Nearly every major genre picture let loose in the early eighties regardless of its original reception has seemed to have garnered classic status at this point. Not so much PAUL SCHRADER’s 1982 feline fantasia CAT PEOPLE. It certainly has a devout following of sorts but you are unlikely to bump into many horror gadflies sporting its iconography on a T-shirt at a convention. Kitty doesn’t carry much “cool” cache and who or what’s to blame?
I guess the puss-centric title alone can never impress onlookers with one’s endurance mettle and what’s the point of horror fandom if you’re not theoretically upsetting oldsters with your wardrobe and accessories? As far as I see it, CAT PEOPLE is one of the more fascinating flicks to spring out of its era and although it’s a remake of a popular work, there’s no denying its sharp originality and sometimes bizarrely personal vision. It’s further proof as if we needed any, that PAUL SCHRADER knows a thing or two about obsession (see also: TAXI DRIVER) and transformation (see also: MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS.)
Is the premise ridiculous or is there simply no place in the world for a fantasy film aimed at adults? Irena Gallier (severely beautiful NASTASSJA KINSKI) ventures to post card perfect New Orleans to reunite with her long lost brother Paul (a bristled MALCOLM McDOWELL). She entrances zoo keeper Oliver (JOHN HEARD), complicates matters for his pal with benefits Alice (the only believable competition for KINSKI, ANNETTE O’TOOLE) and along the way learns that like her brother, having sex turns her into a crazy murderous panther. Some folks get up in arms declaring that the film expresses a fear of female sexuality but I think that pretty much ignores the obvious fact that Paul, Irena’s brother has the same meow-glitch. Paul’s solution to the perils of panther-gasm is that he and his sister keep it on the down low with some incest since by the way, their parents were siblings too! Now if you get all hung up on incest ick factor you’ll miss what I think is the film’s central issue; Irena is essentially being told that she can either follow family sanctioned sexual tradition or become a monster.
I am a huge fan of the 1942 version of CAT PEOPLE too. Produced by VAL LEWTON and directed by JACQUES TURNER, the original stands high above its peers in its grasp of psychology and is an extraordinary exercise in quiet manipulation. The remake attracts grief for upping the gore and nudity ante but to pretend that those elements negate what’s interesting about the rest of the film is just all kinds of lazy. Just because a gal frequently finds herself in a nude mood doesn’t mean she’s not deep. Irena spends the lion’s share of the film developing a way to free herself from others, particularly her family’s expectations (as represented by a gnarled and ominous tree). She yearns to break free from tradition, to explore an ill-advised union with Oliver but picket fences just aren’t in the tarot deck. The inescapable tragedy of the matter is made clear when she receives advice from the jailed (also caged) “Female” (rhymes with tamale), her brother’s once caretaker/enabler played by the great RUBY DEE, “Live as he (Paul) did, never love, pretend the world is as men think it is.” She then adds for good measure “It doesn’t matter where you go.”
No, it doesn’t matter where Irena goes, as the ultimate dilemma is herself. Her soul may desire whatever it wants but the mechanics of her body have final say. What SCHRADER is really interested in, I think, is the war between predatory (Paul) and romantic (Irena) love and there’s a whole lot at stake when Irena, at least for a while (the pool scene), seems to have gone to her brother’s side of the yard. (Speaking of family, the scenes of Irena stalking her rival Alice illustrate NASTASSJA’s ability to summon her father’s vampiric leer at will.)
I suppose there are many reasons to drop out of CAT PEOPLE and become a non fan: the pacing is a bit off, there’s many a false climax and it does lose its footing here and there but really you’re loony if you can’t enjoy the sight of KINSKI simply pouncing about New Orleans in its prime to a GIORGIO MORODER score. That’s not even mentioning the beautifully realized dream landscapes and the awesome sight of ED BEGLEY JR.’s arm being ripped from his shoulder. You’ll never find quite the gumbo mentioned above in any other movie, I promise. I guess the whole panther transformation bit can come across as silly but humanized animals are a staple when it comes to fables and that just happens to be exactly CAT PEOPLE’s turf.