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Cat People (1982)

May 26th, 2011 by unkle lancifer · 12 Comments

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.

Tags: Caution: I break for geniuses! · Ed Begley Jr.s has lost an arm! · General Horror

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 craigNo Gravatar // May 26, 2011 at 10:48 am

    I sometimes wonder if the uninspired cover art was to blame. As a kid I always passed it over because of the bland cover, so it never got in on the ground floor of my horror nostalgia (I didn’t see it til well into highschool). The title was written in garish new-wave font, the cats in the background were just lounging in trees and didn’t look too prepped for horror, and Kinski’s face had dominated the covers of so many other slow-paced films (for an 8-year-old anyway) that I just couldn’t risk renting it as a youngster. It didn’t even have a lurid cover blurb (although when it played in theatres it had a great one; “They were more than lovers, They are about to become something less than human.” and the black and white newspaper ads took away the overbearing reds and greens). If it had been packaged like the others from that time I would have been with it at a younger age. As it stands, it’s a good movie but nothing that calls up fond memories of being scared or intrigued as a child because I just kept passing it by.

  • 2 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // May 26, 2011 at 10:56 am

    I think you may be right there Craig. I love the poster but it sort of resembles a perfume add. They probably should have sold it as a female version of American Werewolf instead.

    I think also if they concentrated on the transformation in the movie a bit more it may have helped too. Maybe Schrader held back on the effects to be taken more seriously but then lost out on pleasing the horror fans?

  • 3 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // May 26, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Here is a good sampling of CP’s great use of New Orleans…

  • 4 craigNo Gravatar // May 26, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    Yes, Unk, you summed it up perfectly; a perfume ad (I could never quite put my finger on it until now). The cover leads us to believe there with be a lot of whispering, snowglobes, and all that gobbly-gook that just screams art- house.

  • 5 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // May 26, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    I’ve always really loved the poster but I can see how it may not scream horror loud enough. Coincidently we have a traumafession in the pipeline that is actually about this poster!! So I know it freaked out at least one person. We’ll post it pretty soon.

  • 6 VicarOfVHSNo Gravatar // May 26, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    I’m a fan of Lewton’s CAT PEOPLE, but I also love the Schrader’s reimagining. Taken on its own (which is almost impossible since the classic original looms so large), it’s a fun, sexy, violent slice of 80s entertainment, that even has something to say. Visually it’s fantastic–I love the effects, from the grody cat/human hybrid corpse to the freaky contact lenses to the low tech way they get McDowell to jump up on the footboard of a bed and balance there. The surrealistic dream/flashback sequence is a bit indulgent, but I still dug it. Of course I won’t lie and say my fandom has *nothing* to do with Kinski’s goddess-like beauty, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that the film has going for it. I agree about the pacing, but for me the good far outweighs the bad.

  • 7 Will ErricksonNo Gravatar // May 26, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    I agree on all points. Saw this probably mid”80s with guy friends, we loved the gore and the nudity from those lovely female leads. Few years back I got the soundtrack on vinyl, which makes for good listening while reading. Framed the sleeve; how can you not love Kinski during this era?!

  • 8 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // May 26, 2011 at 6:55 pm


    I hear ya! Schrader really makes the material his own. Apparently he was not the biggest fan of the original & maybe that helps him provide something unique. I always saw Malcolm Mcdowell’s “Paul” character as a stand in for Schrader. I think Oliver is a great deal Schrader too, fascinated by Kinski and oblivious about how to make it work. I appreciate any movie where the director makes themselves this present. It really elevates the whole thing & I’m glad he was not afraid to go into that dream zone. I think it was probably an easy movie for critics to jab at but I love that it wears it’s heart on its sleeve and just goes for it.


    That’s so great you have the soundtrack on vinyl! I must have lost mine years ago but it will always live on in my itunes. It’s really one of my all time favorite scores. I’ve heard some people accuse the score of dating the film but I think it’s an essential signature part of the film. I’m going to put it on now in fact.

  • 9 knobgobblerNo Gravatar // May 26, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    I’ve got nothing but good will towards this movie… I liked it as a dark fairy tale.
    When it first came out I got drug to it by a friend of mine who did NOT like horror movies… but really liked Malcolm McDowell and Nastassja Kinski (personally, I prefer Ms. O’Toole).
    I guess he thought it was going to be something of an art film… maybe because of the perfume poster you mention.
    It ended up being much more to my tastes than his.

  • 10 megatone230No Gravatar // May 27, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    I love the soundtrack to this also, it’s one of the best parts of the film.
    I remember special-ordering the cassette tape of the soundtrack back in the 80’s. I even got my grandma turned on to some of the beautiful piano music of Moroder. 🙂

    Cat People is an obscure off-beat movie from the 80’s that’s definitely worth a late-nite watch.

  • 11 megatone230No Gravatar // May 30, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    “We take Mastercard, Visa, American Express… but not for tips. …. OK you can put tips on Visa if you want to…. Strong silent type huh?”

    Btw anyone else remember Terror in the Aisles? That’s the first time I ever saw a clip from Cat People, they show the Hotel scene and maybe some others.
    I’ll have to write in with a Traumafession for that one soon 🙂

  • 12 Marc Damien FlanaganNo Gravatar // May 31, 2011 at 7:19 am

    I’m going to buy the first Cat People T-shirt i can get my hands on and i’m going to show the world what COOL looks like.
    Unless the first one i see is especially perfumey-looking.
    Or unless it looks like it has to be worn with leg-warmers.
    In that case I’ll hold out for the second Cat People T-shirt i can get my hands on.

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