Cat People

Cat People
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenplay: Alan Ormsby (based on a story by DeWitt Bodeen)
Stars: Nastassja Kinski (Irena Gallier), Malcolm McDowell (Paul Gallier), John Heard (Oliver Yates), Annette O'Toole (Alice Perrin), Ruby Dee (Female), Ed Begley Jr. (Joe Creigh), Scott Paulin (Bill Searle), Frankie Faison (Det. Brandt), Ron Diamond (Det. Ron Diamond)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1982
Country: USA
Cat People DVD Cover
Cat PeopleWhen producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur made Cat People in 1942, it was, for that time, a rare serious horror film. The American horror genre, having peaked out in the 1930s with classics like Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) and James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein (1935), not to mention having suffered a long string of protests and censorship, was sliding into parody by the early 1940s. However, Tourner and Lewton crafted in the low-budget Cat People an eerie and evocative story of female sexuality as lethal threat, generating chills while leaving virtually everything off-screen.

When Paul Schrader remade Cat People exactly 40 years later in 1982, it was again notable for being a genuinely serious horror movie in the midst of increasingly parodic horror movies, intentional (An American Werewolf in London) and otherwise (one might think of how the slasher movie had all but taken over the horror genre by that point). Schrader, a deeply serious filmmaker best known for having penned Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and written and directed a triptych of explorations of modern American society and sin (1977's Blue Collar, 1978's Hardcore, and 1980's American Gigolo), approached the Cat People remake with nothing less than the mythic in mind. Using a script by Alan Ormsby, he took the basic concept from the original film and attempted to turn it into a colorfully erotic bit of horror-fantasy, eschewing the original's subtlety for graphic violence, full-frontal nudity, and a New Wave electronic score by German rocker-composer Giorgio Moroder.

This is, of course, dangerous territory, considering that the last director at that time to have attempted to craft a new horror-myth was John Boorman with Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), an ambitious but supremely silly flop. Luckily, Schrader kept better control over the inherent silliness of his material. In some ways, his Cat People is like Exorcist II, particularly in terms of its sloppy storytelling, but it is more grounded and features much better acting.

Like the original, Cat People is about a race of humans who turn into black leopards when sexually aroused. The myth-story behind this race was completely rewritten for the remake, however, informing us that, in some prehistoric age, human beings used to offer up their adolescent women to leopards who mated with them and produced the new race of cat people. This is told to us in the ravishing, red-hued opening setpiece, designed by Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who also worked on American Gigolo. The opening is almost deliberately theatrical, creating a lyrical, otherworldly atmosphere that recalls the in-camera special effects of classic films (Francis Ford Coppola would achieve a similar look throughout his gaudy 1992 horror film Bram Stoker's Dracula).

The main character is Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski), who, unlike the Irena in the original film, has not yet turned into a cat and is not fully aware that it is her destiny in life to do so. Rather, she is a reserved young woman on the verge of sexuality (that is, she is still a virgin, although Kinski is so sensual throughout the film that it's hard to believe in her sexual inexperience). When the film opens, Irene, an orphan all her life, has just been reunited with her older brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell), in his home in New Orleans.

Irena ends up falling in love with the curator of the New Orleans Zoo, Oliver Yates (John Heard), a man who admits to liking animals more than people, which explains why he becomes so obsessed with Irena and her animal within. Of course, because Irena's inner cat emerges when she is sexually aroused, Oliver is in great danger if he wants to make love to her (we know exactly what might be in store for him since we get to see what Paul has done to some of his victims).

In a perverse twist on the original's concept of sexuality as animalism, Schrader's Cat People suggests that Irena and Paul are the only two cat people left; thus, if they want to have sex, it has to be with each other, otherwise they devour their mates (when Irena declares that she is not like him, Paul replies coldly, "That is the lie that will kill your lover"). Thus, Irena is torn between two choices: safe, but incestuous sex with her brother, or dangerous sex with the man she loves.

Cat People is nothing if not interesting, and it has several sequences that are genuinely electrifying and audacious, particularly a horrifically gory moment in which an assistant zookeeper played by Ed Begley Jr. gets his arm ripped out of its socket by Paul as a panther. Unfortunately, much of the film tends to drag, even though Schrader tells the story in sudden chunks, often making rough transitions that don't entirely make sense.

A good example is a scene near the end of the film in which Irena stalks Oliver's ex-girlfriend, a friendly coworker named Alice (Annette O'Toole), in a swimming pool. The scene is a direct quotation from the most effectively creepy scene in the 1942 original, but here it makes no sense because Irena's gleefully threatening personality matches neither her personality traits before the scene or what follows. Another ludicrous quotation from the original involves a woman "recognizing" Irena as a cat person and calling her "mi hermana" ("my sister"). In the original, this worked because it suggested an entire underground network of cat people slinking around the world, whereas here it completely undermines the necessity of incestuous sex since it suggests that Irena and Paul are not the last of their kind (unless, of course, we want to read Paul as being so perverse that he just wants to have sex with his sister).

Some have the read Cat People as being blatantly misogynistic, particularly in the way it subdues the threatening aspects of Irena's sexuality and asserts absolute male control at the end. From a certain perspective, this is an entirely valid reading, especially when compared to the sexual ideology at work in the original. Schrader insists on reading the film as an allusion to Dante and Beatrice´┐Żwith Oliver's Dante pursuing the unattainable Irena's Beatrice´┐Żand while such an understanding of the material turns the ending into a moment of enshrinement, it is hard to get away from the fact that Irena's final shrine is literally a cage.

Cat People DVD

Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
Subtitles English, Spanish, French
DistributorUniversal Home Video
Release DateAugust 27, 2002

1.85:1 (Anamorphic)
Cat People was originally released on DVD back in 1998 by Image in a lackluster nonanamorphic transfer that was obviously a rehash of a laser disc master. For this new special edition, Universal has gone back and created a new anamorphic transfer in the film's original 1.85:1 matted widescreen aspect ratio, resulting in a much-improved image. Unfortunately, given the film's age, the image still looks somewhat soft and hazy at times, part of which is due to the film's inherent visual look. Director Paul Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey used brash colors throughout the film, which makes for a difficult transfer (a good example of the film's brazen color scheme can be found during the opening credits, in which green titles fade in and out against a salmon-red background of blowing sand). Overall, the colors look strong, retaining an almost surreal vibrancy, although they tend a bleed a bit at the more extreme end of the range. Detail is good throughout, although some of the darker sequences tend be a little murky.

English Dolby 2.0 Stereo Surround
The original two-channel stereo surround soundtrack is reproduced here with good clarity. Clean and hiss-free, the soundtrack replicates Giorgio Moroder's bass-heavy electronic score very well and also includes some notable surround effects despite the limited range, particularly the scene in which Alice is trapped in the swimming pool with low growls coming from numerous directions.

Audio commentary by director Paul Schrader
Director Paul Schrader's screen-specific audio commentary is informative, but a bit lackluster at times. With two decades between him and the film's production, he is able to reflect on what he thinks didn't work very well, although he also seems reluctant at times to fully engage with some of the production's more notorious aspects (including his relationship with star Natassja Kinski, although he does reference it from time to time). Having been a scholar and critic before becoming a filmmaker, Schrader loves to point out the film's various allusions to European auteurs like Bernardo Bertolucci and Wim Wenders, and he is candid about the realities of studio production in the early '80s and how he doesn't think he could make this film today.

"Cat People: An Intimate Portrait by Paul Schrader"
This 25-minute featurette produced and directed by DVD mainstay Laurent Bouzereau consists primarily of a video interview conducted with Schrader in his New York office in November 2000. Virtually everything discussed in this featurette is also covered in the audio commentary, although we also get to see behind-the-scenes photographs, production paintings, and, most fascinating of all, deleted footage from the dream sequence involving Natassja Kinski's mother in a leopard suit in an attempt to replicate a famous 1920s surrealistic painting. Presented in 1.33:1.

On the set with director Paul Schrader
Running just over 10 and a half minutes, this on-set interview conducted with Schrader during production in 1981 is a strange experience. Leaning against one of the zoo cages and trying to look as macho as possible in a tight T-shirt, Schrader is guarded and quite pretentious in discussing the movie, which is probably why so many critics took him to task when the film was released (he refuses to discuss the film's plot, and says it is about "myth and eros"). Presented in aged and rather shoddy-looking video (1.33:1).

"Cat People: A Discussion With Special Make-Up Effects Artist Tom Burman"
In this 11-minute featurette (also produced and directed by Bouzereau), make-effects artist Tom Burman offers his thoughts in a video interview on the various special effects in the movie, from the details of ripping off Ed Begley Jr.'s arm, to the various stages of changing Kinski into a cat. There are also a few unseen photographs of unused effects, including Kinski in a full-body suit as part of her transformation. Presented in 1.33:1.

Cat People matte paintings
Just three minutes long, this quickie featurette offers before-and-after footage of various shots that included matte paintings by Albert Whitlock (mostly the opening sequence, but also several shots involving the zoo). Presented in nonanamorphic widescreen.

Filmmaker Robert Wise on Val Lewton
Legendary director Robert Wise got his professional start directing the 1944 sequel Curse of the Cat People for producer Val Lewton, which he discusses in this new three-and-a-half-minute video interview conduced by Bouzereau. Presented in 1.33:1.

Production photographs
Presented in slideshow fashion with David Bowie's theme song on the soundtrack. Includes more than 65 color and black-and-white photographs, some of which are staged production shots and others of which are behind-the-scenes photos.

Original theatrical trailer
Presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Production notes

Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2.5)

James Kendrick

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