Cat People (1982)

In 1982 Paul Schrader followed AMERICAN GIGOLO with a look at another oft-ignored segment of society, the CAT PEOPLE. It’s a much hornier movie than GIGOLO – some of the posters even call it “AN EROTIC FANTASY” – and it compares sexual desire to turning into a hungry animal. That may sound like some ‘Schrader was raised as a strict Calvinist’ shit, but he actually didn’t get a writing credit on this one. Believe it or not he used a script by Alan Ormsby (CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, DERANGED, DEATHDREAM, PORKY’S II: THE NEXT DAY, POPCORN, THE SUBSTITUTE)! I’ve read that he rewrote the ending, but I don’t see how he could’ve changed the very premise. So I honestly don’t know what this one is supposed to be saying – it seems to be a sexy anti-sex movie – but it’s artful and weird and compelling in all the right ways.

Irena (Nastassja Kinski, TERMINAL VELOCITY) is a pescatarian virgin orphan who arrives in New Orleans to reunite with her long lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell, FIST OF THE NORTH STAR). Paul lives in a big house with his Creole housekeeper (Ruby Dee, UP TIGHT) whose name is pronounced “Feh-molly” but spelled “Female.” The brother and sister do a juggling act together as they reminisce about playing circus as kids, and Paul is immediately standing uncomfortably close to her and doing weird incestuous nuzzling. The movie never addresses that if the actors are playing their real ages Paul would’ve been 18 when she was born. But Ruby Dee seems to be playing her real age of 60 while looking about half that, so what is age, anyway?

In the daytime, across town somewhere, we’re introduced to the New Orleans Zoological Society, responding as an elite team to a weird sort of crime scene where “a god damn black leopard” somehow got trapped in an upstairs room at a brothel. Oliver Yates (John Heard, SNAKE EYES) acts so much like a cop I mixed him up with William Peterson for a second, and he’s got a good professionals-gettin-shit-done rapport with his co-workers Joe (Ed Begley Jr., COCKFIGHTER, BLUE COLLAR, HARDCORE) and Alice (Annette O’Toole, 48 HRS.).

I actually didn’t know these would be the main characters, I kinda thought it was gonna be just this one scene about the working joes who have to clean up after cat people shenanigans. But they capture the leopard and keep him in the zoo, not knowing he’s in fact a man who transformed into a cat and ate a prostitute (Lynn Lowry, SHIVERS). Also, Irena breaks into the zoo at night and sketches the leopard, without seeming to understand on a conscious level that it’s her missing brother. When Oliver spots her trespassing she runs and super-jumps to the top of a tree. Then she comes down and is having a spell so he offers her aspirin but she doesn’t believe in medicine so he takes her to dinner and hires her to work in the zoo gift shop. Such is the power of the boner.

So it’s largely about this zoo curator courting this mysterious weirdo with the smokin hot appearance and extraordinary leaping abilities that he never says anything about. His co-worker ex Alice’s legitimate concerns about the relationship get muddled with her jealousy. Meanwhile the police are trying to figure out the mystery of the leopard, it bites off Joe’s arm and he bleeds to death, Irena goes out in the woods naked and eats a rabbit while seeing everything stylishly tinted in primary colors, etc.

Most of Schrader’s movies are grounded in some grimy, sweaty reality. This sort of is, but it goes off on some stylized flights of fancy. In fact it opens in some unnamed primitive period where the sky is bright red and people in robes offer women to some cat god in a tree. And it’s unclear if the cat eats them or just licks them or whatever. I like the defiantly non-realistic colors and matte paintings.

Since it begins in the primitive past and ends in a weird abstract place, the story structure reminds me a tiny bit of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. It’s the 2001 of sexy monster movies.

There’s a scene where Irena goes looking for Paul at the church she’s told he works at, and it has this beautiful color design that makes me want to compare it to the amazing sets in MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS. But it’s only in this one shot, so I’m sure it was a real location they found and not something they created.

It looks like Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain Presbyterian.

The horror shit is well executed. You don’t see a graphic AMERICAN WEREWOLF style transformation, but you see enough. We get glimpses of intermediate stages – special makeup effects by Tom Burman (ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU ’77, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, HALLOWEEN III, CAPTAIN EO, STAR KID, director of MEET THE HOLLOWHEADS). I like that Paul is mostly just a scary creep in normal human ways, but occasionally he’ll nimbly leap onto the edge of a bed or out a tall window. He stops beating around the bush and tells Irena he wants to do her, claiming that incest is the only way for them to get it on without catting out. If he has sex with someone else he turns into the leopard and has to kill somebody to change back. (Thanks for your sacrifice, Joe.)

I love the nasty detail that the transformations leave chunks of slimy, gooey residue here and there. My favorite grossout moment is when Paul wakes up naked and bloody on the floor of a hotel bathroom, like some blackout drunk. He gets up and notices a piece of skin or slime or something sticking to his belly, and he pulls it off and eats it.

There are little quirky bits of personality, like a cabbie who wears two pairs of glasses and sings along to the radio, and an orangutan who watches soap operas. But mostly the tone is very serious. Like AMERICAN GIGOLO, this is a Jerry Bruckheimer production and has a cool score by Giorgio Moroder and theme song by a well regarded rock artist – in this case “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” by David Bowie (which you may also know from INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS or ATOMIC BLONDE). And the score is even better than the song. The full vocal version plays over the end credits, but the opening is an instrumental variation with Bowie doing some portentous humming. Starting off with this driving dark synth pop sound kinda reminds me of how they use Tina Turner’s “One Of the Living” in MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME.

The movie wouldn’t work if Kinski wasn’t so good. She was only 21, but had already been directed by Wim Wenders, Roman Polanski and Francis Ford Coppola. I’m not gonna pretend that her otherworldly, ageless looks aren’t a major reason she’s believable as this exotic creature, and her work involves alot of nudity and lustiness. But even aside from that she gives a very good, dedicated performance revolving around some pretty absurd situations that she has to treat as reality.

VAMPIRE CIRCUS producer Wilbur Stark is credited as “executive consultant” because he bought the remake rights to the RKO library. Since this and his other 1982 remake production THE THING were not properly appreciated in their time, he didn’t do any more. Too bad – maybe we would’ve had Brian DePalma’s MIGHTY JOE YOUNG or something.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 1st, 2019 at 1:00 pm and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

9 Responses to “Cat People (1982)”

  1. Despite this seemingly being tailor for me (horror, remake of a great oldie, Paul Shrader, doing the correct thing and having it take place in and filmed in New Orleans), this one didn’t do a whole lot for me. It’s not a bad idea to take the subtext of the original and make it the actual text, but in so doing, I felt it made the story way less interesting.

    Not saying it’s bad, it’s not, just didn’t do it for me. Maybe in a future rewatch I’ll be in a better mood or something and finally appreciate it.

  2. I’ve been hoping that Vern would get around to reviewing Schrader’s Cat People remake. This film is so stylish, weird, and perverse that I can’t help but applaud. A while ago, I actually watched all three Cat People movies, and I maintain that every single one is great. It’s a really under-heralded series, and I believe the remake is known as an outright disaster for some reason, which I obviously disagree with.

    Also, the second film, The Curse of the Cat People, kind of changes genres. The original film is a more traditional horror film, with some great chiaroscuro lighting and sexually charged subtext, while the sequel is kind of a gothic drama. It kind of reminds me of what Cameron did with Aliens, but forty years earlier.

    I would love to see other director’s do their version of Cat People, but I can’t imagine it’s a hot property in Hollywood these days.

  3. This is one of the great “watch while stoned” movies – absolutely eye-popping on its Blu Ray transfer, full of incredible visuals and a wonderful score. And of course the nudity by Kinski and O’Toole is legendary. I’m not sure I entirely understood everything either, but it’s definitely a one of a kind, moody experience. Plus I think it might have the world’s only double-freeze frame ending, right?

  4. I love a bunch of Schrader’s movies. Just bought this one on Blu-Ray a couple of weeks ago and, as mentioned above, it looks phenomenal. Did Malcolm McDowell ever play a happy-go-lucky normal person? I can’t imagine it, but I bet early in his career he gave it a try.

  5. Well, I guess I’ll pick up the Blu and finally watch this. But definitely for, uh…artistic reasons and not for seeing Clark Kent’s Mom naked or anything like that.

    Haw, haw, but I was listening to the score at work and it IS very cool. I mean, it’s right up my particular alley, anyways.

  6. I know I’ve seen this one, but I don’t remember much about it. Other than the music and some of Kinski and O’Toole’s scenes.

    burningambulance, if anything McDowell’s characters were even crazier early in his career.

  7. Nastassja Kinski, Natasha Henstridge, and Matilda May (Lifeforce), all very influential in my early teens.

  8. Not saying it’s bad, it’s not, just didn’t do it for me. Maybe in a future rewatch I’ll be in a better mood or something and finally appreciate it.

  9. Just when I thought I couldn’t love this movie any more – I binge watched it after seeing OG Cat People and Curse of the Cat People for the first time and I think it’s even more of a masterpiece than before.

    I’m not necessarily saying this is the BEST remake, but it may be the remake (along with The Thing from the same year) that perfectly lays down the blueprint for what every remake SHOULD do, i.e. justify its own existence. It’s different enough from the older movie so you don’t feel like you’re watching the same damn thing. It updates the story both thematically and cinematically, with state of the art special effects, eye-popping visuals and music. (Plus state of the art nudity and gore!) It does so much shit you couldn’t do in 1942, while also feeling like a movie you couldn’t make in 2022. The fact that the pool scene is an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the pool scene in the 1942 movie, except with nudity this time, simultaneously points out how gratuitous the nudity is, while also undeniably contributing to this movie’s harder edge and dangerous feel. (Sure, Annette O’Toole COULD have worn a swimsuit, just like every kill in a slasher movie COULD technically happen offscreen I guess.) Plus let’s be honest – if you’re going to sell Nastassja Kinski being threatened by another woman, having every man in the audience suddenly do a spit-take to O’Toole and completely forget about Kinski is not a bad way to get the point across.

    I love that the remake’s entire impetus seems to be someone smokin a doob and going, “Man, what was up with the panther in the first one?” and coming up with crazy theories and fan fiction until they arrived at “What if it was her brother who wanted to fuck her?”. And they somehow made it work! It’s also kind of incredible that this is a “rules-based” horror movie like Gremlins, except the “rules” are weirdly withheld from you and only explained near the very end (I’m actually still not quite sure if someone turns into a panther after they have sex, or just if they’re aroused, since the movie plays it both ways). Also (you won’t hear me saying this very often) – I absolutely loved the callbacks and homages to the first one. There’s something very charming about the movie throwing in random bits that don’t quite make sense without having seen the original from 40 years ago, which probably only a tiny percentage of audiences had even seen or remembered, especially since VCR’s probably weren’t a household thing at the time. I actually cheered when they threw in the bus jump scare and the “my sister” lady, which I totally didn’t even remember last time I saw this!

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