CAT PEOPLE - Golden Oldies Finally On DVD
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Sept. 1, 2017
EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Schrader’s remake of ‘Cat People’ is everything you might expect from the filmmaker, over-the-top, in-your-face and in some places hard to watch, but it still has a following, hence the new Blu-ray upgrade from The Shout! Factory on its Scream horror-movie label. Here’s my review, published April 7, 1982, in the Deseret News.
Paul Schrader’s “Cat People” offers an interesting study in contrasts to anyone familiar with Val Lewton’s 1942 version. Lewton was the master of subtlety and illusion, bringing terror out of our fears of the dark and the unknown. Schrader is a literalist who doesn’t seem to have any faith in the audience’s imagination, putting everything right up there on the screen.
There are moments in “Cat People” when that is very effective, but there are far too many others when it’s rather disgusting.
Nastassia Kinski stars as a young woman who fears an ancient curse (one that is never actually explained), which causes her to turn into a raging panther whenever she makes love, ultimately killing the man she is with. For that reason, she has remained a virgin into her adulthood.
Now she is brought home by her brother, Malcolm McDowell, who tries to convince her that incest is the only way they can survive — that their heritage is one of incestuous bonds.
McDowell is really a supporting player here; the film is Kinski’s, and she does it justice with a sensuous, innocent portrayal that makes some of the film’s conclusions even more terrifying since they seem to be scaring her as much as the audience.
Nastassja Kinski, 'Cat People'
Schrader’s religious repression is no more in control here than in his other films as writer or director (“Taxi Driver,” “Hardcore,” “American Gigolo”), and guilt is the name of the game.
But in “Cat People” he pulls out all the stops, playing on our taboos as much as he can, both sexual and violent. Incest isn’t enough, we have to have bondage as well, along with hints of bestiality, and the most violent post-coital male response you’re likely to ever see, though depicted here with the mutilated remains, rather than showing us the act itself.
He makes up for that earlier, however, with a very explicit dismemberment scene as a panther pulls off a zookeeper’s arm.
Those scenes as well as some that are very sexually explicit, make “Cat People” one of the roughest R-rated films I’ve seen in awhile.
Schrader does have some very worthwhile stuff to offer, including some terrific atmospheric photography by John Baiely (“Ordinary People,” “American Gigolo”), some interesting visual interpretation by Ferdinando Scarfiotti (production designer for “Last Tango in Paris,” “American Gigolo”) and a superb musical score by Giorgio Moroder, who won an Oscar for “Midnight Express.” Watch for Moroder to be up again next for this one.
McDowell, like Kinski, is very well cast and seems very catlike even without the fur. John Heard, as the curator of the local zoo is excellent as Kinski’s first real love, and Annette O’Toole is equally fine as Heard’s girlfriend until Kinski arrives on the scene.
An interesting point about the latter is that O’Toole is so charming that it’s sometimes almost hard to believe that Heard would dump her for the brooding Kinski — yet that ethereal quality that inexplicably mesmerizes Heard comes across the screen. Kinski has an undeniably vital screen quality that should make her an enduring star in years to come.
Schrader makes good use of his New Orleans locale (it’s always nice to see some city other than New York or Los Angeles prominent in a movie), and he does manage to conjure up some terrifying, if illogical scenes. Occasionally suspenseful, often extremely fascinating, “Cat People” nonetheless suffers from Schrader’s incessant overkill directorial style.
In the end, I’ll take Val Lewton over Paul Schrader. When Schrader learns that shock is not the same as scare, that titillation is not the same as sensuality and that graphic depictions will never equal what the imagination can conjure up — then he will be a much more successful director.