Cat People


Amid the American horror boom of the late-1970s and early-1980s, when everything old was new again and once-dormant studio properties like Invasion of the Body SnatchersThe Thing from Another World, and The Fly were suddenly valuable franchises, the script for a remake of Cat People, one of the most subtle of all horror classics, somehow ended up on Paul Schrader’s desk. Why Schrader? Dumb luck, mostly. Certainly he had no great love for the source material, a 1942 horror film directed by Jacques Tourneur that Schrader famously (and charmlessly) claimed “isn’t that brilliant.” But he must have seen in the raw material the opportunity to make a deeply weird movie, one that fused a new mythology with a contemporary melodrama of fear, desire, and violence. The result is not just a personal expression of Schrader’s own sex-and-death preoccupations, but a sort of high-water mark for the quixotic attempt to meld visually sophisticated erotica with commercially savvy narrative storytelling.

Sex is the driving force in Cat People, both versions of which center on a young woman, Irena, cowed by her own sexual feelings, believing that intimate relations with another person will turn her into a dangerous animal. The ’42 original, produced by Val Lewton, is a masterpiece of ambiguity, relying on atmosphere, subtext, and Simone Simon’s haunted performance to convey meaning. The studio demanded that Lewton add a few shots of a real cat to dispel any doubt that her transformation really does take place, but the film can still be read with only a little difficulty as the story of a woman’s sexual psychosis sans supernatural involvement.

The remake was never meant to be so understated. Screenwriter Alan Ormsby had developed the material for director Roger Vadim as a work-for-hire, taking notes from producer Charles Fries, who specified that it should take place in New Orleans and insisted that its incestuous “cat people” be victims of a voodoo curse. When Vadim left the project and Schrader came on board, Fries’s influence was minimized, freeing Schrader and Ormsby to jettison the voodoo priest, imagine a new origin story with roots in ancient history, and add some more outré sexual elements, including plentiful nudity, bondage, and the intimation of bestiality—not to mention scripted transformations that would take both Irena (Nastassia Kinski) and her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) from human to feline form. Presumably Ormsby and Schrader were aware that Cat People would arrive on the heels of no fewer than three high-profile werewolf movies, making frightening on-screen metamorphoses de rigueur.

So Schrader’s Cat People gets an expensive-looking prologue depicting an ancient ritual in which a girl is sacrificed to a leopard in an umber desert landscape backed by Albert Whitlock matte paintings and underscored by a soft bed of Giorgio Moroder synths. From this extravagant opener, the film jumps forward to the present day as Irena arrives at Paul’s home in New Orleans. Paul sniffs her up and down for a few hours, then vanishes for days. Irena marks time with a job as a sales clerk at the local zoo, where she meets handsome zookeeper Oliver (John Heard) and obsessively sketches the zoo’s newest arrival, a black panther pacing in a tiny cage. Paul only returns to the picture after the panther disappears; he spends the rest of the film trying to convince Irena to sleep with him. Irena, though, loves Oliver, and resists. And as Oliver falls for Irena, his ex-girlfriend Alice (Annette O’Toole) complains helplessly about his dangerous obsession.

For all the work done to update the original, the revised Cat People doesn’t make as much sense. It’s easy to figure that, for Schrader, the story was just the means to an end. He was hell-bent on making something beautiful and modern out of Cat People, and he paid lavish attention to the film’s visual style. The great Italian art director Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who worked on Last Tango in Paris and The Conformist as well as Schrader’s own American Gigolo, is credited as “visual consultant,” but both he and cinematographer John Bailey, who shot American Gigolo, were granted an extraordinary degree of power during the shoot. Vertical bars and latticework, suggesting confinement, dominate the set design in addition to the lighting scheme, forcing the camera to peer through them or simply casting their conspicuous shadows. Schrader’s camera glides effortlessly, tracking left and right, forward and back through scenes and sometimes climbing or dropping vertically through space, the better to display one of the lavishly-designed sets–like the multileveled administrative offices of the zoo, or the red desert of the flashback and dream sequences–or merely to regard the action from a cool God’s-eye view.

Schrader finds striking, you-are-there angles on graphic violence, pushing his camera towards a prostitute (Lynn Lowry) as she crawls downstairs on her belly, having been mauled by a leopard. Schrader pushes in again, a few moments later, as the woman screams–this time looking directly into the camera. The one moment of truly gory violence is an animal attack inside the zoo that’s edited mostly from a series of close-ups and medium close-ups, climaxing in a dispassionate overhead view of the bloody tableau; the scene is punctuated a few cuts later by an unforgettable shot of blood washing across the formerly clean white floor and lapping at Irena’s shoes. It’s a breathtakingly well-directed sequence; Schrader wasn’t much of a horror filmmaker, but many horror directors could take pointers from the chaos he manages to unleash here. The only other scene that’s nearly as effective in the horror mode is lifted directly from the earlier film: Swimming in a deserted public pool, Alice starts to hear noises and see shadows that suggest the unseen presence of an angry leopard.

For all that, Cat People is perhaps best understood as an erotic daydream about Nastassia Kinski. The motivating force for the story is Oliver’s love for Irena, which verges on obsession. The script doesn’t explain why he falls so strongly for the woman (yes, she’s lovely, but I kept wanting to tell him, “Dude, Annette O’Toole is right there“), although it is clear that the film’s great subject is not an ancient race of cat people, or supernatural shenanigans in New Orleans, or the stirrings of lust in one horny zookeeper’s soul. No, it’s Kinski herself. Where Kinski’s performance in Tess had consisted mainly of the way she used her eyes, here she’s playing the role with her whole body in a performance that grows more catlike as the picture progresses. She slinks her way across the frame, back arched just so, a mischievous, slightly naughty twinkle in her eyes. That she plays much of the movie’s second half in the nude underscores the lustful quality of Schrader’s camerawork. Virtually every woman with a speaking part (other than Ruby Dee’s caretaker) displays her breasts in Cat People, though when O’Toole drops her bra under flat lighting, it’s documentary. When Kinski ditches her nightgown in the grass, it’s chiaroscuro: she’s carefully lit from the side in a way that emphasizes every curve. In another nude scene, Bailey shines light through a coarse screen, throwing a gridwork pattern onto Kinski’s upper body to similar if starker effect. And then there’s the scene at Oliver’s house, where Irena strips off her clothes, slowly, as she ascends the staircase towards his bedroom. The railings on either side of her extend the vertical-line motif seen elsewhere in the film, and the house is designed to echo the multilevel configuration of the zoo offices. Kinski shoots a glance directly back at the camera, which starts moving subjectively to follow her up the stairs. It’s Oliver’s point of view, yes, but the camera serves a double and triple function. While it means to represent us, the audience, being lured upstairs by Kinski, it’s also a stand-in for Paul Schrader–the director himself as object of seduction.1

Schrader isn’t entirely sexist about this stuff. Even within the long-standing double-standard for male and female nudity in film, he pushes convention, photographing a naked Heard from the backside in a couple of scenes and allowing McDowell’s junk to appear briefly on screen. McDowell’s physical presence is vaguely feline, whether he’s dressed from head-to-toe in panther black or stretched naked across a tiled floor after one of his feline benders. McDowell does his best to add humour to the mostly dour scenario—Schrader never acknowledges how bonkers his story really is—as he examines the unsavoury goop stuck to his skin, stops briefly to preen in the mirror, and shakes his head like a housecat with itchy ears. In Cat People, nudity is character development—the creepy sibling indulging animal behaviour, the shy gamine transformed into a bolder, possibly predatory beast. Even O’Toole’s topless scene adds an uncomfortable frisson of first vulnerability, then humiliation, as it unfolds. You worry for her; based on the earlier carnage, you expect Schrader could have the poor woman torn limb from limb in front of our eyes. And then Kinski’s finest moment in the film comes when Irena steps out of the shadows, fully clad in a long overcoat, and flashes a malevolent grin at the half-naked swimmer she’s been systematically and sadistically terrorizing all evening. “What’s wrong, Alice?” she asks, wide-eyed.

Annette O'Toole
Annette O’Toole

Kinski’s demeanour in that moment is kind of thrilling, not just because it caps a genuinely tense sequence, but also because it shows a sudden agency on Irena’s part that’s missing elsewhere in the film. Unfortunately, that promise goes unfulfilled. The rest of Cat People is little more than a desultory framing device for Kinski’s obligatory werecat transformation, which goes by quickly and unremarkably. Irena is, in the end, a fairly bland if beautiful cat person, fulfilling her destiny by becoming a near-domesticated pet for her erstwhile beau. It’s a hell of a way for a werecat to go out, as cruel as the final flourish of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. Inasmuch as Schrader sells it as a romantic gesture and a happy ending, it’s almost as disturbing–a sick joke of epic proportions.

Well, that’s an appropriate capper for a problematic but compelling yarn. Cat People doesn’t lack for ambition, and if the story peters out towards the end, Schrader’s execution is appropriately lithe, if a mite aloof. The real shame is that, the way it turns out, Schrader hasn’t made a movie about the coming-of-age of a troubled young woman haunted by her ancestry and her fear of love. Instead, he’s made one about the animal conservationist who puts her in a cage. For all his evident fascination with Kinski, Schrader betrayed her by casting her in a role that doesn’t come close to rewarding the investment she made in it.

Scream Factory has brought Cat People to Blu-ray Disc with mixed results. The movie does look and sound better than it ever has on home video, and receives a generously-budgeted AVC-HD encode with a lossless 5.1 version of the original Dolby Stereo soundmix. Alas, the video quality is good but not great. Film grain is visible occasionally, yet for most of the duration it seems as though it was scrubbed with noise-reduction algorithms, not only to mitigate the graininess but also to clean up what appears to be a relatively dirty print source. The effect on foreground elements in the picture is subtle—just a mild softening of detail—but the grain structure has been wrecked. In addition, quite a few shots, especially bright exteriors, display the ringing artifacts (halos) associated with digital sharpening of the image (perhaps in an effort to restore the appearance of high-frequency detail that was destroyed through degraining).2 The resulting 1.85:1, 1080p presentation lacks the vibrancy of a truly film-like transfer, especially in the area of fine detail. Shadow detail is inconsistent: some shots let you look all the way into the darker parts of the image, corner to corner, while others have crushed blacks, void of any picture information at all–though that may be a feature of the original cinematography. I haven’t seen the unloved HD DVD version of Cat People, but speculation has it Universal handed Scream Factory the same reputedly unremarkable, years-old master, with the same shortcomings baked in.

The soundtrack is a faithful rendering of a mix that’s typical of the era. It’s got a relatively wide dynamic range, meaning that after you crank up the volume to clearly hear the dialogue—especially in the earlier scenes, when Kinski and McDowell often do little more than whisper at each other—you run the risk of sending your own cats scurrying under the couch once things get loud. At the same time, the mix is pretty conservative by today’s standards. Audio action is mostly limited to the front soundstage, although Moroder’s score stretches out a bit into the back of the room, and some neat directional effects are used for atmosphere in the swimming-pool sequence. The LFE channel is mostly reserved for the film’s many low-rumbling animal growls.

The other disappointment comes in the special features department. Universal’s 2002 DVD had a much more robust set of extras–including a full-length Schrader commentary, as well as a revealing vintage interview with the director–that will keep this reissue from achieving definitive status. That said, Shout! Factory does a decent job, rounding up several principals for separate short-and-sweet HD talking-head segments (about five to nine minutes apiece) that provide distant perspective on the experience instead of trying to match the earlier disc’s supplementary material. Schrader, Heard, and Moroder all weigh in, and Shout! Factory reliably covers the scream-queen angle by getting Kinski, O’Toole, and Lowry to sit for the camera. Kinski is usually quite charming in these things but seems to have been caught on a bad day—she has a hard time getting her thoughts together, and keeps lifting one arm up, inadvertently (or perhaps subconsciously) blocking the camera’s view of her face. The most matter-of-fact observation about working with Schrader comes from Lowry, who describes the difficulty involved in shooting her character’s mauling, which culminated in her bra popping open on cue. (If the film had a sense of humour, it would play as a naughty joke on gratuity.) “Paul likes to see all the women’s breasts in the movie,” she explains, “so I was just one of those pairs of breasts that got to be seen.” And Schrader talks about changing the ending of Ormsby’s script, which featured a conventional kill-the-monster climax, before admitting that he misjudged the commercial prospects of his take on the story: “The admixture of sex and fear seemed not to excite American audiences in the way it excited me.” (Missing from the party is Malcolm McDowell, who said at the time of Cat People‘s release, “Schrader thinks it’s erotic, but it’s his eroticism and not mine.”)

A photo gallery features concept art (minus credits or any other explanation), poster designs, lobby cards, a couple of neat shots of movie-theatre marquees decked out with panther-shaped red neon displays, and what may be a sales leaflet promoting the film to exhibitors. Finally, a nifty two-minute theatrical trailer (it looks fairly crappy, but it is in HD) scored to the David Bowie theme song shows that Universal promoted the movie responsibly, as a lurid psychosexual thriller with supernatural overtones (tagline: “an erotic fantasy”) rather than an out-and-out horror film. If Cat People has yet to earn the studio’s investment in it (BOX OFFICE MOJO says the theatrical release grossed only $7 million of its roughly $14 million budget), maybe this will be the release that puts it into the black.

1. Schrader is widely believed to have had a brief but torrid affair with Kinski. Kinski herself has denied this. In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind claimed that Schrader had gone far enough down the rabbit hole that he proposed marriage to the actress, despite the fact that he had already proposed to his girlfriend, Michelle Rappaport. Biskind further alleges that Schrader had even more explicit footage of Kinski in the can that he threatened to release after she dumped him near the end of filming. His anecdote about the production concludes with a tearful visit by Kinski to Universal’s then-president, Ned Tanen, that resulted in an angry phone call to Schrader in which Tanen warned the director, “Jesus Christ, you asshole, don’t put any beaver shots in this movie!”

2. For a good example of all this, go to the moment when Kinski appears in the doorway during the swimming-pool scene, then step forward one frame at a time just as the light comes on. Watch the blank expanse of wall to the right of the doorway and you’ll see the image-processing algorithms interacting poorly with picture detail, dirt, and film grain as the image brightens up. Specks of dirt that should be making only a single-frame appearance hang on the screen for as many as four frames, inadvertently replicated by a computer that thought it was patching holes in the image rather than making new ones. Some of the grain freezes for a few frames; a patch near the top of the frameline almost seems to swirl in place, like a Lovecraftian portal to another dimension. Finally, you can clearly see the effect of contrast-enhancing sharpening in exaggerated edges around Kinski’s head and shoulders that make her stand out unnaturally against the background. Is this all fairly subtle, especially to the untrained eye? Sure. But subtle is what Blu-ray is built to deliver.

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