Directed by Paul Schrader
Distributed by Scream Factory
Long before remakes were all the much maligned rage in genre cinema, Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder screenwriter Paul Schrader elected to follow up his previous three directorial efforts with an adaptation of the 1942 Val Lewton production of director Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People. Trailing behind such relatively straightforward (yet still gritty) films as Blue Collar, Hardcore, and American Gigolo, this werecat-centered horror tale must have seemed a strange choice to admirers of the rising filmmaker. But by emphasizing the story’s themes of obsession, sex, and repression in his version, Schrader found a way to craft a film that fit rather well in his developing oeuvre. But does the resulting redux hold up after all these years?
Just re-released onto Blu-ray by the good folks at Scream Factory, the 1982 Cat People opens with a stunning sequence featuring a poor young lass being offered up to a massive black leopard. The film then introduces us to Irena Gallier (Kinski), a young woman who’s just arrived in New Orleans to reunite with her long-lost brother Paul (McDowell), who immediately exhibits an unhealthy interest in his beautiful young sister. Irena settles into her new life quickly enough, even taking a job at a local zoo and catching the eye of zoologist Oliver (Heard).
But even as things are looking up for our heroine, strange events abound. First, Paul disappears – an event which heralds the appearance of a massive and utterly lethal panther within the city limits. Meanwhile, Irena begins to behave strangely, taking to prowling about the local park in the nude while hunting and eating the poor small animals which cross her path. Are Irena and Paul merely going mad, or are they actually–
Okay, look, they’re cat people. Alright? It’s right there in the title. They’re people, and they turn into cats.
That inherently silly idea worked quite well before under Tourneur’s classy, suggestive direction. And, amazingly, it works just as well here in Schrader’s far more lurid take on the material. Whereas Lewton’s production worked wonders with its story by making it as ambiguous as possible (to a point, anyway), Schrader shows us the transformations, all while drenching the film in the kind of sex and violence that would’ve been impossible to bring to the screen in the 40s.
But don’t get me wrong – this remake isn’t just trashy pulp. Rather, Schrader simply updated the tale and presented it with no punches pulled, all while infusing it with a subtext that brought this outlandish tale more into line with his thematic sensibilities. In addition, this reviewer was surprised by how very modern Cat People feels. Even for the synth score and all the now-vintage fashions on display, Schrader’s direction keeps the proceedings feeling more fresh than dated. The filmmaker even manages to ladle in some surprisingly effective jump scares alongside some impressive gore and goo gags.
Helping Schrader tell this bizarre tale was his impressive cast. As Irena, the ethereally gorgeous Kinski strikes the perfect balance between sweet and scary, never losing the audience’s sympathy even as she becomes a potential threat to others throughout the film. Heard does a fine job as well, playing what might have been a bland, boring, straight-arrow hero as a slightly unbalanced, lovelorn obsessee (what sane guy would fall for a big cat, after all? …okay, if the cat in question looked like Kinski, likely many). And though he’s sidelined for a good portion of the movie in favor of his feline counterpart, McDowell makes one hell of an impression as Paul, alternately portraying his character as a charming host and a yearning, wide-eyed loon. The supporting cast members are all solid as well – including Annette O’Toole, Ed Begley Jr., and John Larroquette (Lynn Lowry, of Romero’s The Crazies, even puts in a brief appearance). The entire troupe does fine work, helping to ground the film’s more ridiculous aspects.
In addition to its cast, Cat People boasts beautiful photography from John Bailey, who makes great use of bold colors, inky shadows, and the occasional dutch angle throughout. Also wonderful is Giorgio Moroder’s moody, synthy musical score, which gives the movie its pulse. Moroder also collaborated with David Bowie on Cat People’s theme song (known alternately as “Putting Out Fire”), which was recently used to spectacular effect by Quentin Tarantino in his recent World War II yarn Inglourious Basterds.
Scream Factory brings Cat People to Blu with a decent, if lackluster image. While the colors are quite beautiful throughout (the opening title sequence, featuring neon lime letters against red sand, is nearly hypnotic), and while the darker, more shadowy sequences boast rich blacks, the image isn’t as sharp as one might hope given the level of detail found in other, more recent offerings from Scream. Don’t get me wrong, this transfer is hardly unwatchable, it simply isn’t quite up to the standard recent re-releases of this sort have set.
The DTS-HD Master Audio is presented with 5.1 and 2.0 options, and both are perfectly solid choices. There are some sequences where the film’s musical score threaten to entirely overpower the dialogue, but overall the tracks do their job just fine.
Among other fun items, the bonus features include a set of interviews with the film’s principals. Kinski, O’Toole, Heard, McDowell, Moroder, Schrader, and even Lowry speak about their involvement with the project. They’re all brief (averaging 5-6 minutes each) and well worth a watch – particularly the talk with Schrader, who discusses how he altered the film’s scripted ending to the haunting denouement we have now, and how the film was intended to further a line of Universal Horror remakes which had up until that point included Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Carpenter’s version of The Thing. Following these up are the film’s theatrical trailer and TV spot (both of which make good use of Bowie’s song) and two galleries – one featuring a rather large collection of stills, behind-the-scenes shots, and lobby cards; the other containing production artwork and various bits of domestic and international poster art. All in all, a solid package – though a commentary with Schrader or the cast would have been incredible.
With its offbeat story, top notch direction, and its stellar cast, Cat People is a movie prime for rediscovery. Here’s hoping Scream’s re-release brings some much needed attention to this shoulda-been cult classic. If you’re a fan of smart, sexy horror (who isn’t?!), do yourself a favor – buy this film!!
4 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5