Reviewed by Kyle Counts
One complaint I often hear about Paul Schrader films is that they are the work of a man who uses the medium as a platform for his personal problem-solving. That doesn’t strike me as much of a criticism, since that’s precisely why they are interesting. Schrader is a director who wears his neuroses on his sleeve and openly admits that his screenplays – laden with blood, lust and alienation – are-are his way of chasing the demons which have haunted him since his formative Dutch Calvinist adolescence.
As commendable as that revelation might be, this idiosyncratic pursuit hasn’t necessarily served him well in his motion picture career. Aside from a few brilliant strokes of the pen in TAXI DRIVER and his astute observations on the capitalist double-cross of the working class heroes in -BLUE COLLAR, his films always seem to tell the wrong tale-and ultimately lose sight of their themes due Schrader’s insistence upon emphasizing metaphoric sensationalism over involving human emotion.
The irony is that while he continues to explore his specific psycho-sexual fears in CA’I’ PEOPLE, his traitorous update of the 1942 Jacques Tourneur B-classic, another writer – Alan Ormsby – provided the narrative framework that helped Schrader’s magnificent obsessions work in harmony with the movie’s intentions. Obvious and self-indulgent though it may be, CAT PEOPLE is a bold, stylish and disturbing film, as haunting as it is visually eloquent.
Ormsby’s script seems tailor-made for Schrader, who uses the fantasy elements of the story (loosely based on the original by DeWitt Bodeen) as a sort of psychic safety valve to comment on our society’s godless and mythless culture. Ormsby’s protagonist, Oliver Yates (John Heard), a zoo curator who prefers animals to people, senses a divine presence in Irena Gallier (Nastassia Kinski), a young woman who has recently arrived in New Orleans for a reunion with tier long-lost minister brother (Malcolm McDowell).
Like Heard, Schrader is drawn to Kinski’s strange, antisocial character, and both are equally intrigued by the compromises she will have to make as a result of discovering her true nature: she is the last of an ancient race of people who transform into malevolent leopards when consumed by anger, jealousy or “corrupt” sexual passions.
If either version of CAT PEOPLE is going to work for you, you’ve got to playfully accept its premise. Thankfully, Ormsby drops the stock psychiatric angle of the original, and wisely avoids falling back on voodoo and other prefabricated explanations for the evolution of the Cat People. (The beautifully stylized prologue could have served the purpose, but due to Schrader’s changes, it is both incomprehensible and superfluous.)
His most notable addition to the plotline is the character of Kinski’s clergyman brother, which brings an incestuous dimension to the yarn: a cat man and woman can make love safely, but anyone else is in danger of becoming post-coital dessert, since killing is the only way they can return to human form. Ormsby side-steps any moralizing on the controversial issue of incest, presenting it only as a logical solution to McDowell’s decidedly sacrilegious yearnings.
Thematically, CAT PEOPLE deals with the Freudian thesis that if a society is built on the family unit, there is a resulting amount of repressed sexual energy. And what is repressed, Ormsby and Schrader hint, usually finds its release-often in a violent form. Thus, the “monster” of metamorphosis becomes a double-edged horror: the unhealthy repression of sexual desires and incest, with sex and incest the two great conscious taboos of American Culture. In examining such burning topics, it may be that Ormsby and Schrader have immediately put their audience at arm’s length. CAT PEOPLE’s poor box office reception indicates that moviegoers prefer simple-minded horror-fantasy that doesn’t stir their feelings of guilt.
If Heard, a fine American actor who has yet to receive his due recognition, is meant to suggest Schrader, and Oliver’s obsession with Irena is supposed to represent the film’s emotional centerpiece, then Ormsby and Schrader fail to give weight to support the argument. Heard quickly establishes Oliver’s winsome, intellectual side, but is hard-pressed to clue us into his sketchily-drawn character’s compulsion, as he did so effortlessly in HEAD OVER HEELS.
Kinski, on the other hand, is admirable in a tricky role: sexy, genuine, and intriguingly androgynous. While she may not steep with menace, she captures Irena’s feline qualities nicely.
As the original CAT PEOPLE relied upon suggestion to convey the heroine’s transformation into a panther, Schrader and Ormsby have been severely criticized for showing what Tourneur left to the imagination. Psychological horror is a precious commodity indeed, but literalness has its place in the genre too, especially when well-executed, which it is here. If anything, there’s too little shown, particularly considering the quantity of makeups Tom Burman apparently created for the film, and Burman is not always well-served by the lighting of the effects sequences.
Where Schrader’s literal-mindedness fails is in a number of non-effects scenes, where the dramatic payoff doesn’t warrant what has preceeded it: the slow pan over the hotel room where a nude McDowell surveys the mutilated body of a girl he picked up earlier in a cemetery; and a reprise of the swimming pool scene from the `42 version, which here feels particularly false and contrived, since, unlike the original, jealousy has not been a factor in Irena’s dealings with Annette O’Toole’s Alice. The scene is also a cheat: the panther O’Toole thinks she hears has to be bogus, since Irena hasn’t transformed.
I could also have done without the William Castle shock shtick: the dog that leaps out at O’Toole while she is jogging, the leg of Oliver’s dead friend that swings down on him as he approaches his jetty house, and worst of all: the embarrassing reuse and misuse of the screeching trolley wheels, which in Tourneur’s hands sounded uncannily like the hiss of a panther; here it’s just another cranked-up Dolby sound effect, designed to make the audience jump.
Such cheap shots aside, Schrader demonstrates a sure hand in the action scenes, three of which – the tranquilizing of the McDowell-panther in the hotel, his later ripping off Ed Begley Jr.’s arm, and Heard’s final confrontation with the cat, whom O’Toole dispatches with a shotgun – are probably the best directorial work he’s ever done: tense, exciting and perfectly sustained.
Schrader’s approach to relationships and his audience may be tinged with a (as Alice says of a jammed cash register in the film) “you have to hurt it or it won’t respond” attitude, but with CAT PEOPLE, he has effectively drawn upon his idiosyncrasies to create a film which is both absorbing and expressive of his troubled personality.
CAT PEOPLE (Universal Pictures, March 1982, 118 mins. In color and stereo.)Directed by Paul Schrader. Screenplay by Alan Ormsby, based on the 1942 film “Cat People.” Executive Producer, Jerry Bruckheimer. Cast: Nastassia Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O’Toole.
Copyright 1982 Kyle Counts. This review originally appeared in the July-August 1982 issue of Cinefantastique magazine.
DVD DETAILS: Read a review of the 2007 HD-DVD release of CAT PEOPLE