Synopsis: In this erotic remake of the 1942 classic, a young woman’s sexual awakening brings horror when she discovers her urges transform her into a monstrous black leopard
Stars: Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O’Toole, Ruby Dee, Ed Begley Jr.
Director: Paul Schrader
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: The 1942 film Cat People was one of the more successful thrillers of the day that didn’t feature Dracula or Frankenstein. Its box office built and built…eventually running so long that it’s said many of the critics that originally hated it went back and loved it. The topic of sexuality was pretty taboo for the early 40’s which is at least one reason why the film was so intriguing to moviegoers. It was followed by a less successful sequel (The Curse of the Cat People) and then remade/re-envisioned as an overly psycho-sexual thriller of the mid eighties.
Director Schrader has been involved with some of the more memorable films out of Hollywood in the 70’s and early part of the 80’s. Acting as the screenwriter for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, he also directed a landmark film showcasing steely 80’s obsession…American Gigolo. Two years later came his re-do of Val Lewton’s Cat People and it’s a curious film that is sometimes intriguing but often times exasperating.
In the 1940’s, some sexual references had to be toned down but in the era of films that showed anything you wanted to see the 1982 Cat People was drenched in flesh and blood and mined for all it was worth. The metaphor that one’s sex drive/desire was linked to animalistic behavior comes through loud and clear as siblings McDowell and Kinski transform into leopards whenever they get hot to trot.
No one plays a skeevy creep-o like McDowell (witness Caligula…or better yet…don’t) and he’s smarm-factor is on level 14 as he leers at his sister but stops short of licking his lips anytime she walks into the room. When the long estranged siblings are reunited in New Orleans, McDowell takes his sister into the house he shares with a voodoo-ish woman named Female (that’s Fhem-Ah-Lay just so we’re clear). Kinski finds herself drawn to the zoo and a well-meaning zookeeper (Heard) who just so happens to be called in when McDowell in leopard form attacks a prostitute.
As the co-workers of Heard’s zoologist, O’Toole and Begley Jr. can only watch on the sidelines and Heard is strangely drawn to the mysterious woman that feels a connection to the leopard that is now caged and under surveillance. O’ Toole’s character may have had something good to contribute but Schrader seems only interested in getting her clothes off and putting her in danger as she’s stalked by a beast while doing laps late at night.
In his first (and only) foray into the horror genre, Schrader does create a more adult feel to the typical slasher fare that was out at the time. It’s as if he wanted to give the adults that go to the movies something to blush at and yet not be ashamed to be seen going into. While it does have its fair share of flowing blood and a lushly seedy vision that only could be provided by the steamy streets of Louisiana, Cat People seems to turn its nose up at the very genre it’s trying to fit into. It’s too refined to be dopey teen horror but not interesting enough to be true art-house fare.
It’s safe to say that you don’t need to see the original Cat People to take this one in as well. Both films are different enough in tone and narrative that they operate as separate movies that share the same title. Schrader’s blunt-nosed sexualized take on the material won’t be for everyone and it didn’t win me over on the whole, but there’s some decent work here from all involved that may keep this one out of your litter box.