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).

CatPeop82-posUnfortunately, 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.