The film adaptation of the hit stage musical Cats has been described as a true work of depravity. But could it become an ironic cult favourite? José Barbosa investigates a screening in his ‘hood.
When I first saw Cats I was, like a fair chunk of the audience, lured to the movie theatre with the promise that it was brain-splittingly awful. There in the matte rectangle of the multiplex I could only gape and gawp, and sometimes even gawk, at the psychotic carnival projected in front of me. There weren’t many other people in the theatre and about halfway through some of them left. Those of us left, which came to five souls dotted around the seats, gasped in hushed voices and stifled laughs.
It was ultimately a bizarre, confusing experience. Not the least of which was the usual price gouging of the tickets, food and parking. Well, I thought, that’s my yearly trip to the movies done.
In the following weeks, director Tom Hopper’s folly became known not only as the floppiest flop that ever was, but more interestingly, perhaps the strangest fucking thing you’ve ever seen. Inevitably people started attending sessions baked up to their hairlines on all manner of substances. For some the experience was an even more intense version of a ride in the Wonkatania with a screaming Gene Wilder replaced with a screaming Jennifer Hudson, only with more nasal discharges.
Turns out Cats and drugs do not mix, not, at least, if you wish to avoid being terrified beyond all human limits. Fear for some, however, is like tedious grandstanding to Shane Jones: it’s the air they breathe. Before long Auckland’s cult movie theatre house, the Hollywood in Avondale, dove in head first. The Hollywood’s Facebook page crowned Cats “a stoner classic” and announced a “High Times” screening of the film with a “bring your own edibles” clarion call. (After being reported on by local media it quickly became a “catnip screening” with a “surgeon’s warning” to not overdo it.)
I was still processing my first trip into the world of Cats. The scene with Ian McKellen lapping at a bowl of milk like a man possessed had been haunting my dreams. I needed to make sense of what I’d seen, and so, accompanied by Madeleine Chapman, New Zealand’s premiere sports/political biographer and potato chip ranker, I pushed my way through the groups of vaping kids and entered the Hollywood on a Friday night, stone-cold sober, ready to watch Cats.
The staff inside were ready. The manager Ian Hughes was dressed up in a cat costume, the ticket and bar staff wore feline cat face paint. Hughes was grinning like a cheshire cat – they’d had 130 pre-sales so he was barely feeling the irritating cheap and quite possibly carcinogenic material his costume was made from.
The crowd appeared far from being off their tits. In general, everyone seemed pleasingly buzzed and pleased to be there. That all changed once the lights dimmed and the movie began.
The first clean shot of what’s become known as Cats’ disturbing human/cat/lawnmower man hybrid appeared on screen, full size and furry. “WHAT. THE. FUCK?” someone behind me half shouted, apparently too confused to properly modulate his voice levels.
More and more cat people thrust their faces into the camera, their human eyes and lips floating on their CGI cat heads like bits of carrot that have escaped the first flush. Another audience member babbled incoherently, grasping onto the thin ledge of reason that remained, “I just … what is … I just can’t …”
Sitting next to me, sweet innocent Madeleine shook her head. “I have no idea what’s going on,” she said as Rebel Wilson’s lazy house cat Jennyanydots started eating cockroaches with human faces. The crowd responds with a collective moan. Amazingly, however, the caterwauling changes into belly laughs when Wilson unzips her cat skin to reveal she’s wearing a pink sparkly show outfit OVER ANOTHER LAYER OF CAT SKIN.
It’s all too much and finally this bizarre thing we’re all experiencing becomes a shared nightmare that we can only shoo away by laughing at. And suddenly it becomes fun. Cats with an audience is a real hoot.
Every time James Corden shows up on screen a guy in the back shouts “Fuck off James Corden!” (Hereby becoming the first rule of the official Cats group viewing guide). During the first rendition of Memory by Jennifer Hudson I hear someone coo warmly and comment to their partner “awww, it’s like Chewbacca singing”. Idris Elba’s CGI cat makeup for some reason is more sleek and defined than the others, making him look as if he’s slinking around naked. “Oooh yes please” purrs the person in front of me.
Somehow we all come to the same realisation, almost at the same time, that every time a cat interacts with another cat it looks like they’re about to fuck. Like kids we hoot and scream every time it looks like a cat is about to mount another cat. Every time Judi Dench’s Old Deuteronomy gets a close up we all cackle at how she appears to be staring off into space, possibly searching for a way off the lot. And as a group we bend our brains trying to work out the in-world logic behind which cats get to wear pants and who doesn’t. Mostly we just have fun.
There’s an argument that’s become a kind of constant dusk chorus in the entertainment industry of late. Movie theatres and the distribution industry behind them still matter, and still have a place in our crazy media landscape, because you can’t get that same shared experience of a movie from Netflix and similar platforms. A lot of boring people, mostly established male directors, have made this argument and it’s one I’ve taken to dismissing on the grounds that I’ve had too many annoying experiences in movie theatres to count, so why not stay at home and get the latest rebooted legacy IP slammed straight into my gaping maw of a brain? At the very least no one will be talking over the movie and the floor of my lounge won’t be knee deep in popcorn and human hair (well, not during the summer months anyway).
That was my position. Until Cats.
I’d forgotten one of the base delights of seeing movies in a movie theatre: the joy of cracking shade on a shit movie with a group of strangers. At the risk of coming off like a George Costanza, there’s nothing like wriggling in the muck of a terrible film, tearing it down with some sweet jokes and then building it back up again into something you genuinely love.
It happened with Tommy Wiseau’s ridiculous film The Room. It might happen with Cats too. During the scene where Mr Mistopheles tries repeatedly to magic back the kidnapped Old Deuteronomy, the cool, ironic crowd at the Hollywood forgot themselves and started singing in what might become this generation’s version of the “believe in fairies” scene from Peter Pan. Only briefly, though. A wag down the back shouted “awww just flag it bro” and snapped everyone back.
I think I’ll try and go to see some more films in movie theatres this year. And if it feels like coming home, I’ll have Cats to thank.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.