Cat People (1982)

For those that collect horror from
the eighties, Cat People is a must

Its increasing rare now but there are some remakes that can stand on their own as a worthwhile film. In 1982 there was a remake of the classic 1942 Jacques Tourneur film, Cat People. In the forty years that passed between the two films the film industry became far more permissive permitting a much more explicit take on the subject.

The 1982 film Cat People, by Paul Schrader explores the themes of incense, and the inner animal nature of man in an erotic, surreal manner. Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) is a young girl orphaned and sent to live with relatives, including her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell). There is a little family secrete that must be discovered by Irena, she and her brother are descended from a race of people that change into leopards upon completing the act of sexual intercourse. The only way to return to human form is to stalk their prey and kill.

Where the 1942 film had to be more circumspect than this version the core of the story still revolves around the human interaction between morality and sexual desire. Irena is on the surface afraid of intimacy, a lust burns in her offset by the deep fear of somehow knowing what consummation of these desires will bring. She is also drawn to the local zoo where she meets a man, Oliver (John Heard) who awakes an attraction in her. It also causes her to feel jealous of his co-worker Alice (Annette O'Toole).

The manners in which these new emotions stir and mix in Irena are contrasted with the bold expression of lust displayed by her brother. He embraces his animal side while Irena tries desperately to suppress them. The original film had to leave most of this to the imagination due in part to the morals dominate at the time but also because such restrictions often force the production to seek a better way to tell the story.

The ambiguity is gone here replaced by the ability of the eighties filmmaker to present more explicit scenes than previous generations where permitted. Shadows and suggestions that made the original a classic are replaced here by the new special effects available in 1982. Progress has made films more dependant on these affects often at the expense of the story. While this is seen by many as a flaw in Cat People it also provides a look at how and when film began to change.

This represents the beginnings of the trend where special effects can be used to further a story. Sure the effects replace plot to a large degree here but in these embryonic times the seeds where planted for a better marriage between effects and plot. Like a child with a new toy the effects are a bit too much here but the industry had to start somewhere before a balance could be achieved.

The casting of Cat People demonstrated some interesting choices. First of all, Kinski was a natural for a horror flick. Daughter of Klaus Kinski, one of the best vampires film ever had, this genre is in her blood. Just 22 years old when this was filmed Kinski wa able to tread the thin line necessary for the role. Not only was she able to pull off the transformation between human and cat but her slim figure and fresh face enabled her to also show the audience a more realistic transformation, from girl to young woman.

This provided a basis of reality and a touchstone for the audience to use to identify with the character. McDowell has been a constantly working actor for most of his career. He seems like the type willing to take even lesser roles just to keep his name in the public and to further his craft. From the heights he reached in Clockwork Orange to the depths of Caligula, McDowell has always given his best in ever role. Here he played things just a touch away from completely over the top. In some ways he reminded me of Gary Oldman in this respect, he has the ability to be a villain that you can’t help but watch. As a supporting cast Heard and O’Toole are also well cast. They add a touch of identifiably normal humanity for the audience to latch on to.

Many directors seem fascinated with a particular theme. For Paul Schrader the Cat People theme appears to be the juxtaposition of desire and morality. He probed this topic in a more realistic manner with his earlier flick, Hardcore.

In Cat People he leans a bit too heavily on the new era of special effects that were just then exploding. This resulted in a somewhat uneven production. The pacing was not as tight as it might have been. The expository sections could have left some more to the imagination. What does work here is his mastery of light and shadows. Magnificent.

In the scene where Irena as a cat stalks O’Toole in a pool the lighting plays off the cast and set in a eerie manner that sets a surreal, almost nightmarish mood. In another scene the stalking is done from the cat’s eye view allowing the audience to almost taste the thrill of the chase. While I did prefer the original’s leaving more to the imagination Cat People does provide a good time.

This Cat People disc is from Universal, a studio rapidly becoming the best around for older horror and Sci-Fi flicks. Being called a special edition seems to mean for some studios a couple of thrown together featurettes. With Universal you get a really Special edition.

There is a commentary track featuring the director. Tom Burman explains the makeup effects he created for the film. There is an ‘Intimate Portrait’ of the director, an on the set featurette and (my favorite) Robert Wise discussing the original producer, Val Lewton. Universal shows the proper respect for these older films and finds classics in the mind of the audience rather than the lofty film schools. Its great to see some of my old favorites nbeing put out on DVD with such attention to where they fit in the history of film.

The audio is Dolby Surround and the mix is better than I anticipated. The video is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 and considering being twenty years old the print used was acceptable. For those that collect horror from the eighties Cat People is a must. For those looking for some entertainment, don’t miss Cat People.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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