I have had plenty of chances over the years to reflect on the bonds that form between humans and domestic animals, particularly cats. They're very much different from the bonds that form between human beings, and in many ways they are more mysterious and profound.

We can imagine, up to a point, how another person feels about us, whether the relationship is that of a friend, an enemy, a lover, a family member, or anything else in human experience. We're often wrong about what we imagine. But that sort of mutual understanding, even if it's mistaken, is possible because we're all the same sort of creature; and because we're humans, we can even externalize these feelings: analyze them; discuss them with each other; communicate them to others through stories, and poems, and songs, and movies.

But when it comes to our relationships with animals, we can never truly put ourselves in the animals' positions. We don't know what it's like to be them. For the most part, we have to be content with what they tell us. That's where the true sense of wonder comes in — because in many cases, they do tell us.

When we establish a rapport with an animal like a cat, something fascinating is going on. A creature of a different species wants to communicate with us, and has found ways to do so — even if some of those ways are distinctly different from the ways these animals would communicate with others of their own kind, under normal circumstances. The wonder here is that they are even less equipped to understand us than we are to understand them. Yet they seem to have done a better job of it, since they've adapted to our ways far better than we have to theirs.

We tend to anthropomorphize the animals we live with. We have to, up to a point — we really don't understand them, and relating their behavior to ours is a convenient shorthand. Because we're human, we tend to try to externalize our relationships with animals the same way we do with our relationships with human beings: we analyze them; we discuss them with other humans; and communicate them to others through stories, and poems, and songs, and cat macros... and movies. Because these are forms of expression that allow us humans to communicate abstract human concepts to other humans, they tend to force us to anthropomorphize even more.

The movies are particularly guilty of this, and horror movies are the worst of all. If there are pets in a horror movie, they're not there to provide insight into the human-animal bond. They're usually there for some combination three reasons: they may themselves be the source of the horror (Cujo [1983], The Uninvited [1988]); they may be the ones to first detect the presence of the unknown, with their non-human sensory apparatus (The Uninvited [1944], Poltergeist [1982], The Conjuring [2013]); or they may be there specifically to be butchered (The Amityville Horror [2005], The Conjuring [2013] — I use these specific recent examples because they illustrate a refinement of the trend. In modern horror movies that are supposedly "based on a true story", killing the family pet is often the only way to introduce some graphic bloodshed into the action). In general, domestic animals in horror movies aren't there to be characters — they're just animated props.

But occasionally there are horror movies that manage to sneak in an authentic observation about animals and their humans, however subtly... or however inadvertently. The 2001 Danish film Kat struck me as being one of these, in spite of the fact that in most other respects it's an average flick at best.

Maria is a law student in Copenhagen. She's a thoroughly colorless young woman — no, that's not a Nordic blonde joke (though she is that); she's a timid, reserved, frankly rather dull person, and her roommate Isabella wonders what on earth ever drove her to study a cut-throat subject like the law. Maria is starting to wonder, too: it's exams time, and she's doing particularly badly. As she sits alone, late at night, cramming for a make-up exam, she also worries about her boyfriend Henrik... or rather, the absence of Henrik; he's been more than a little stand-offish recently. It's all very stressful, so her Siamese cat Athena tries to comfort her in the time-honored cat way: jumping up on Maria's books while she studies, purring her head off, and insisting on being given scratches.

Athena's cat therapy seems to be working... but suddenly, there comes a ring at the doorbell. Maria goes to answer it, and finds a strange old woman standing on her doorstep. "Glory be to Him, Who sits on the throne and lives forever!" croons the old woman.

(Oh, great. One of those.)

But surprisingly enough, the old woman doesn't turn out to be a door-to-door evangelist. She introduces herself as Mrs. Larsen, "from the house by the Metro," and insists she's been invited. Maria soon realizes the problem: Mrs. Larsen has seen the name "Isabella Vestergård" on the door, and assumed the downstairs flat belonged to Isabella's grandparents (the owners of the building), who live upstairs. Maria hears the old woman trundle upstairs and repeat the same odd words at the door of the elder Vestergårds' flat. Assuming it to be no business of hers, she goes back to her studies.

In vain. Moments later, old man Vestergård himself comes down and rings the doorbell. They're having a party upstairs, he says; though he seems apologetic about causing too much noise for Maria, he also insists that she not come up and bother them, no matter how noisy things get. It soon becomes apparent he's surprised and unhappy to discover she's still at home, studying late on a Friday night, when she'd normally be out with Isabella or Henrik. After Maria closes the door, she peers through the peephole... and sees the old man making strange passes with his hands in front of the door.

We know from the opening credits that it's hardly a party the Vestergårds are preparing for — unless the old folks are planning to play Twister with those odd runic carvings and the circle of salt, or that live chicken and the wicked-looking knife are merely there to ensure the freshest possible Buffalo wings. What nobody realizes, least of all the suspiciously cautious Vestergård, is that someone from downstairs has already intruded on the festivities. Soft, silent and unseen by anybody, Athena has slipped through the open doorway, and has run up the stairs to the Vestergårds' still-open door.

Shortly afterwards, Isabella returns to the flat. Maria makes a game attempt to get back to her studies, but Isabella keeps trying to draw her into conversation. There's something on her mind. When the talk turns to Henrik, and Maria's fond hopes of moving in with him in the near future, Isabella gets upset. There's something she wants to tell Maria, something that needs to be said. After some hesitation, Isabella comes out with it: last weekend, she ran into Henrik... and he was with somebody else. Somebody he seemed to be on very close terms with.

Suddenly things seem much clearer to poor Maria. She even has a pretty good idea who the Other Woman is — that no-good Sophie, who's been making eyes at Henrik for so long... As the two women talk, strange noises begin to filter down from above. The lights in the apartment begin to flicker, and the CD player begins to skip like an old phonograph. The phone rings — nobody's there. Curiously enough, the disturbances seem to occur just as Maria experiences her strongest brief flashes of emotion, before she chokes them off in her usual way.

Meanwhile, upstairs, things are not going according to plan. They've mumbled the incantations; they've drunk the fresh chicken blood from the golden chalice... but whatever spirit the elderly occultists had attempted to call up, something much different has answered their call... something that has inscribed a peculiar symbol (like a numeral "3" with a tail) in the middle of the circle of salt. That something enjoys making a mess of the furniture, and when at last it seems to have disappeared, the old folks are left deeply shaken. Maria looks down from her window just in time to see Mrs. Larsen scrambling off down the alley, looking back over her shoulder in terror. Not long afterwards, more loud noises come from above — noises we'll remember with some discomfort later in the film.

And much later that night, Athena comes prowling back downstairs. She jumps up onto Maria's sleeping body, and purrs, and purrs, and purrs...

The next night, Saturday, Maria meets Henrik in a nearby restaurant. He's late. When he finally arrives, he acts as though the delay was somehow Maria's fault. Maria starts to question him (in her petulant, hesitant way) about whether he's seeing Sophie behind her back. Henrik denies everything... but he's being shifty. His evasiveness irritates Maria, but instead of confronting him further, she just bottles everything up and begins to twitch.

At the same time, back at home, Athena becomes restless.

And just outside the restaurant, in the nearby parking garage, a man is getting into a pointless argument with a meter maid who just gave him a ticket for being a few seconds late with his coins. As Maria's date with Henrik simmers unpleasantly only a few yards away, the argument in the parking garage boils over. The fighting pair don't notice the Thing in the shadows stalking them until it is much too late. Something enormous and powerful flings the meter maid through the van window; and as the motorist tries to flee, it picks up the entire vehicle and swats him with it.

The carnage is terrible. And just for a moment, back in the restaurant, Maria has a vision of it... from the point of view of whatever-it-is that's causing it (her plate of seafood salad also turns into the head of her cat for a moment, but perhaps we should be charitable to the movie and forget about that). Maria runs to the rest room to vomit. Naturally, that's the signal for the end of a bad date... though unbelievably, it gets still worse before it's truly over: first, on their way out of the restaurant, they pass the horrific crime scene. The investigating detective looks up from the bloody mess and catches sight of Maria, looking paler than might be expected from her limited view of the scene. Next, while Maria and Henrik are waiting for a taxi, who should pass by but Sophie and her friends? Henrik is still behaving suspiciously, so Maria leaves him at her doorstep and locks herself away.

Athena is waiting for her. And she's pissed. It's the serious kind of cat- mood, where instead of being merely grumpy or irritable, she's silent and distant. Not even a bowl of wet food will appease her.

The next day, Maria (like a good law student) sits and tallies the evidence for and against Henrik. Feeling guilty for her behavior the night before, she takes an uncharacteristically decisive action, and goes to Henrik's flat to apologize. This is so unlike her that Henrik has never even considered the possibility... which is why Maria soon discovers incontrovertible proof that Henrik is seeing someone else. Maria storms away in tears, so upset she doesn't even think where she's going.

Meanwhile, back at home, Athena is growing restless again. She looks out the window and sees a couple having a violent argument in the building next door. Athena nudges open the window and jumps out...

On a bridge, alone and far away, the distraught Maria is taken out of her misery by a sudden vision of murder — shockingly bloody murder. A couple is being dismembered in their flat, and Maria is seeing it all — again, from the point of view of the killer. Every time Maria torments herself with her bottled-up emotions, something expresses them for her, choosing as its target anyone nearby who also happens to be in the throes of strong negative emotion. And Maria's getting an idea just who or what her violent proxy really is.

It's hours later when Maria, looking weak and sick, manages to find her way back home. Detective Inspector Hald, looking a little peaked himself, is just leaving the scene when he catches sight of the same woman he saw at the scene of the crime last night. A little spark of intuition tells him this is not a coincidence. Even if this young woman is not the actual killer (and how could she be?), she's connected to the atrocities somehow.

If Inspector Hald thinks he's about to begin a game of "cat and mouse" with Maria, he has no idea what he's really getting into. As for poor Maria: once she finds herself caught between the police investigation and her growing awareness of how deep Henrik's betrayal goes, she starts to wonder if having a bloodthirsty monster cat might not be the least of her worries...

It should be clear what's really going on. The spirit summoned by the Vestergårds turned out not to be the benign protector they hoped to conjure; it's a malignant, murderous demon (called "Bartzabel", as it turns out — Maria traces it through the terrified Mrs. Larsen [who lives "by the Metro"], and the symbol like a numeral "3" that she keeps seeing during her bloody visions). Instead of taking up residence in the body of Mrs. Larsen, it's chosen to hide in Maria's cat, though its real target is obviously Maria herself.

But what's probably not so clear to anybody unfamiliar with cats is how or why all this is happening. Why did the demon Bartzabel show up, and how did it know where to find Maria? Didn't the protective spells old Mr. Vestergård worked outside her door keep Maria safe? The key to the whole situation is... Athena: the cat is more than just a cat. Her presence in the upstairs room formed a link between the seance and Maria downstairs, rendering the old man's protection useless. For cats are often very well aware of the emotional state of their close human friends, even if they don't display their awareness as demonstratively as, say, dogs do. It's true that Maria herself isn't particularly attached to her cat, any more than she's attached to Isabella or Henrik — she's a sort of emotional dishrag who doesn't seem to form close attachments to anybody or anything (or for that matter, inspire them, as we'll see before the movie is over). But that makes no difference to a cat. A cat will form a very strong attachment to whomever it chooses... and in this case, it's Athena's attachment to Maria that has drawn the attention of Bartzabel like a lightning rod.

The second point I'd like to make is about Athena's increasing disgruntlement. After the first attack, Athena stops purring for Maria. After the second massacre, Athena starts to get vocal in her displeasure, and eventually becomes downright hostile (though not so upset that she doesn't allow Maria to handle her, and eventually take her to the vet). The simple explanation is that the cat is coming further and further under the control of the demon, and Bartzabel is starting to become annoyed by Maria's attempts to figure out what's going on. On second thought, though, this may not be the whole explanation: after all, Maria is Bartzabel's eventual target, and it wants her to know what's going on (to the point of taking over her computer and treating her to s demonic slide-show). This whole story isn't really about cats, or demons either: it's the (cough) uplifting story of a timid young woman who eventually discovers how to stand up for herself — by embracing ultimate evil. It's the sort of emotionally-satisfying but totally wrong-headed conclusion that makes horror movies so enjoyable...

...but I'm veering off topic.

The real point I wanted to make is this: the film makes it clear that even possessed by an ancient demon, a cat remains a cat. The demon uses her deep affection for Maria as a tool, so that when Maria is upset, the cat's own response is the impetus that allows the demon to transform it into a monster. But if there's one thing a cat values above all else, it's its own autonomy; and in this case, Athena recognizes that her human is somehow responsible for forcing her to do something beyond her own control. It's not that she'd have any moral objection to shredding a few people like catnip mice. But the fact that she is compelled to do so is most likely what upsets her.

All this is remarkably astute cat-observation for a simple horror film. I don't know if this is really what the film-makers were trying to convey. The movie is based on a novel by Steen Langstrup, which hasn't been translated into English and which (obviously) I haven't read; but Langstrup himself has said that the movie bears almost no resemblance to his book (though he approved of the result as a movie in its own right). So I can only say that this is how the film appeared to me, as somebody who's spent an awful lot of time with a lot of awful cats an awful lot of cats.

That being said, Kat is still a horror movie... so as expected, terrible things eventually happen to our title animal. But — and this may come as a bit of a surprise — I'm OK with that. In this case, unusually enough, the cat has been treated like a character rather than a prop, and that makes a considerable difference.

There are plenty of things that don't work about Kat. The seafood salad scene is one such miscalculation:

A badly-miscalcualted shock scene in 'Kat' (2001)
Funny... I don't remember ordering a cheezburger.

The haunted computer is another — were we really so naïve about the Internet as late as 2001? Also, I think I caught a glimpse of the movie's entire reason for existence, in a feeble joke that pops up toward the end: a minor character peers around a corner in trepidation, then turns back with a relieved chuckle. It's all right, he says; it's just a cat. The movie is so pleased with itself over this little horror movie in-joke that it doesn't even bother to show us what happens afterwards.

But even if you aren't looking for a scary movie that treats a pet fairly... or even if you believe I'm hallucinating, and that this isn't one (and I would understand completely if you do)... there's still a few things about Kat to commend it. If the giant computer-generated cat demon isn't terribly convincing, it's reasonably well-done by 2001 standards; and the film-makers wisely limit how much we see of it, and how clearly. Several scenes manage to convey a real sense of menace — for example, the ceremony at the beginning (a type of scene that's often laughable in movies like this), and the demon-cat's final appearance stalking victims in Maria's apartment.

The cast (including the live-action cat) is exceptionally well-chosen for the specific parts they have to play. Liv Corfixen is especially compelling as a woman who really only gains our sympathy when she decides to do terrible things. Corfixen does such a good job portraying Maria as an emotionally-stunted wreck that her performance has been misunderstood — the film's many detractors point to her "poor acting" as one of the movie's weak points. That's not fair: as is so often the case with Scandinavian films, we're not supposed to identify with (or even like) anybody in the cast of characters — especially not our protagonist. In fact, demon or no demon, the cat is the closest we get to a truly sympathetic character in the whole film.

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Pets Gone Wild: A B-Masters Roundtable