“Midnight, not a sound from the pavement…”
Actually, it’s more like 9:30 p.m. in the bustling Somerville Theatre on a freezing cold Friday night. I’m watching a devastated young couple with whiskers painted on their faces being turned away from a sold-out screening of last year’s most infamous box office bomb. All the tickets were gone two hours ago, I’m informed by an employee who claims they could barely get more than 30 people in to see the film during its initial, ignominious Christmas release and now a month later the lobby resembles something close to feline-themed bedlam. Turn your face to the moonlight, this is the cult of “Cats.”
“The movie opened to pretty weak audiences,” confirms Somerville Theatre director of operations Ian Judge. “But we did notice that most of the folks under 60 seeing it were coming out half-horrified and half-laughing their asses off in disbelief.” There’s really no other sane way to respond to director Tom Hooper’s misbegotten musical, an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s kitsch spectacular that somehow ran on Broadway for 28 years without a plot. (“Now and forever at the Winter Garden Theatre,” threatened the eerie, omnipresent television advertisements of my youth.)
Most bad movies are bad in the boring, dispiritingly familiar ways you’ve seen a hundred times before. But the $100 million, star-studded “Cats” finds new and extravagant ways to be terrible like the world has never witnessed. It’s a gasp-inducing affair, so misconceived at every fundamental level that watching it becomes a bonding experience for strangers. A few days before the film’s release, I attended a now-notorious advance preview screening at the AMC Boston Common where our audience first sat aghast in stunned silence, then fidgeted in stifled ridicule for a bit before finally exploding in paroxysms of derisive laughter during the film’s final number.
For those blessedly unfamiliar with the source material, Webber’s original 1981 musical set T.S. Eliot’s poetry collection “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” to chintzy synth beats and handclaps, with the ersatz-Puccini 11 o’clock number “Memory” coming out of nowhere to bring the house down. What passes for a story concerns a group of what are inexplicably called Jellicle cats, who every year put on a pageant to compete for the privilege of dying and being reborn anew in the Heaviside Layer, and I imagine this will all be better explained when someone finally publishes a definitive study of the effects of cocaine psychosis on popular entertainments of the 1980s.
I saw “Cats” on Broadway when I was looking at colleges in 1992, because seeing “Cats” and getting mugged were the two things tourists were supposed to do while visiting Manhattan during the pre-Disney Times Square era. I recall it being about as compelling a show as one could expect from a bunch of animals introducing themselves for two hours while prancing around a single junkyard set. The dancers had feline affectations but it was mostly just folks in face-paint and legwarmers, looking more like Daryl Hannah in “Blade Runner” than your portly housecat.
But Hooper’s movie adaptation has used something called “digital fur technology” to transform the all-star cast into human-animal hybrids out of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and it is impossible for me to convey just how unsettling the effect is. They don’t look like people, and they sure as hell don’t look like cats. These are jittery, deeply creepy creatures with long monkey tails that they sometimes sing into like microphones. They’re also disturbingly horny, constantly nuzzling one another and meowing salaciously, parading their anatomically incorrect boobs and bubble-butts in the most disconcerting ways. The digital backgrounds are either too big or too small, nothing is to scale. The cats often appear the size of mice, or sometimes tinier. Your eyes never adjust to them. It’s nightmare fuel.
“Cats” was supposed to be December’s family blockbuster. Lousy musicals like “Into The Woods” and “The Greatest Showman” have long thrived in the holiday release slot, and conventional wisdom deemed that “Cats” would be carried clear through the Oscars, with an original song penned by Webber and special guest star Taylor Swift preordained to bring home the gold. After all, director Hooper had done it before with his staggeringly inept 2012 adaptation of “Les Misérables,” which won three Academy Awards and grossed $441 million worldwide despite reviews like mine calling it “an aesthetic crime.”
Yet, in a development I find heartening, “Cats” was resoundingly rejected by crowds across the country, social media alight with tales of audiences guffawing and caterwauling just like the people at that press screening I attended. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” says Judge, who after its initial, sparsely attended engagement held the film over as a late show and expressly invited audience participation. “Right away it was exactly the crowd you’d expect for a cult movie,” he explains. “People in cat ears, people bringing friends and saying ‘you have to see it to believe it’ like they were describing a lime green ruffled tuxedo they found in their parents’ attic.”
It’s here I must confess that after talking up the film over Bloody Marys on New Year’s Day I nearly dragged my cousins to Somerville to see it for themselves. There’s something so deliciously rotten about “Cats” it makes you want to share the experience with others. The big difference here is that it used to take years for cults to form around films, with midnight movie staples like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “The Room” building their audiences slowly, over time. But I guess everything’s accelerated these days thanks to social media. The first audience participation screening of “Cats” took place one month to the day after that disastrous advance preview I attended. Four weeks from Oscar contender to punchline.
I find this inspirational, and I wish that more high-profile, pre-sold properties being shoved down moviegoers’ throats would get spit back in the studios’ faces the way this one has. I stuck around for as long as I could stand the music at the Somerville Theatre that night, standing in back to observe the crowd. “Cats” is too new of a phenomenon to have been codified yet like the dutiful, rote reactions you’ll get at “Rocky Horror” or “The Room.” So mostly it was just people shrieking in terror at Hooper’s accidentally traumatizing images, or occasionally wondering aloud why some of the cats are wearing shoes. The mood was upbeat and fizzy, a room full of strangers coming together to goof on a seriously silly movie.
“You know, the thing everyone forgets in this age of Netflix is that movies, even bad ones, are a social thing,” Judge enthuses. “They make temporary little communities of a few hundred people at a time that share an experience, and this strange little community that has popped up is truly reveling in the cultural atrocity of ‘Cats.’ I’m gonna hold it as long as I can as a late show, as long as people want it.” Now and forever.