Title: Cat People (1982)
Director: Paul Schrader
Cast: Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O Toole
Paul Schrader is the mastermind writer behind many great films, for example, he is a frequent collaborator with Martin Scorsese for whom he wrote some of the distinguished directors most recognized films like Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). Schrader even wrote some of Scorsese’s less popular films like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999), both excellent films in my book. In fact, if you haven’t seen Bringing Out the Dead, do yourself a favor! He also wrote one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films ever, Rolling Thunder (1977), a film about a soldier who returns home from war, only to find out he doesn’t like what he finds, home just isn’t the same. Schrader even wrote one of my favorite films ever, Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast (1986), the film in which Harrison Ford hates America so much, he decides to create his own society, apart from the rest of the world. In essence, Mr. Schrader is an excellent writer; I love most of the films he has written. More interesting still, is the fact that Schrader evolved into a film director, a step that little writers take with success. How does he fare as a director? Well, let’s see how he did with his remake of Jacques Tourneur’s classic horror film Cat People (1942).
The thing with this remake is that it divides its audience, some people seem to really love this movie (I fall into this category) while others seem to criticize it because of its large quotient of sex and violence, but here’s what I have to say about it, accusing this film of being too violent or sexual is like accusing a heavy metal band of being too loud. Sex and violence go hand in hand with this film, you can’t blame Paul Schrader for wanting to explore the films erotic, sensual nature in a more graphic manner than Tourneur’s film, after all, Tourneur’s film was made in 1942, Schrader’s was made in the 80’s, a decade in which sex and violence dominated the silver screen. So to all those naysayers that criticize this movie because it’s sexual, please, grow up! This film was marketed for adults, it is clearly rated “R”, hell, the films tagline (prominently plastered on the poster) read “An Erotic fantasy about the animal in all of us” So, if that tagline isn’t enough to let you know what kind of a film you’ll be watching, then you shouldn’t be watching this movie. I hate it when people try to be such puritans! Sex is a part of life, what’s the deal with trying to hide it?
This divided audience reaction actually kind of exemplifies what Cat People is all about, sexual awakening, sexual repression and uncontrolled passions. Cat People is about Irena, a young woman who is trying to hide her sexual side out of fear. She is a virgin, but according to her, she’s waiting for just the right guy to take her to paradise. “When it happens, it will be magical” she says. In reality, she refrains from having sex because she belongs to a race of beings called The Cat People. You see, once upon a time, cats dominated earth, and the few humans that existed gave their women in sacrifice to the cats. But Instead of killing the women, the cats mated with them and so, a race of cat people was born. These cat people look just like regular humans, but when they have sex with regular humans, they turn into black panthers. In order to turn back into humans, they have to kill whoever they just had sex with. So sex is always a messy thing with these people. Unless, they have sex with their own brothers and sisters, then everything is okay and they don’t turn into panthers. So we’re talking about an incestuous race here, which is probably the real reason this film stroke up a controversy.
But again, it’s not like the film is advocating incest, far from it. In the film, Irena meets up with her long lost brother, Paul, whom she has not seen since they were children. Paul has the hots for his own sister because he wants to satisfy his sexual desires without having to kill anybody. Unfortunately, Irena doesn’t want to be with her brother, because it’s her freaking brother! “I am not like you” she tells him, to which he replies “That is the lie that will kill your lover”, so yeah; it’s a film that explores many aspects of human sexuality, including the taboo subject of incest. But that’s not all it explores. Irena falls for a Zoo Keeper named Oliver Yates. She loves him, but knows she might have to kill him if they end up together. Does she sleep with him or not? Will she risk turning into a panther and killing him? The symbolisms for sexual awakening are there, and it all fits perfectly with the symbolisms of predatory panthers and their prey.
And what better actress to explore sexuality with then the ultra sexy Nastassja Kinski? Hell, you take the ‘s’ away from Kinsky and you left with ‘Kinky’! So it all works out. Nastassja had no problems with nudity, she really goes all out here, and yeah, let me just say that this film has tons of nudity in it, Annette O’Toole even shows us some skin. I was having this internal battle, who is hotter? Kinski or O’Toole? Those of you who have seen the movie, please strike back and let me know what you think! So yeah, lots of skin on this one, which was a common thing back in the 80’s, watching Cat People reminded me just how sexually repressed modern American cinema has become. What’s with this obsession of denying our sexual natures? A healthy sexual life is normal; its part of what makes us human. Yeah we can keep it under control, but not repress it. It goes against human nature to do so, because let’s be honest here: We Are Sexual People! Which is the reason why I celebrate films like Cat People! These are films that explore the more passionate, sexual side of life that “is in all of us”. Irena is tempted by good natured sexual attraction to Oliver and the perverted side, represented by her brother Paul. Which side shall she choose?
Another great aspect of this film is the films color palette, which augments the films wild passions, lots of oranges and reds permeate the screen, there’s lots of visual intensity. Aesthetically speaking, the film is a delight to watch: this thanks in no small part to the group of artists that Schrader chose to surround himself with in order to make this film look the way it does. Sometimes it feels as if the film escapes to some sort of surreal fantasy land filled with black panthers. There’s this one scene that I loved where Irena walks naked through the forest, connecting with nature, feeling very much alive. She can see and hear and feel everything that much more acutely, awesome scene. Cat People started off in the right foot when the first thing I heard was David Bowie’s “Putting Out the Fire”, one of my favorite Bowie songs. I had no idea the song was featured so predominantly throughout the whole film! The tune is sultry, just like the film. Malcolm McDowell turns in an intense performance as Paul, Irena’s incest thirsty brother. He plays his role with ferocity, acting like a hungry animal, even his attire is wild! Malcolm McDowell incurs in some nudity himself, but he’s no stranger to that sort of thing, after all, this is the guy who played Caligula (1979).
I can’t compare this film to Jacques Tourneur’s original film because I’ve never seen that version of Cat People, so my review analyzed the film strictly from watching only Schrader’s version, but from what I gather, they are not all that similar. In fact, Schrader himself says he regrets having called it Cat People; that a smarter move would have been to use an alternate title that would distance it from Tourneur’s classic. Apparently, Schrader’s film has very little in common with Tourneur’s film, save for the classic pool scene in which Irena hunts down Alice. Another thing that separates this one from Tourneur's film is the effects work, nothing here is hidden in shadows, or suggested, we see the transformations, the film has some gory fun with that, in this sense it's similar to films like An American Werewolf in London (1981), where we see these graphic transformations take place, though I will say that the transformations in Cat People are not as good as the ones seen in films like An American Werewolf in London or The Howling (1981). This film came to us from a wave of Universal remakes that came during the 80’s in which Universal Studios attempted to give an update to all their old monsters. So what we have here ladies and gentlemen is a very erotic film that explores human sexuality, looks fantastic and has two beautiful maidens as its stars, what’s not to like? So in answer to my initial question, Schrader succeeds as a director as well as a writer. I only wish he’d written this one himself, instead this one was written by Alan Ormsby, the guy behind Porky’s II (1983) and Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1973). I guess Schrader wanted to concentrate fully on the direction, because of this, the films script suffers a bit. It doesn’t have the strength that many of Schrader’s other works have, it’s really the only reason I don’t give it a perfect score, otherwise, Cat People is highly recommended!
Rating: 4 out of 5