Cat People (1982) on HD-DVD

With Universal likely to be the last oar-rower on the HD-DVD lifeboat, their choice of releases on the format becomes that much more interesting. Other than Warner Bros, who recently abandoned ship in favor of the greener pastures of Blu-ray exclusivity, Universal was the only studio keeping up a steady stream of catalog title releases. Many fondly remembered films from the ’80s: THE THING, DUNE, and even THE LAST STARFIGHTER have found their way onto HD-DVD, leaving one to wonder just exactly what kind of wonderful madman was put in charge of title selection. But even with a track record as eclectic as this, the arrival of 1982’s CAT PEOPLE left many dumbfounded. Certainly there had to be better candidates than this? Even keeping to that same era and studio, CONAN THE BARBARIAN would have had much stronger sales, and FLASH GORDON (just re-released on DVD) would have been better suited to HD, with its eye candy sets and costumes. But, wishing and $2 will get you on the subway – CAT PEOPLE is what we were given, so CAT PEOPLE is what we’re going to talk about. But first, back to 1942.
RKO Pictures, looking for a profitable line of low budget horror pictures, imports Val Lewton from MGM; giving him a good deal of autonomy so long as his projects were kept short (double bills, please!) and made cheap (under $150,000, far less than Universal was laying out per-picture in the studio’s classic monster heyday). CAT PEOPLE , directed by Jacques Tourneur, would be Lewton’s first RKO production. The story centers on Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon, forming the notion of “mysterious European beauty” for decades to come) born in Serbia but fully ‘Americanized’ and living in NYC. While visiting a zoo she meets Oliver Reed (it would take several decades before the notion of an average American named Oliver Reed would be funny), they fall in love and marry in very short order. Wedded bliss is short lived, however, because Irena believes herself to be descended from a race of people who transform into leopards during moments of passion. As Oliver’s frustration builds, he begins to be attracted to co-worker Alice, and Irena finds that lust isn’t the only emotion that triggers her curse. The film went on to be a box office smash – the first in a series of successful pictures made by Lewton at RKO that handled horror in a similarly restrained fashion.
Swish pan to four decades later; Universal Studios, working with RKO Pictures (essentially a letterhead incarnation of the original studio that held the rights to most titles in the RKO library) prepares a remake, and attracts the attention of Paul Schrader. The result is a veritable walking tour of what was both right and wrong with modern horror – and the wisdom of “updating” classic films.

This time out, we join young Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski), traveling to New Orleans to live with her brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell, with Manson lamps set on ‘high beam’). Sparks fly when she meets Oliver Yates (John Heard), a curator at the New Orleans zoo. Matters are complicated when Paul informs his sister that consummating her relationship with Oliver will be difficult because in their family, the throws of passion stirs something ancient in their blood that turns them into a leopard, savagely killing the human mate – but sex with him will work out just fine, thanks. Paul, you see, has been building up quite a body count while waiting for his sister to fulfill his needs, and after the mauling of a prostitute (cult favorite Lynn Lowry, whose own facial features are more cat-like than either co-star) Paul, still in leopard form, is captured by Oliver and taken to the zoo. After seeing Irena and Oliver together (and savagely mauling Ed Begley Jr.) Paul changes back into human form and escapes, leaving Irena to deal with a trail of leopard maulings that lead right to her doorstep and a growing attraction to Oliver that may well result in his death – and very, very messy sheets.
It’s interesting that at a time when he could have probably gotten almost any movie made that Paul Schrader would have chosen CAT PEOPLE. A blazing hot screenwriter after TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL, and a coveted director after AMERICAN GIGOLO became a critical hit, one can’t help but wonder at the selection. In the disc’s fabulously frank commentary track – one of the new disc’s major pluses – Schrader admits that he was looking for ‘hired gun’ work that he didn’t have a strong personal attachment to. CAT PEOPLE would certainly have fit the bill; that is until he fell hard for star Kinski during filming. Schrader discusses his affair with Kinski and what we presume to be an acrimonious break-up (according to Schrader, just prior to release she appealed to a Universal executive for her nude scenes to be removed, claiming she felt manipulated).
Schrader’s obsession with his star did produce some of the most flattering photography of a single actress in recent memory, and for the film’s first half, that’s almost enough to sustain interest. But through an unexplained plot contrivance, Irena is taken by brother Paul on a tour of their ancestors wind swept, cyan-toned ancient world – glimpsed in the film’s opening scene – where we watch leopards (or panthers, anyway they’re big and scary looking) mate with young women brought to them as human sacrifices by villagers. This occurs nearly at the halfway mark, and the picture never recovers from it.
Nastassja Kinski in cat transformation makeupWhile nobody expected the film to adhere to the original’s sense of inference and suggestion over explicit depictions of violence or sexuality, it was turning the abstract concept of a race of inbred cat people into a physiological reality that would be the film’s true undoing. In 1982, advances in the art of practical make-up effects were making celebrities out of Rick Baker and Tom Savini, and it was becoming routine in films like AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, THE HOWLING and THE THING for the show to come to a complete stop in order to show off the latest in latex moldings and inflatable bladders. When the lovely Ms. Kinski is subjected to these make-up efforts, the heretofore suspended disbelief comes crashing down like a bag of cat litter, and the show is steered from erotic thriller to monster movie – a genre in which Schrader shows little proclivity (cough – EXORCIST prequel – cough).
Even Schrader admits that the autopsy scene of leopard-Paul, where the cat is cut open to reveal an intact human hand, doesn’t work. It’s worse than that; it’s laughable, and that’s something genre films can’t afford.
And once the 1942 figurative became 1982 literal, all that’s left is to see how hard the filmmakers intend to push the ‘R’ rating. Though screenwriting credit goes to Alan Ormsby, the kinky sexuality has Schrader written all over it. Bondage, incest, and even zoophilia abound, but without the religious or psychological underpinnings of Schrader’s better work. And though the gore content probably isn’t enough to shock an audience today, the amount of nudity on display is rather startling. With her gamine haircut and lithe body, Ms. Kinski is pure joy to behold on-screen – and behold her you will, for several extended sessions of nude bayou wandering (if Ms. Kinski had been successful in having her nude scenes removed, the film could have been reclassified as a short subject).
As an embodiment of feline eroticism, Kinski’s performance is quite good; but she simply can’t pull off Irena’s transformation from victim to stalker, particularly in a restaging of the original’s famous indoor pool scene. Beyond giving Annette O’Toole her own bit of obligatory nudity – and if it seems as though I’m complaining, remember please that I have my critic hat on – it reminds us how easily little Simone Simon could convey menace and mystery. And since we’re already in the gutter, it may be worth noting that poor Lynn Lowry’s bra snap-away surely ranks among the most gratuitous nude shots of the decade – and that’s a huge statement.
Universal’s HD-DVD is a direct port of their 2002 DVD: the special features are identical, and the same HD master was used. The HD-DVD has also been a bit controversial in terms of image quality. Though the image does feature some unfortunate edge enhancement (a process used by studios to give the image an artificially sharper look), I found the image more than acceptable – this presentation is the first time that the desert-set sacrificial scenes, with their heavy use of a red/cyan palette, have actually looked halfway decent on home video.

The desert-set fantasy-flashback scenes finally look good on HD-DVD 

As previously mentioned, the showpiece extra is the feature length commentary by Schrader. It’s an amazingly honest track, with Schrader giving the credit for the film’s visual bravura to the amazing sets and design work of Bertolucci-collaborator Fernando Scarfiotti, credited as “visual consultant” due to union regulations. Other supplements include an equally candid video interview with Schrader filmed for the 2002 release which dovetails nicely with a shot-on-set interview filmed during production where Schrader comes off as an insufferable intellectual. Also on hand is a video interview with Robert Wise on the production of the 1942 version, which has little to do with the subject at hand, but is interesting nonetheless; a featurette on Tom Burman’s make-up EFX; a reel of the gorgeous matte paintings; production photos, and a trailer that looks its age.
REVIEW FLASHBACK: Read Cinefantastique’s original review of CAT PEOPLE by Kyle Counts.

Cat People (1982) – Horror Film Review

Schrader finds that moviegoers like their horror simple-minded.

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. Continue reading “Cat People (1982) – Horror Film Review”

Evil Cat (1987) – A Retrospective Review

Hardly dull but not necessarily good.

This is a typically outrageous, action-packed flick from Hong Kong, in which characterization and coherence play second fiddle to throwing anything up on the screen that comes into the writer’s mind. With so much going on, the film is hardly ever dull, but that does not necessarily mean it is good. The violence and gore safely pushes the story into horror film territory, but the whole thing is too silly to take seriously, so no real thrills emerge. The cast of characters is rather generic, and the obligatory twist ending is so perfunctory it barely has any impact at all.

The film begins with a construction site where some kind of burial tomb is accidentally unearthed, unleashing a mysterious form of energy. A flashback reveals that fifty years ago, a swordsman fought and defeated a cat-demon (basically a man in makeup left over from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical, Cats) at the location. Now his son Master Cheung (Chia-Liang Liu) must re-fight the demon. He enlists the aid of the pretty much useless Long (Mark Cheng), who falls for Cheung’s beautiful daughter, a reporter named Siu-Cheun (Lai-Ying Tang). The cat demon possesses Long’s boss and, after the boss is dispatched, moves on to the body of the boss’s mistress. After the Evil Cat kills off a pop recording star, the heroes, along with cowardly Inspector Wu (played by the film’s writer, Jing Wong) confront the demon for a final showdown in a police station.
As is often the case with Hong Kong cinema, the story is an excuse to string together the action scenes – which is fine if the action is brilliant, but in this case, it is often merely adequate, when it is not completely ridiculous. For example, when the Evil Cat first manifests in an office building, one of its victims ends up running around holding on his severed hand – and asking someone else to hold it for him! An extended sequence in which Long tries to kill his possessed boss with a car plays out like a TERMINATOR-wannabe, as does the finale in the police station, undermining the supernatural horror with more conventional action cliches. Probably the film’s only genuinely scary moment occurs when the Evil Cat’s current human host awakens on an operating table and wipes out the surgical team.
The acting features the usual Hong Kong posturing (the Evil Cat, in whatever body) scowls and points emphatically with two fingers extended). The male lead is far from heroic, being more of a joker accidentally roped into the proceedings. As if this were not enough, Inspector Wu is even more of a joker (it’s impossible to believe he’s in a position of authority).

The titular Evil Cat reveals its true appearance (Meow!)
The titular Evil Cat reveals its true appearance ("Meow!")

The manifestations of the Evil Cat are disappointing. There are two brief glimpses of it in spiritual form (accomplished with animation), and at the beginning and the end we see its human hosts transformed into catlike beings, courtesy of makeup that is, to put it politely, comical in its impact. The rest of the time, the host are required to mimic cat-like movements, which they accomplish with all the skill of an acting student performing an exercise in a first-year acting class.

The film also demonstrates some odd sexist moments. We first meet Long in the company of a woman he calls a prostitute (although we never see any evidence of this). When he gives lift to Master Cheung, they decided to get rid of the woman by tying her up to a street lamp! When Long’s boss is possessed, it takes place mostly off-screen, but when the Evil Cat’s spirit passes on to the boss’s mistress, there is an extended special effects sequence clearly designed to suggest that she is being raped (the animated energy beams focus on her pelvis while she writes on a bed). Finally, the script rather cavalierly dismisses the leading lady at the climax, just to provide a last-minute surprise (along with an “it’s over – but it’s not” twist at the end). The result undermines any good will the audience had left for the film.

For fans of Hong Kong cinema, these blemishes may simply be part of the film’s charm, but EVIL CAT never reaches the giddy heights of the best Tsui Hark productions (e.g., A CHINESE GHOST STORY). It is unusual enough to merit some interest, but that interest is hardly rewarded when the filmmakers cannot be bothered to wrap their story up in a dramatically satisfying way. You may enjoy the ride, but you will regret the destination.


When Master Cheung explains the story behind the Evil Cat, his skeptical daughter Siu-Cheun remarks that it sounds like something written by “Wisely.” Wisely is a recurring character in Chinese literature and film, an author who writes about his weird adventures encountering unusual phenomena. The character can be seen in the 1990 film THE CAT (“Lao Mao”), which is about some alien warriors on Earth, including a super-powered cat who gets into a kung fu fight with a dog!

EVIL CAT (“Xiang Mao,” 1987). Directed by Dennis Yu, Written by Jing Wong. Cast: Mark Cheng, Gallen Law, Chia-Lang Liu, Yiu Fung Si, Lai-Ying tang, Suk Woon Tsui, Jing Wong, Sai-Kit Yung.
RELATED ARTICLES: Read Hollywood Gothique’s Caturday Blogging entry on this title, which features more images from the film.

The Cat (1992) – Film & DVD Review

One of the joys of Hong Kong Cinema is the sheer uninhibited exuberance of their fantasy films. “Make-believe” seems to be the operative term when it comes to these over-the-top opera; unconstrained by credibility concerns, the filmmakers feel free to fly with every imaginative idea that floats through their creative minds. The results can be wildly outrageous and entertaining – or, in some cases, they can be a complete mess. LAO MAO (“The Cat”) offers definite proof that “wild and crazy” can result in “stupid and boring.” This haphazrd combo of horror, sci-fi, mystery, and action is such a botch that even hardcore Hong Kong film fanatics may have trouble sitting through it. Fortunately, there is at least one outrageous scene that makes uneasy jumble worth at least a single viewing: a knock-down, drag-out kung fu battle between a cat and a dog! Continue reading “The Cat (1992) – Film & DVD Review”

Scaredy Cats: Tales of Terror – "The Black Cat" (1962)

The titular black cat makes its first appearance atop a sign.

Friday Cat Blogging is an Internet tradition not much associated with cinefantastique, but we are doing our best to change that. Not so long ago, we did an installment dedicated to Stuart Gordon’s MASTERS OF HORROR adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” This week, we’re taking a look at producer-director Roger Corman’s TALES OF TERROR, a 1962 anthology film that includes an episode inspired by the very same story.
In Corman’s triptych of tales inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat” shows up in the middle episode (which includes elements of “The Cask of Amontillado”). Rotund Peter Lorre plays Montresor Herringbone, a jovial alcoholic who introduces his wife to a handsome wine-taster (Vincent Price). When he discovers they are having an affair, he kills them and walls the ir bodies in the cellar but inadvertently entombs the cat as well, its mournful wail alerting the police to the corpses.
To provide a change of pace from the first and third episodes in this anthology film, screenwriter Richard Matheson turned “The Black Cat” into a black comedy and left out the more gruesome elements (in the story, the demented narrator plucks out the cat’s eye and later hangs it to death, only to be horrified when an exact duplicate – down to the rope mark on its neck – arrives to haunt him). The actors do a fine job of playing the horror for laughs, and Lorre is particularly adept at being both funny and menacing, but the title character (first scene atop a sign as Herringbone walks home) is not one of the most memorable screen felines – more innocuous than ominous, it is an object of Herringbone’s hatred more than a symbol of his guilty conscience. Fortunately, the nameless pet (known as Pluto in Poe’s story) does provide a memorable final close-up when discovered on the head of its dead mistress, wailing with rage.

The Black Cat atop the head of its dead mistress (Joyce Jameson)

Despite the comedic liberties, the adaptation is closer to Poe than either of the two films that Universal Pictures named after the story (in 1934 and 1941 respectively). One might gripe that Lorre’s Herringbone is a drunken lout from the moment we meet him, so we never see his descent from normalcy, but Corman does capture the essential element: driven by drink, a man brings about his own self-destruction, aided by a cat that – deliberately or accidentally – exacts vengeance for being mistreated. Also noteworthy: scenes of Lorre carousing in bars – and being tossed out for not paying – seem to have inspired similar footage in Stuart Gordon’s more faithful 2006 version.

Friday Cat Blogging: Ju-On – The Grudge

Black cats sure get a bum rap on screen — always cast as the bad guys (or at least their familiars). This is not just a Western prejudice. For example, spooky black cats feature quite prominently in the Japanese horror hit JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, as in this scene wherein social worker Rika awakens to find some uninvited feline guests sharing her bed…

Rika is awakened by uninvited feline visitors in

The cats appear to be multiples of the pet owned by the film’s little ghost boy, Toshio, when he was alive. The shot works exceedingly well in theatres, where it flashes by so fast that you have time only to be overwhelmed by the creepy impression it leaves. On DVD, it is slightly less effective, because the Pause and Rewind buttons allow you to determine that many of the “cats” are actually statues (although since they’re supposed to be ghost cats, one could charitably assume that standing perfectly frozen like a statue is just one of the ways they manifest themselves). Continue reading “Friday Cat Blogging: Ju-On – The Grudge”

Masters of Horror: "The Black Cat" (2006) – TV Review

Click to purchase the MASTERS OF HORROR episode 'The Black Cat'Today sees the release of the DVD for MASTERS OF HORROR – THE BLACK CAT. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story has inspired numerous adaptations, but director Stuart Gordon’s version is a rare exception that tries to stay true to the source material. Adapted by Gordon and Dennis Paoli, the teleplay’s most obvious conceit is to place Poe himself in the lead role; otherwise, the story plays out much as the author wrote it, with some additions to fill the required one-hour running time.
Poe (Jeffrey Combs, who also faced a fearsome cat in Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR) is driven to drink by poverty and his consequent inability to care for his ailing wife, Virginia (Elyse Levesque, middle left). His attempt to earn money by writing a new horror story is interrupted by his wife’s cat, Pluto, who has a penchant for attacking the other family pets, including a goldfish. Enraged with frustration, Poe plucks out Pluto’s eye, then later hangs the cat. Later, on his way home, he is shadowed by another cat (top) that looks exactly like Pluto, down to the missing eye and a mark around its neck that looks like the trace of a noose. Poe’s attempt to ax the interloper is interrupted by his wife, who receives the fatal blow instead. Poe bricks her body into the cellar, but a strange wailing alerts police to the hiding place – Poe had accidentally walled in the cat as well. There is a twist ending that I won’t give away, except to say that it is well set up by preceding events and makes sense out of placing Poe as the lead in his own story. Continue reading “Masters of Horror: "The Black Cat" (2006) – TV Review”