80’s Trash of the Week: Cat People

Having recently become a cat owner, I decided to revisit this psychosexual spankfest by Paul Schrader, better known for writing Taxi Driver and directing arthouse faves like Affliction and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. What compelled him to remake the creepy Val Lewton horror classic Cat People as a bizarre mythical tale of kitties and titties is beyond me, but IMDb trivia says he admits that one day he was so high he refused to get out of his trailer and direct. By the end of the movie, you’ll believe it.

The original was delightfully creepy and dreamlike, where a young girl’s fears become a frightening reality. This one just seems tawdry and serious, because it’s about people who fuck leopards. Schrader and his production designer, Ferdinando Scarfiotti, craft a beautiful mythical past that seems to exist in a timeless corner of our brains, peopled with Jungian archetypes. Rather like another psychosexual fairy tale of the ’80s, The Company of Wolves, this is much darker and erotic, and while it is sometimes silly and overlong, it is unique and engaging. Unlike another “animal people” movie of the period, Wolfen, it manages to draw us in, and is probably best compared to another stylish, sexy horror film- The Hunger.

The dreamlike quality of the mythical scenes

It begins in a desert village at the dawn of human history, where an animist tribe appeases the hungry leopards by sacrificing a virgin to them; we see a beautiful young woman tied to a enormous tree, and at night the leopard comes. He doesn’t eat her, so she is brought to his cave, which is curiously marked with a drawing of a cat with human hands. From here we move to modern-day New Orleans, that most lurid of American cities, always a hotbed of sexual violence, whether it be from vampires, voodoo queens, or cat people. Paul Gallier (the always creepy Malcolm McDowell) picks up his sister Irene (Nastassja Kinski) at the airport, after a long time apart. Kinski plays the virginal naif perfectly, and her sensuous body belies her behavior.

Malcolm McMeowell

Her brother is quite the opposite, and immediately gets caught in panther form when he frequents a brothel. They coop him up in the zoo, where Irene goes to visit and meets Oliver, the friendly zookeeper (John Heard). Yeah, really… see where this is going? Ed Begley, Jr. plays a rather careless curator, and Panther-Paul yanks his arm off for his troubles… and then he somehow escapes. As Irene finds herself falling for Oliver, her brother makes his own advances on her- since she is the only sexual partner who won’t be torn to shreds in the climax. She rebuffs him and he goes back to hunting hookers, which eventually leads police to his basement.

As a dreamlike story of myth, the movie works great. The opening scene, with Giorgio Moroder’s haunting synth theme, is great at drawing us in. Once Irene gets entangled with Paul, she behaves like a jealous kitten and takes a swipe at his colleague Alice (Annette O’Toole) while she bathes topless in the swimming pool. This mirrors the original film, which I think was much better. In Jacques Tourneur’s original, Irene is young Serbian woman who thinks she is one of the cat people of her village- Satanic cultists who take the form of a black cat. That film plays it off as a psychological issue, and keeps the cat in shadows, so we’re not sure if she turns into one or just thinks she does.

Unfortunately we are pretty sure people turn into cats in this one; our first introduction is a leopard under the bed in a whorehouse, where the prostitute has just left her john. It doesn’t take a genius, and it’s a mistake to remove any suspense about the nature of the creatures. The film does work very well as an erotic dream piece, partly through generous application of breasts, including the bountiful Annette O’Toole, and the lithe Nastassja Kinski. Malcolm McDowell’s Paul is not a remorseless sociopath, but a slave to his urges; while he cuddles with a woman he knows he will tear apart, he says he feesl bad because he likes her. It doesn’t stop him from nibbling a bit of her skin left on his belly when he wakes back up in human form, though.

The brother and sister have a feline grace to their movements, but occasionally it gets a bit silly, such as when Irene washes her cheeks like a cat; it happens after a formative, primal moment, after she sleeps with Oliver and loses her virginity, and I suppose it is meant to signify her transformation. It doesn’t work; something more subtle was in order. The screenplay is a bit of a mess, and breaks its own rules a few times. The new ending is terrific, and bookends the story perfectly, but the way there is long and meandering. While it was certainly enjoyable seeing Ms. Kinski cavort in the nude, as stories go I prefer the original version.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 1
Could it be remade today? Underworld 3: Lycan Sex Party
Quotability Rating: Zero
Cheese Factor: Mild
High Points: Dreamy visuals and a litter boxful of nudity
Low Point: Script written on cocaine binge
Gratuitous Boobies: More titty than kitty

4 thoughts on “80’s Trash of the Week: Cat People

  1. Good review. I actually really like both movies, I found them both very emotionally engaging. I do prefer the remake though, as in the original I only found Simone Simon a good actor, and in the remake I enjoyed both Malcolm McDowell's and Nastassja Kinski's performances, as well as the supporting cast, and I love the erotic aspect and the lurid Italian-directed cinematography and art direction. Kinski really surprised me as a screen presence.

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