Wednesday, January 22, 2014

CAT PEOPLE (1982) Blu-ray Review

Cat People (1982) d. Paul Schrader (USA)

After years in orphanages, Irena (Nastassja Kinski) reunites with long-lost sibling Paul (Malcolm McDowell), who soon reveals a more-than-brotherly attraction to her. Seems the two are the supernatural offspring of panthers, doomed to mate only with their own humanimal kind, as any other coupling results in fanged-and-clawed death for their unsuspecting partner. Needless to say, this throws a wrench into zookeeper Oliver's (John Heard) romantic designs on the exotic female newcomer.

The same year that they remade RKO’s trailblazing The Thing from Another World, Universal dug further into its vaults to give Paul Schrader (hot off American Gigilo) a crack at updating the 1942 Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur masterpiece. Like The Thing, his and screenwriter Alan Ormsby’s efforts met with mixed reviews and middling box office upon their initial 1982 release, but have gained a similar cult appreciation over the past three decades.

But whereas John Carpenter crafted a near-perfect film that has since been acknowledged as a genre classic and one of the finest remakes of all time, Cat People remains a troubled, uneven picture, uncomfortable within its own shapeshifting skin. For every moment of inspired brilliance – such as the visually impressive red-filtered vistas, with a twisted and regal tree as their centerpiece and large jungle cats panting heavily on the branches – there is a clunker that sends us heading for the litter box.

Attempting to cash in on the success of An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, Ormsby’s painfully convoluted man-into-beast screenplay displays none of the fun or wit of its hairy brethren. Additionally, there are a wealth of head-scratching moments, such as Kinski's third-act pursuit of Oliver's zookeeper gal pal Alice (Annette O'Toole). She's not a romantic rival as Jane Randolph was in the original; it's just that Kinski needs to pursue someone (and because we need the obligatory reprise of the famous swimming pool sequence). Another is how the hell McDowell - having gone from human to panther to human again - gets out of his zoo prison. Then there's Kinski's inexplicable "vision" of her ancestry. And and and...

For his part, Schrader seems less interested in telling a horror yarn than in getting his female lead out of her clothes, which he does with great frequency.  In fact, there is a lot of skin on parade amidst the uninspired gooey, gory bits: O'Toole gets naked,

McDowell gets naked,

Heard gets naked, several of McDowell’s female victims (including The Crazies’ Lynn Lowry) get naked, and Ed Begley Jr. gets his arm ripped off.

Makeup master Tom Burman shows off his superb transformation effects with a very game Kinski, but Schrader ruins the coup de grace with a clumsy jump cut to a real panther (or painted cougar, as several cast members inform us on the behind-the-scenes interviews). Similarly, other “special” effects, such as McDowell’s filmed-in-reverse leap onto a bed railing feel mannered and forced.

Kudos must be given for trying to create a different atmosphere than the original’s noir-ish brand of haunting mystery and suspense, but Kinski in the buff, a swampy New Orleans backdrop, and Giorgio Moroder’s moody score do not for this viewer a modern classic make. The 118-minute running time is telling - Cat People is a horror film that doesn't want to be a horror film, but rather an erotic arthouse thriller...about cat people.  While I don’t revile it nearly as much as I did upon my first encounter – where I labeled it “blasphemous” a la Marcus Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake – I’ll still take the original any day of the week. Not because I’m a purist, but because it’s a far superior movie. 

Shout! Factory delivers the Blu-ray goods in the form of the aforementioned interviews, gathering remembrances from Kinski, McDowell, Heard, O’Toole, Moroder, and Lowry that are both entertaining and enlightening. We hear of McDowell hair-dyeing woes, Lowry’s repeated tumbles down the stairs that sent her to the hospital, and O’Toole’s jogging-induced ankle fracture. All seem quite pleased with the final results, it should be noted, especially Moroder who gleefully recounts of how he and collaborator David Bowie knocked out their Golden Globe-nominated title theme (aka “Putting Out Fires with Gasoline”) in a matter of hours between breakfast and lunch.

One minor beef with the interviews is that they are broken into individual segments, with no “Play All” option, and each has the same 30-seconds credits crawl. One would think that they’d realize that anyone interested in special features is going to want to watch the entire lot in one go. A still gallery and theatrical trailer, along with David Levine’s reversible cover art, round out the package.

Cat People is available now from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine


  1. The 1982 Cat People is a visual slice of gaudy early 80's eroticism;I love the beginning prologue set in the surreal desert landscape of the title creatures,all blowing sand with David Bowie' s sexy humming amid hundreds of skeletal remains.

    1. My friend used to say that opening was the best Kubrick movie Kubrick never made.