A monthlong series in which Mr. Dossey looks at feline films, fine or otherwise.
Cat People, Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 horror classic, offers a surprisingly progressive depiction of a woman who is afraid of both her body and the things of which she’s capable. Aly’s No Sleep October essay describes it more effectively than I can. Suffice to say she’s never been inclined to watch Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake, which lifts the title, character descriptions and elements of the basic premise but not much else.
Schrader’s Cat People drops the psychological horror and obfuscated violence, opting instead for bodily mutilation. He eschews the weight of a (fateful?) kiss in favor of hardcore sex and, ultimately, domination of the female body by men who define it. Everything is made explicit — and lesser than — in comparison to the original release. However, it’s at least an entertaining sleaze-fest, a slow-burning grotesquerie with a classic score by Giorgio Moroder and theme song performed by David Bowie.
Irena (Nastassja Kinski) is a Canadian orphan whose childhood in and out of foster homes has left her desperate to learn about her true family. She locates Paul (Malcolm McDowell), a long-lost twin brother, in New Orleans, and sets out to meet him. Paul spent his childhood in mental institutions and now lives with his housekeeper, Female (Ruby Dee), leading a life of religious fundamentalism. While traveling around town, Irena meets Oliver (John Heard) and Alice (Annette O’Toole), two local zoologists who captured a stray panther on the same the night Irena arrived in town. Irena hits it off with Oliver, but finds Alice jealous of their immediate connection. Here’s the thing: Irena is reserved, unsure of herself and still a virgin. She knows nothing of her power.
Paul is anything but. He’s an expressive and terrifying individual from the jump and only becomes more disturbing as the story progresses. The mysterious panther mauls one of Oliver and Alice’s friends before disappearing, leaving behind a green, fleshy substance on the ground of his cage. Soon, Paul starts to make overt sexual advances on Irena, explaining that they are descendants of a cult whose members turn into panthers upon sexual release and must kill a person to resume their human form. The only people they can fuck without an aftermath of horrific transformation are their own siblings.
Pretty fucked up, but also a perfect setup for a movie drowning in male-gaze panic about the possibility that a woman might control her own sexual urges. Which is what this happens to be. Adding Paul into the mix was reportedly done to avoid the criticism that Tourneur’s version punishes Irena. In the original, she chooses to die rather than live with her curse. Rather than create a new situation by which to explore the themes of the original movie, Schrader’s version minimizes Irena as a character, leaving her to more or less float around the extremities of Paul’s endless lust and terrifying violence for the better part of the film. “You’ve got to make love to me,” he implores, “as brother and sister.”
Irena isn’t even present during the most important moments in Paul’s villainous life: the discovery of his corpse-filled basement sex dungeon by the cops, his mutilation of prostitutes or even his eventual demise at the business end of Oliver’s shotgun. Indeed, Irena has little to do with Paul beyond acting as an object of his desire and, later, a possible embodiment of his legacy. Her ultimate end is less empowering than the 1942 version, beckoning Oliver to fuck her into panther form and then lock her up. In the moment, the scene feels like the start of a much more interesting movie about a woman exploring her sexuality — and the bondage elements add to that — but it’s really. just Schrader and company getting off.
Schrader is a great director, though, even though this movie falls short of being anything besides a thematic disappointment. His directorial grasp of using taboo content to create atmosphere is as excellent as his script is terrible. Despite being deeply problematic, his Cat People is delightful. The horror sequences work. Panthers stalk their prey and rip them to shreds. Kinski and McDowell each undergo nauseatingly graphic transformation sequences. When Ed Begley, Jr.’s character gets his arm ripped off by Paul in panther form, his spewing blood flows over a shocked Irena’s pointed shoes. When a prostitute falls down the steps to escape her four-pawed pursuer, her bra just happens to burst open in cartoonish fashion. It’s a corny, odd collision of art-school and B-movie filmmaking. In moments of terror, Schrader’s Cat People understands itself implicitly and still connects despite dated storytelling.