Paul Schrader essentially ended his career as a Hollywood-level director with his 1982 remake of Cat People. Ironically enough, he took on this film as a director-for-hire between more personal projects — but the result was too artsy and cerebral for the horror crowd while simultaneously being too kinky and gruesome for the arthouse crowd. Schrader’s subsequent films were made on a more modest, indie scale as Cat People’s box office failure burned a lot of bridges. That said, the film’s sense of style and daring have earned it a cult following that it deserves.
This remake transplants the storyline to New Orleans and replaces the original film’s newlywed protagonists with the sister and brother duo of Irina (Natassja Kinski) and Paul (Malcolm McDowell). They were separated as children but Paul tracked her down and invites her to live with him in New Orleans. She tries to build a new life by taking a job at a local zoo, where she becomes romantically involved with zookeeper Oliver (John Heard).
Unfortunately, Irina has forgotten some dark secrets about her family that Paul knows all too well: they are descended from a line of half-human/half-animal evolutionary oddities who are doomed to transform into panthers if they have sex with people outside their bloodline. As she tries to deal with this terrible secret, she experiences an awakening of desire — for sex and blood — that will change the lives of everyone involved with her.
It’s understandable why a film with this sort of premise would be rejected by the mainstream — Cat People is quick to shove the viewer into the psychosexual deep-end with a Freudian-inflected storyline driven by elements of bestiality, incest and S&M. It has some moments of intense gruesomeness — a zoo worker getting his arm ripped out of its socket by a panther, an autopsy on a panther that reveals a surreal yet gory secret — but it’s not concerned with delivering conventional horror movie pacing or payoffs. It’s just as well because Schrader never seems entirely comfortable with the demands of the genre and fumbles the occasional beat: in particular, an attempted redux of the famous swimming scene from the original Cat People falls flat.
That said, Cat People is worth watching despite its challenging, sometime uncertain nature because it is one of the most stylish and audacious films to emerge from the early ‘80s mainstream horror cycle. Schrader harnesses the talents of cinematographer John Bailey and production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti to create a film with a sumptuous look: the angular cityscapes suggest a noir film infused with shocks of primary color and the fantasy sequences have offer Jodorowsky-esque surrealism with a Hollywood budget.
The panther effects, which mix well-trained real panthers with impressive Tom Burman makeup FX, complete the film’s stylized visual sense: Schrader saves the big person-to-panther transformation until the third act but when it arrives, it’s a showstopper. A pulsating electronic score from Giorgio Moroder complements the film’s mix of the sultry and cerebral perfectly — and it features a killer, David Bowie-sung theme song later revived to memorable effect in Inglourious Basterds.
This version of Cat People also benefits from a strong cast. Kinski is treated as equal parts “little girl lost” and fetish object by Schrader but she rises to the challenge of both elements, bravely baring her body — particularly during the film’s second half — while creating an affecting portrait of shy, unsure young woman who grows into a sexualized, otherworldly force of nature. McDowell brings all his sinister charisma to the fore as Paul, matching Kinski’s sense of daring with a palpably intense portrait of dark passion gone awry.
Heard goes in the opposite direction, bring a low-key naturalism to his role as an outsider who covets the beauty and mystery that Irina offers (he’s no doubt a cinematic surrogate for Schrader here). Elsewhere, there is nice support from Annette O’Toole as a representation of the “normal life” that Oliver recedes from as his Irina obsession grows and Ruby Dee as a housekeeper who puts up a kind front but knows the real price of Paul’s hidden nature. Cult movie fans should also look for Lynn Lowry in a brief but memorable role as a prostitute who runs afoul of Paul.
Most importantly, Schrader’s direction uses all the aforementioned technical and thespian prowess to create a truly hypnotic piece of work. At its heart, his version of Cat People is a tale of how the release of sexuality can be alluring and terrifying all at once, a stance that kind of makes this a horror-oriented companion to his film Hardcore. He approaches his material with a strange but personalized combination of high style and clinical distance, with the sexual content and shocks serving as expressions of the dark psychology that informs the storyline. The result is not for all tastes but those who like daring genre cinema are likely to find it hypnotic.