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.