One curious throughline that ties together a lot of body horror classics (besides the sadly dying art of grotesque practical effects) is the idea of doomed romance. Titles like The Fly, Possession, Altered States, Splice, and Slither all make their inhuman, nail-splitting, mucus-gushing freakshows count for something by using a doomed romance plot as an emotional anchor. The surprise indie gem Are We Not Cats, delivered by first time director Xander Robin, flips this dynamic on its head. As grotesque as the film’s body horror imagery can be, not least of all in its moments of hair-eating & amateur surgery, its practical effects shock value always feels secondary to its central romance plot. Are We Not Cats toes the line between many genres: body horror, mental health drama, black comedy, surrealist fantasy. It’s first & foremost a doomed romance, though, one that’s infectiously celebratory despite the grotesque violence & grime of its direly tragic atmosphere.
An out of work garbage man finds an unexpected love interest in a lumber yard worker who shares a surprising amount of his peculiarities/afflictions: addiction, crippling loneliness, boredom, poverty, and (most importantly) trichophagia. Our two stray cat lovebirds suffer a rare psychological condition that urges them to compulsively eat human hair. One has a manageable condition that largely sticks to the tiny hairs of beards & arms, but the other is far more voracious. She chows down on the stuff wholesale, leaving entire scalps bare in her wake. There’s a tangible sense of impending doom in this sudden romance, as both addicts feel “weirdly sick” in a way they find difficult to express. Surely, this is somewhat attributable to their likelihood of consuming toxic amounts of jug wine & antifreeze for a cheap high instead of anything that could remotely be considered food, but eating large quantities of human hair also has its own inherent health risks. Have you ever seen a cat cough up an oversized, mucus-coated furball? This is far worse.
Are We Not Cats is a minor work in a lot of ways & features some narrative clichés you’d expect from a first-time filmmaker (an emotionally damaged male lead searching for a female love interest to “fix” him, for starters), but Robin finds a way to luxuriate in the narrative’s insignificance in a way that charms instead of deflates. His characters are society’s throwaway trash, at one point literally tossed in the garbage, so that everything they do is minor by nature anyway. More importantly, though, the film makes lyrical art out its discarded pieces. Instead of chasing the burn-out shrug of the similarly-minded psychedelic body horror Anitibirth, the film is confident that it has style to spare and instead builds its world around an intangible air of romance & desperation. For all its dirty Detroit soul & doom metal sound cues, colorful Quintron-esque musical contraptions, and horrific flashes of skincrawl gore, Are We Not Cats is a film ultimately about intimacy & mutual addiction. As memorable as its grotesque, psychedelic freak-outs can be, their impact is equaled if not bested by the tender melancholy of lines like “When was the last memory you have of not being truly alone?” The details of the romance that ends that loneliness construct a body horror nightmare of open sores & swallowed hair, but still play as oddly sweet in a minor, intimate way that underlines the film’s viscerally memorable strengths & forgives a lot of its more overly-familiar narrative impulses.