T

he theater was surprisingly full for a 10:30 p.m. Tuesday showing of a film projected to lose damn near $80 million. After the Universal Studios logo, as the initial credits began in total silence, someone in the audience said, quietly and simply, “Cats.” As if they just wanted us to know what we’d signed on for, with no judgment. A laugh started to build, from giggles to outright cackling. As the laugh crested, I yelled out “CAAAAAAAAAATS!!!!!!” and the place exploded. This set the tone for one of the most lunatic evenings I’ve ever spent at the movies. (And I attended the legendary Tokyo Gore Night at the New York Asian Film Festival, at which filmmaker Noboru Iguchi got his buttocks perforated by darts.)

I’ve seen Cats twice now. I paid to do it. Both times. There’s no excusing me. I knew what I was doing. But the difference between the two showings was startling. The first, on Christmas day, was greeted with shocked, appalled silence. The audience had mostly assumed that they would be seeing a family-friendly musical filled with singing and dancing and some silly jokes. The second showing was populated by shrieking ravers who understood what Cats truly was: a piece of deranged, brain-shattering Outlaw Cinema made by absolute perverts.

Cats is, without any exaggeration, a $100 million PG-rated family film about furry mutants who keep introducing themselves and want nothing more than to fuck and die. It is a swirling nightmare of fetishes and flawless leg extensions. It is perfect. Studios are built to prevent something like Cats, and most of the time they succeed. Films this idiosyncratic and bizarre usually get sanded down into something less abrasive or just zotzed in the development stage. This one escaped fully-formed and uncompromised, and the world is better for it.

For the love of god, do not do a Rocky Horror on Cats

Cats, a film in which every character obsesses over being reborn, has found its second life: It is a cult film. Universal Pictures has yanked it from most screens and quietly killed its awards campaign, treating it like a fart in a crowded room. They want to pretend it doesn’t exist, but they would be wise to listen to audiences like the one I was in on Tuesday. People were laughing, hooting, stomping, singing along, cheering the musical numbers, discussing the themes, occasionally screaming “WHAT?!” at some inexplicable visual or plot turn. And while such behavior would be deeply obnoxious at a “normal” film, Cats now belongs to the lineage of Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Room, and anything else that inspires such wacko devotion.

This, however, is where I must draw a line: Please, for the love of god, do not do a Rocky Horror on Cats. I know that it has become de rigeur to script shout-outs, choreograph dances, and generally ritualize cult movies. But there’s nothing outlaw about rules telling you how to watch a movie. Films like Rocky Horror (a transgressive work about gender and sex) and The Room (one deeply vain man’s bizarre, inept Stations of the Cross) and Thundercrack! (a three-hour pornographic Old Dark House movie that features a gorilla giving a handjob) abide by no rules. They seethe and pulse with inexplicable personal passions and could only exist as they do by defying common sense and common taste. Had anyone on set listened to an executive, these films would be … well … normal. Instead, they dance to their own beat, speak in their own cadence. To tell a room full of people that “these are the dance moves and this is the scripted response” is a violation of everything that makes these movies special. It replaces spontaneity with doctrine, insanity with predictability. In short, it makes what is unsafe feel safe. And who the hell wants that?

There were moments at that late-night Cats showing that I will never forget: Judi Dench’s leg lift being greeted with hoots of lewd disbelief. The collective horror whenever someone turned to address the audience (this happens exactly twice, and it feels as rattling and violating as the train rushing towards the camera in Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat). One audience member trying frantically to explain to her friends just what the fucking deal is with Macavity.  Repeated and untimed screams of character names or, simply, “MEOW!” The moment you codify or choreograph it, the magic is lost.  

Film history is littered with failed attempts at cultdom. Snakes on a Plane became one of the first examples of meme culture, and New Line did a round of reshoots in an effort to play to the pre-release perception of the film as a wacko comedy. It didn’t move the needle. Twentieth Century Fox, once Rocky Horror had become a full-on sensation, tried to replicate their success with Shock Treatment. They reunited the creative team in an effort to get more of the same. Where Rocky Horror started in an ordinary release before finding its feet, Shock Treatment went straight to the midnight circuit. With the benefit of time, it’s easy to see that Shock Treatment had a truly great score (really, it’s at least as good as its predecessor’s) and predicted reality television with cold, horrifying prescience. But the intended audience wasn’t having it. Initial screenings were greeted with anything from apathy to outright hostility.

You can’t make a cult item happen on purpose. It must be discovered. Cats deserves its spot in the pantheon. Let it breathe. Let it pas de bourrée (paw de purray?). Let it be shown for decades to come for audiences in varying states of chemical alteration. Let it work its profane magic. Let it make … memories (sorry).

But please, please, please, don’t give it rules. Let the screams and cackles happen where they may. Let all such works of madness bewitch on their own terms. Let people fall in love without telling them how to do it.

Let Cats be Cats.

Abe Goldfarb is an actor, director, and writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He can currently be seen in Beetlejuice on Broadway, and his directorial debut, The Horror at Gallery Kay, will be available on streaming platforms this spring. Twitter: @abegoldfarb