch it on YouTube, where as of this writing, some brave soul has uploaded the whole movie in German (without subs), or you can watch the English dub in pieces.

Current tally: 35 films

First time viewings: 32


J Luis Rivera said...

I love this film. But you already knew that.

Anonymous said...

The animation is very good, and you must be referring to some of the character designs, which is kinda superficial. I think the artists did that to set the them apart from the rest of the cats, gives them a big distinction.

Other than that, good review. I wish there were more movies like this.