Written by: DeWitt Bodeen (original screenplay), Alan Ormsby (screenplay)
Directed by: Paul Schrader
Starring: Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, and John Heard
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"I'm not like you."
ďThat is the lie that will kill your lover."
ďThat is the lie that will kill your lover."
Whenever we want to prove that we as horror fans donít immediately recoil at the thought of remakes, we invariably point to The Thing, The Fly, and The Blob, the triumvirate of 80s updates that are defensible on many grounds. One frequent refrain insists that they were justified due to the advancements in effects and Hollywoodís leniency with what those effects could now show compared to their relatively prudish ancestors.
While Iím not sure Iíd lump Paul Schraderís Cat People in with those three, it certainly benefits from the same thing; even though the Val Lewton original was a sultry allegory for femininity and sexuality, he and director Jacques Tourneur could only go so far. For example, they couldnít also make it a story where a creepazoid brother needs to bone his own sister in order to ward off an ancient curse, which is exactly where Schrader took the material.
Thatís probably a little reductive and facetious, as Schrader isnít just concerned with amplifying the exploitation; in fact, calling it an erotic update of the Lewton is not only a disservice but an outright fallacy. Consider the prologue, which acts more of an evocative, tasteful overture: Giorgio Moroderís moody synth strains rumble over an ethereal desert landscape where leopards seductively lounge in barren trees, awaiting the arrival of a young human female for a mysterious, sexual ritual. Itís a sequence that speaks to the divide of a film that simmers with desert heat, yet remains cold and distant throughout.
This divide is most evident in the filmís protagonist, Irena (Nastassja Kinski), whose feline eyes hint at a dangerous sexuality. However, it lurks behind a demure faÁade, as she skulks through the proceedings. Orphaned at the age of four, sheís been contacted out of the blue by her long-lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell), whose intentions are less than pure, what with all of his weird leering and incestuous advances. Rather than cut right to the lurid heart, though, the film oddly diverts: Paulís disappearance coincides with the bizarre emergence of a bloodthirsty leopard that winds up in the care of a local zoo after it savagely mauls a prostitute (Lynn Lowry). Coincidentally, Irena stumbles onto the zoo and its chief zoologist (John Heard), and the girlís first bout of love leads to one hell of a sexual awakening.
Despite its schlocky trappings, Cat People is almost remarkably restrained and even meditative in a way that would likely please Lewton himself. At 118 minutes long, it certainly takes its time (sometimes to its detriment) and builds up a fatalistic sense of dread as it approaches its inevitable tragedy. Set against the voodoo-tinged backdrop, the film doesnít lack for a sinister atmosphere even as it languidly hovers around these characters and their often disjointed story. The transposition down to the bayou is an apt move that reflects the schism running throughout the film. By day, itís an inviting, sunny locale where the animals are kept in check; by night, itís an otherworldly, untamed wilderness bathed in shadows and perversion. Its fits of violence are stuff that Lewton could have never imagined, but even these are pointed, blunt intrusions, incredibly gross and graphic though they may be.
Schrader himself has said itís a film that contains ďmore skin than blood,Ē an appropriate evaluation since Cat People recalls something of the eerie, skin-crawling quality of the original when it isnít dismembering its cast or reducing them to piles of goop. Itís especially effective in capturing the existential dread of the were-cat motif, perhaps because it transforms its characters into full-bore leopards rather than some human/cat hybrid. When a leopardís tail menacingly emerges from beneath the prostituteís bed early in the film, itís legitimately startling and creepy, and it only becomes more disturbing once you realize that Irena is a prisoner to a curse that will trap her soul in the body of an animal, a not-so-subtle metaphor that reflects the turmoil of her burgeoning sexuality.
As allegory, itís not much different from its predecessor (which unfortunately reflects the lack of forward-thinking in the forty years between the two movies): once again, the female sexuality is dangerous and must be repressed. Sure, Paul technically suffers from the same curse, but he certainly canít be expected to reign it in (Ruby Dee even plays a slightly culpable housemaid that condones and covers for his behavior). Whereas he is the unleashed id, Irena is forced into a submissive role that represses her inner beast. Even a nude midnight stroll is haunted by the presence of snakes, an image that connects her to Eve and perhaps suggests that this repression is just as primal and innate. Schraderís Irena doesnít meet the same fate as Lewtonís either; somehow, her decision to remain trapped in her beastly form is even more disturbing. One of the filmís closing images finds her stuck behind bars, eternally doomed to a self-imposed celibacy (do I also need to mention that the sexual encounter that eternally reverts her to this form has her tied down to the bed? Schrader has certainly never been one for subtlety.)
Kinski and McDowell are the most captivating presences here, with the former especially proving to be unbelievably alluring. From the moment Irena is introduced, an intense passion smolders just beneath her vulnerable, innocent veneer. By contrast, McDowell is in full wacko mode from the start, his wild eyes bulging with lust and perversion. Their relationship is a welcome (if not uncomfortable) addition to Cat People, so itís no surprise that the film loses steam once McDowell is shuttled out (only to return in an awkward, trippy dream sequence where he finally explains the family curse); Heardís zookeeper expectedly feels like a third-wheel throughout (which relegates poor Annette OíToole even further down this deep bench of impressive talent), and his relationship feels like an obligatory retread of the original story (albeit amped up to supremely explicit, fucked-up levels this time around because Schraderís gonna Schrader).
Of course, Schraderís distinct vision for this re-imagining reminds us why it can be considered in the same conversation as the aforementioned remakes: these werenít simply the work of studio inevitability or technological advancement but rather passion projects for each director (it also helps that each was immensely talented). Cat People is unmistakably Schraderís, particularly its mix of sex, violence, and fatalism. Heís often been drawn to characters bent toward destruction and not without some measure of sympathy for themóIrena might not be spewed forth from the turmoil of Vietnam, but sheís the product of a primal, disquieting urge in our psyche (the fact that sheís able to eventually repress this without much bloodshed might speak volumes for Schraderís view of the sexes).
Cat People is ultimately an outlier from those other remakes, as itís a little more esoteric and reaches back to a different era. Whereas its contemporaries were revisiting the Cold War, post-atomic paranoia of the 50s, Cat People plumbs the psychological depths of the 40s and echoes that decadeís insistence that pure horror lurks and slinks somewhere in the dark recesses of our imagination. It serves as a nice compliment to The Hunger, producer Jerry Bruckheimerís other gothic revisionist effort that would follow a year later; aside from the obvious Bowie connection, both films seek to ground ancient horror lore in a modern milieu to a strikingly artistic effect.
Each has become a tad forgotten despite the talent involved with both (you might recall that The Hunger served as Tony Scottís directorial debut). Cat People is at least ripe for rediscovery now that Scream Factory has deemed it worthy of their increasingly impressive library of titles. Their latest Blu-ray Collectorís Edition upgrades the presentation and adds a handful of extras, including new interviews with Schrader, Kinski, McDowell, Heard, OíToole, and Moroder. The filmís trailer, a TV spot, a photo gallery, and some production art round out the features; some of those are ported over from the previous DVD (and HD-DVD!) special edition, but this new release curiously omits a wealth of older features (including a commentary with Schrader), so it might be worth hanging onto your old discs as well. With this latest release, perhaps Cat People will no longer be an afterthought in the 80s remake conversation; far from simply being a sexed-up take on Lewton, it's the weirdest, most enigmatic of the litter-- it's the sort of film that slinks and purrs into your subconscious even as its flaws are quite evident. Buy it!
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