A movie I hadn’t seen since first renting it on VHS in the late 80’s, Paul Schrader’s Cat People is a movie I remembered very little about except that there was a giant black leopard, a ton of nudity and a lot of things that just didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at that age.
Upon revisiting, very little has changed in my opinion except that, despite its many flaws, Cat People does manage to exhibit a few moments of genius filmmaking with an intoxicating and almost dreamlike atmosphere that ultimately makes it a memorable- albeit uneven- exploration of obsession, repressed sexual desires and death.
Cat People follows a young woman named Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski ), who was orphaned as a child and has now arrived in New Orleans to live with the long-lost brother she never knew she had, Paul (Malcolm McDowell). Oddly enough, Paul has been expecting Irena’s arrival for some time and, as if her relationship with her newly discovered brother isn’t strange enough, Irena then meets a zoo curator Oliver Yates (John Heard), who finds himself inexplicably drawn to the young woman. As Irena begins to discover secrets about her brother and how their destinies are intertwined, she finds her life spiraling out of control as her animalistic tendencies begin to emerge towards Oliver, putting him and everyone she knows in danger.
Throughout most of his career, Schrader never shied away from exploring the often polarizing themes of raw sexuality and power- particularly, Taxi Driver, Hardcore and American Gigolo, all which he penned before helming Cat People. With his remake of the 1942 classic, Schrader offers up his own perspective on the sexual taboo of incest by taking the lupine-esque heritage story from the original film and making it into an allegory for Paul’s growing carnal interest in his own sister, which was undoubtedly shocking back in the early 80’s and still remains pretty shocking despite the passing of several decades since it was first released.
Cat People sinks its claws in early and digs right under your skin with Schrader’s unflinching desire as a storyteller to test the sexual boundaries of his main characters by toying with the idea of ‘normal’ mating rituals of animals versus what we as humans are taught. Schrader also wields undeniable power with his visual palette in the film, so even as the story challenges you as a viewer, Schrader’s evocative atmosphere makes it hard to look away.
The screenplay by Alan Ormsby, while a bit light on character development, does offer up many shocking moments with shades of subtle insanity that pairs nicely with Schrader’s directorial style and penchant for oddly striking visuals. With New Orleans providing a steamy backdrop to set the mood and the inclusion of an actual large feline predator to production, there’s a palpable amount of danger, tension and eroticism throughout the film, elevating Cat People above its sometimes paper-thin storyline.
While I may not necessarily feel it’s a timeless horror classic, there’s something to be said for Cat People and its provocative story. A major studio wouldn’t go near a project like Schrader’s these days, once again proving that making horror/thriller films with true huevos and an air of true unpredictability are a thing of the past.
In terms of presentation, Scream Factory did a great job with their high-definition release of Cat People. The overall film looked stellar, especially considering Schrader’s use of several visually stunning set pieces that popped rather vividly here. Scream also does a fantastic job on the bonus features with the inclusion of several new interviews featuring Schrader, his cast, and composer Giorgio Moroder. All were really informative and entertaining, particularly Schrader who offers up a little insight into his approach with Cat People (quite frankly, I could have sat through an hour-long featurette talking about his style of filmmaking- Schrader’s THAT engaging).
A blunt and no-holds-barred blending of steamy eroticism, dreamlike atmosphere, violence and sexual taboos, Cat People has a certain charm to it even if it’s not necessarily the best we’ve seen from Schrader (or from Kinski and McDowell as well). Overall, there’s a lot of awesome stuff to be found on Scream Factory’s Cat People Blu-ray, making it a release long-time fans of Schrader’s erotic thriller definitely will enjoy adding to their collections.
Film Score: 3/5, Disc Score: 4/5