In Paul Schrader’s 1982 reimagining of Cat People, Irena (Natassja Kinski) is a naive young woman (and virgin) who, after the death of her parents, has spent most of her previous life in foster care. Irena travels to New Orleans, where she reconnects with her older brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell). From the minute that Irena meets her brother and his housekeeper (Ruby Dee), it’s obvious that something is off. When Paul looks at her, he does so with an unsettling intensity. At night, while Irena sleeps, Paul wanders the dark streets of New Orleans.
One morning, Irena wakes up to discover that Paul is missing. Having nothing else to do, Irena wanders around New Orleans. When she visits the zoo, she feels an immediate connection to a caged panther who stares at her with a familiar intensity. It turns out that the panther was captured the previous night, after he mysteriously appeared in a sleazy motel and mauled a prostitute.
It’s at the zoo that Irena meets zookeeper Oliver Yates (John Heard). Oliver gets Irena a job working at the zoo gift shop. where Irena is befriended by Oliver’s co-worker, Alice (Annette O’Toole). One day, Irena witnesses the panther kill another zookeeper before it then escapes from its cage.
That night, Paul suddenly shows up in Irena’s bedroom. He explains to her that they are a cursed species. Having sex causes them to turn into panthers and the only way to avoid the curse is through incest. A terrified Irena flees her brother and soon finds herself living with and falling in love with the increasingly obsessive Oliver, all the while knowing that giving herself to him physically will lead to her transformation.
From the very first second of the film. Schrader’s Cat People is an exercise in pure style. If the original Cat People was largely distinguished by its restraint, Schrader’s version is all about excess. Everything that was merely suggested in the original is made explicit in this version. As tempting as it may be to try, it’s somewhat pointless to try to compare these two versions. Though they may both be about a woman who turns into a panther when she has sex, they are two very different films.
Schrader’s Cat People walks a very fine line between moodiness and absurdity, which is perhaps why I enjoyed it. Making great use of both the sultry New Orleans setting and Giorgio Moroder’s atmospheric score, Cat People is compulsively dream-like and enjoyably over-the-top. Cat People is often described as being an example of a movie that could have only been made in the coked up 80s and truly, this is one of those films that’s so excessive that it’s becomes fascinating to watch.
(I think that often we are too quick to assume that excess is necessarily a bad thing. If you can’t be excessive when you’ve got Malcolm McDowell playing an incest-minded cat person in New Orleans, when can you be excessive?)
Schrader’s Cat People may not have much in common with the original version but the film’s best scene is the only one that is a direct recreation of a scene from the original. In fact, in recreating the scene where Alice is menaced while swimming in a public pool, Schrader actually improves on the original. Brilliantly performed by both Annette O’Toole and Natassja Kinski (whose cat-like features made her perfect for the role of Irena), it’s the only scene in the film that can truly be called scary. Starting with a tracking shock that follows Alice as she jogs, the stalking scene is practically a master class in effective horror cinema. If nothing else, you should see Cat People for that one scene.
And you should also see it for the wonderful soundtrack! You will probably recongize David Bowie’s theme song from its appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds but its used to even better effect here. The soundtrack contributes to the moody sensuality of this very dream-like film.