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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Cat People
Cat People
Universal // R // August 27, 2002
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by D.K. Holm | posted August 17, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

Cat People is the best Anne Rice adaptation ever committed to screen. This erotic horror tale has it all: the New Orleans setting, the tribal heritage of blood and ritual that sets apart a mysterious subset of humanity, it has incest (or nearly so), and it has a naif drawn into a world of beyond his ken.

Too bad it's not based on an actual Anne Rice novel.

Instead Cat People is based on the respected horror film that Val Lewton made (it was his first) in the '40s for RKO. Paul Schrader, the critic-turned-screenwriter-turned director, coming off of a string of three films he both wrote and directed (Blue Collar, Hard Core, and the popular and stylish American Gigolo) was offered the film by Universal when another project fell apart and Schrader decided to do his first adaptation of another man's work, in this case Alan Ormsby's remake of the Lewton. According to interviews on this disc and elsewhere, Cat People ended up becoming his most personal film.

That's because Schrader fell into a marriage-destroying affair with the film's star, Nastassia Kinski. Cat People was her third film in English (after Tess and One From the Heart) and she was the up and coming new European model of efficient acting. She bore a resemblance to Ingrid Bergman, and Schrader says he used her because she had a screen persona that could go from virginal to lethal. Schrader's affair actually weaves well into the thematics of the film, given that Kinski's character evokes a similar blend of worship and lust in the film's male lead (Kinski, who appears to have favored affairs with her directors, had a falling out with Schrader not long after the shooting stopped, and went to the head of the studio to ask for her nude scenes to be deleted. The exec refused).

After a prologue in which the ancient roots of the "cat people" mythos is introduced on a highly stylized studio set, we are introduced to Irena Gallier (Kinski), who has flown to the New Orleans airport to meet her brother long-lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell, playing a character with the same first name as the director). It soon becomes clear that Paul has more than just reunion plans for sis. Irena ends up working in a zoo supervised by intellectual Dante-buff Oliver Yates (John Heard, a Schrader-clone as his leading men often are), who is smitten by the mysterious woman he found one night standing hypnotized before the leopard cage after hours. Their affair seems to occur right under the nose of his ostensible girlfriend Alice (the robust Annette O'Toole), but things get out of hand when, her virginity shattered, she turns into a leopard just as her brother said she would. What will the animal-loving Oliver do with this dangerous beast?

In the book Schrader on Schrader (faber & faber, 325 pages, $17.95, 0 571 14247 8), Schrader admits that he didn't really care for the source film all that much. "It was interesting in its use of shadows and so forth, but I didn't fine it very good and I was perturbed that people were trying to compare the two. I wish I'd changed the title because then there wouldn't have been the comparison."

As Schrader explains on the disc, after making this movie he went to Japan to make Mishima, and came back to find a different industry, into which he didn't seem to fit. Since then, he has worked in the so-called "indie" market.

Also as he explains, the story shows more skin than blood. It is rather startling to see so much sex and female nudity in the film, by unabashed actress proud of their appearance, particularly in this day and age of R rated movies that have no nudity in them at all. As Schrader, this movie was made before the advent of the internet, where a woman's figure will live forever, spirited away digitally.

The movie's lush quality also has to do with Schrader's state of mind at the time, but also his association with production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who had also worked on Gigolo. Schrader says he took on this film because he wanted to explore visual ideas, and it is well known that a director can be more stylish in a suspense film than in almost any other genre. Part of this has to do with the work of Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who gives the film a Dante Spinotti-style look (Manhunter). This is also one of the last, if not the last film, with work by Albert Whitlock, who did a lot of matte paintings for Hitchcock.

Cat People ends up coming across as a little on the cool side despite all the teeming passions behind the scenes. It has its eerie moments, as long as you don't try to view it as a scary movie. In fact, the film really only stumbles when it tries for outright horror, as when a leopard pulls off someone's arm. Also, the film has a rather huge cast: Ruby Dee as a cat-person minder named Female (but pronounced to rhyme with Tamale), Ed Begley Jr., something of a Schrader regular, Silence of the Lamb's Frankie Faison (though his voice is dubbed by Apocalypse Now's Albert Hall), TV star John Larroquette, and in a small role as a pool monitor, Berry Berenson, the widow of Anthony Perkins who died in one of the 911 crashes.


VIDEO: Universal has put together a fine disc version of Cat People. The company had previously released two laser disc version, one in full frame, the other widescreen but with some different music. On this single-sided, dual-layered disc, they seem to have not only loaded on the movie in a fine (if sometimes somewhat dark) wide screen version (1.85:1) enhanced for wide screen televisions, but have added numerous supplements. The recreation of John Bailey's cinematography is mostly fine, but looks a little soft at times.

SOUND: The 1982 movie comes in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo only, and only in English, though it has English , Spanish, and French subtitles. The film doesn't necessarily suffer from this; it's a fine track for what is ultimately a simple immorality tale. Effects that perhaps would have been better in 5.1, such as O'Toole in the pool, still play well. Giorgio Moroder's thin, tinny, synthetic disco beats do not suffer from this format.

MENUS: The silent static menu offers a couple of screens of clearly designed and simple lists of features. Scene selection holds 20 chapters for the 118 minute movie.

PACKAGING: A keep case bears a version or a portion of the original poster on the cover, with further images on the chapter list insert, the back cover, the disc label, and on the menus.

EXTRAS: This disc is fairly packed for a film that was a controversial stage in the director's career, and which didn't seem to do as well at the box office as his previous film, American Gigolo.

Director Paul Schrader Audio Track As a writer and an experience speaker, Schrader gives an informed and at times painfully honest account (regarding Kinski and other matters) of what he was trying to do on the film.

"Cat People: An Intimate Portrait by Paul Schrader" This 25-minute video interview, recorded later the same day he did the commentary track, is a thorough, frank, and nearly complete account of the making of the film, with Schrader honest about some of the intellectual underpinnings, such as the Dante-Beatrice theme, he brought to the subject. Funnily enough, ABC (I think it was) did a special on the "new" Hollywood (just as it was getting co-opted and failing), and Cat People figured in it. I recall a charming moment in which McDowell is confiding to the camera that he is about to go sit in a tree, and that actors have to learn how to make those transitions. It would have been fun of Universal to did up that footage.

"On the Set with Director Paul Schrader" An eleven-minute, color interview with the director as he stands in front of one of the cat cages on the noisy set. His unwillingness to talk about the film to the British female interviewer is admirable and interesting, because born of his authentic wrestling with the truth of his replies, but he wouldn't get away with that behavior today. Schrader, who with his owlish glasses, looks like a cross between Peter Bogdanovich and Steve Guttenberg, is wearing a tight black t-shirt and tight jeans. He doesn't seem to know what to do with his hands (they don't fit in his tight pockets anyway). At some point in his career, Schrader decided that he didn't want to look like the typical writer, but short of dressing up like Tom Wolfe, he chose Armani, and Gigolo is an hommage to the designer. His association with the late Scarfiotti suggests a complex set of social circles he may have been running in, and on the audio commentary, Schrader hints that there were some cocaine problems on the set.

"Cat People: A Discussion With Special Make-Up Effects Artist Tom Burman" A highly informative 11-minute featurette in which the Burman, who works with his brother, discloses some of the secrets of Kinski's transformation into a cat.

Albert Whitlock Matte Paintings A three minute slide show of Whitlock's superb work for this film. Whitlock's work didn't always look good. Some of his Hitchcock stuff is obvious. But his farewell to cinema production is outstanding.

"Filmmaker Robert Wise on Val Lewton" Universal house DVD documentarian interviews the editor turned director for three-and-a-half minutes on who Lewton was and what he did on Cat People and others. It's all basic information, and the disc would have done well to reprint George Turner's article on Lewton and the first Cat People from the May-June 1982 issue (Volume 12, No. 4) of Cinefantastique, a thorough and riveting account of the making of the film, without rose-colored glasses. The same issue of the magazine has coverage of Schrader's film as well which Universal might have been able to get the rights to include (or does Hollywood not want to "encourage" the once-controversial magazine?).

Production Photographs A six minute slide show of stills and location shots set to the David Bowie theme song.

Other Extras Also on hand are the theatrical trailer (in pretty good shape), an eight-screen print history of the production, and a static, solo screen of ads for other Universal DVDs.

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