US | 1982 | Directed by Paul Schrader
Logline: An inexperienced young woman discovers her ancestry will cause her to transform into a deadly panther when she is sexually aroused.
I have a soft furry spot for this movie, despite its inherent flaws and trappings. It’s a rare beast, a remake - I prefer to call it a re-imagining - that harnesses the restrained thematic brilliance of the svelte, original and takes it to a more explicit and heightened level, without compromising the essence.
One of Jerry Bruckheimer’s early movies as executive producer, and certainly the “high concept” factors are in play, but the movie is very much director Paul Schrader’s vision, utilising ex-special make-up effects designer-cum-writer Alan Ormsby’s provocative screenplay. It’s an under-rated movie, very different from the original, but with enough merits to stand and stalk on its own four feet despite not performing well at the box office when it was first released and despite years of being trashed.
Irena (Nastassja Kinski) arrives in New Orleans to meet with her older brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell). Paul lives alone in a terrace he shares with Female (Ruby Dee) who is the housekeeper. She’s of old New Orleans voodoo stock, but welcomes Irena with open arms, happy that Paul is finally able to be reunited with his sister. But there is something strange and different about Paul. He is one of the cat people; a supernatural race of creatures that turn into black panthers when they are sexually aroused, and must kill to change back into human form. To prevent this xenomorphic trait from occurring they can only mate with each other.
Irena is befriended by zoo curator Oliver (John Heard), after he discovers her sketching an aggravated panther in its cage after-hours (one of only a few scenes lifted from the original movie). He’s immediately attracted to her, and it seems she to him. He finds her a job in the zoo gift shop, much to zoo keeper assistant Alice’s (Annette O’Toole) jealousy. Oliver eventually cottons on to the whole mythology and realises what has to be done, in one of Hollywood’s rarer moments of mainstream sexual bondage.
In Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 original Irena can’t even kiss her husband for fear of what she may become. In the reimagining the sexual element is brought to the fore, and its passionate abandon is played upon feverishly. Where the original relies on shadows and suggestion, the atmosphere of otherworldliness and the corruption of innocence handled with great finesse by Tourneur, in the reimagining the emphasis is more on what is shown, with the atmosphere and mood this time being dictated by production design, sound and music … and warm flesh. While both movies are very effective, they are entirely separate creatures.
Paul Schrader’s Cat People is very much a movie of sound and vision. From the stunning opening scenes set on the stylized landscape that is home to the cat people; red desert sands, gnarled trees, tribal living amidst the skeletal bones of victims. The dream sequences are excellent, especially the intense “night rabbit” hunting sequence, and the superbly atmospheric stalking scene in the inside swimming pool (the one whole scene duplicated straight from the original). The other brief moment from the original is when a cat-like stranger (Neva Gage) “recognises” Irena in a bar and whispers “My Sister” (in Serbian).
Kinski and McDowell fit their roles perfectly, both of them charismatic, yet strangely goofy-looking, animal-like, sensual, otherworldly. Arguably it’s one of McDowell’s best performances. While Kinski delivers initial awkwardness which gives way to a powerful sense of confidence and, ultimately, a tragic desperation. Curiously, she had been shedding her clothes for movies since she was sixteen (To The Devil a Daughter), so she has happy to pad around full-frontal in Cat People showing off her lithe, feline, yet muscular body; she appears strangely androgynous, just as McDowell has an androgyny to his appearance too.
Georgio Moroder’s lush, distinctly 80s, yet sublimely timeless electronic score is one of the movie’s highlights, from the dreamy opening variation on the main theme to the freaky nature of the hunting night sounds to the classic chords and lilting melody of Irena’s Theme, and, of course, that amazing themed pop song collaboration with David Bowie. The special effects make-up effects created by Tom Burman are very good (love the feline eyes!), especially a gruesome dismemberment, but handled with subtlety and restraint in the transformation sequences.
The movie’s pacing is a little off though. The romance between Oliver and Irena is important, but it causes the film to sag in the middle (mind you if we didn’t have the fishing scene we wouldn’t have got to enjoy Nastassja walking and bending over in tiny shorts and long rubber boots; one of cinema’s unsung moments of unexpected eroticism). Curiously director Schrader and Kinski had an affair during shooting but coked-addled Schrader became obsessed and Kinski fled back to Europe after shooting wrapped. Schrader was beside himself and threatened to insert graphic “pussy” shots of Kinski into the movie (as if there isn’t enough of Kinski’s body on show already). This tarnished Schrader badly and he didn’t work in Hollywood for a decade.
It’s saddening seeing the archaic real New Orleans zoo and the size of the cages, to think animals were kept this way for so long. But the claustrophobic containment fits with the movie’s ancient concepts of possession and freedom, slaves to the rhythm of beastly desire. How they got the panthers so riled up is questionable, but the genuine animal rage is undeniably effective.
Cat People is a tragic tale of desire in the guise of an erotic nightmare, essentially a tale of carnal mythology and dangerous desires; it’s about the animal in us all.