Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A failure on most levels, Cat People is the movie ace writer Paul Schrader took on to extend
his 'cinematic vocabulary.' An attempt at a sexier, more explicit remake of a Val Lewton classic, it
doesn't compare to the original, but that's not the problem. Well acted, and very handsomely designed,
it doesn't generate much in the way of genre thrills or intellectual interest.
Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) arrives in New Orleans to reunite with her long-separated
brother Paul (Malcolm McDowall), and gets a job in the zoo where she meets curator Oliver Yates (John
Heard). But Paul has some bad news for his sister: they're both incestuously-conceived Cat People,
derived from an ancient race of cat worshippers. They can only make love to their own kind, because
if they don't, they'll transform into big panthers - who must kill before returning to human form.
It is a remake, Mr. Schrader.
The 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers brought on the first wave of classic horror and Sci
Fi remakes, only a few of which could claim an actual reason for being besides trading on a known
title. Cat People is one of the strangest of the lot - it takes what was a superb psychological
story for its day and literalizes all the mystery out of it. The old film was about sex, fear of
sex, and the intolerance meted out to people who deviate from sexual norms. 1942 audiences embraced it
because it flattered them: it was a film that was commercially accessible, yet engaged the
intellect and imagination. 2
The remake is simply about the nuts'n bolts of Irena's shape-shifting dilemma - gruesome
transformations, graphic makeup effects.
In interviews old and new, respected screenwriter Paul Schrader shows that he just doesn't understand
the horror genre. The very classy production seems ashamed of the fact that its subject is gory
killings, and works overtime to aestheticize everything. The dream images of the ancient cat-worshippers
are vividly presented, and even the zoo is designed to look old, yet visually perfect. 1
The freedom to be frank about sex and incest allows Schrader to make his story explicit, but his
treatment robs the concept of any relevance to the viewer. Schrader and screenwriter Ormsby seem to
think the killings and transformations and nudity are all there is to a horror movie.
In Cinefantastique in 1982, and in the 2000 docu (that's how long this DVD has been waiting
for release) Paul Schrader vocalized his irritation over Cat People being identified as a
remake of an older film. He still doesn't like the comparisons and says they have little in common
except the title, which he wishes had been changed. His attitude makes little sense, as the title
was clearly the reason the film got remade (it's even co-presented by RKO). Not only that, but
even though Schrader and Ormsby expand on the original (there really are Cat People here, not
just a Cat Person), they restage scenes from the original in almost exactly the same way. Again, the
1982 Schrader sensibility defuses any interest in the scenes. His 'bus' is a lame hommage, and the
pool scene is almost completely ineffective. The wonderful Annette O'Toole goes topless, with some
justification in the script but little necessity beyond exploitation - the nudity here is so
automatic, I was expecting Ruby Dee to go naked. Menaced by the growling Kinski, O'Toole's not
bothered by being nude, so she seems even less vulnerable. The scene doesn't get above the nudity
issue - it's all we're paying attention to. 4
The same and more goes for Nastassja Kinski. She gives a sweet and thoughtful performance, and was
obviously game for whatever her director asked of her, but the end result is that we spend the movie
looking at her body instead of thinking about her character. It's exploitative - not in the sense
that the movie is dirty or anything - but exploitative in that the real subject on view is the
nudity and not the artsy production values.
Val Lewton's Irena's problem with Sex was always interpretable as being psychologically rooted in
feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and shame. Paul and Irena's schematic sex problem is as mechanical
as Larry Talbot checking his almanac for full moons, or Kharis counting his Tana leaves. Does their
sex have to be incestuous, or, could Paul look up Irena's 'hermana' for some harmless
release of his feline desires? Or, if he's so concerned about his murders, why can't he do what
millions of humans do and take up a hobby?
In Cat People, being sexual is BAD if one is a Cat Person, and GOOD if one is not. That's
about all the film has to say.
The dialogue writing in Alan Ormsby's script is excellent, and all of the actors do fine work. John
Heard does a good job keeping his relationship with Irena free from ridiculousness, at least up
to the, "Well, I'll bring you choice cuts on Tuesdays" ending. Annette O'Toole makes Alice into
a nice character who is given the final female triumph - her rival permanently transformed into a
beast. Bet she kisses Oliver right outside the cage when she needs an ego boost. A youngish Ed Begley,
Jr. is in for a gruesome end. Reviewers seem to confuse the gawky characters he plays with his
acting ability, and he deserves better.
Two random ideas from watching Cat People: Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's The Leopard
Man is pinned on a not-very-interesting plot hook of an escaped panther (that had nothing to do
with shape-shifting). In Schrader/Ormsby's conception of the Cat People, it seems that when Irena
or Paul were in their feline states, one could take them back to the jungle. Unless they
decided to kill a human being, could they then live out their lives as animals ...?
Secondly, Oliver's panther autopsy makes us think that Cat People may have been influenced
by John Carpenter's The Thing, released in the same year. Inside the dead panther seems to
be an entire human Paul. Does this mean that Paul is 'reborn' each time he transforms? Does he have
to eat the entire remains of the sloughed-off Panther flesh each time he changes? Does he eat the
fur too, or does he sell the pelts each time and thereby make a good living? These kinds of pointless
questions are exactly why old movies like Cat People '42 and Invasion of the Body
Snatchers avoid getting too bogged down in explicit details.
Universal's DVD of Cat People is very nicely outfitted with extras. A fussy ("I'm running a
temperature") Paul Schrader sticks stubbornly to his opinions about his film, but is more than generous
with his praise for his actors and his designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, with whom he claims to have
wanted to share screen director credit. Tom Burman goes over the makeup designs with obvious
pride (he met his wife, a sculptor, when he hired her for the show), and there's a thorough
documentation of stills, art, and matte paintings.
An interview with Robert Wise on Val Lewton's original doesn't provide new information about the
legendary producer, and neither does Wise comment on the remake.
The transfer is very clear, but intentionally or not, the reds seemed too overdone on two different
monitors. Otherwise, the detail and image nuance are fine.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cat People rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Trailers, Docu, Commentary with Paul Schrader, 1982 Schrader interview
on the set, Tom Burman makeup effects featurette, Robert Wise interview on Val Lewton, stills &
matte paintings galleries
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: September 1, 2002
1. An odd zoo it is, too. One can walk right up to the wide-barred
cages, where the cats can easily swipe out and make contact. The RKO zoo looked similar, but there was a safety wall
putting a couple of yards between cats and humans.
2. The original Cat People was unique in its depiction of
sex - the urge, the jealousy, shame, and vindictiveness. All of this was at least one level below
the surface, and 1942 audiences were surprised to find content of this kind in a Hollywood movie -
here were people living out the problems many of them felt in their intimate, non-public lives. The
original Cat People remains fascinating over repeated viewings because its character
situations are universally identifiable.
3. No jokes about Savant compensating with DVD collecting, please.
4. True conversation: I once overheard a film professor seriously saying
that if Ms. Kinski had larger breasts, then the constant nudity in Cat People would have
been exploitative. ?????? Maybe if Paul or Oliver had painted Irena in the nude, as was the
hypocritical censor dodge in Titanic, the film could have been rated PG.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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