Format: DVD from Manteno Public Library through interlibrary loan on the new portable.
When someone talks about the movie Cat People, I immediately go to the Val Lewton-produced film from the 1940s. It was made on the cheap, of course, and does all of its work with sound and shadow. It’s a surprisingly effective little thriller. It’s also remarkably sex-filled for a movie of that vintage. Essentially, the main character is scared to have sex because having sex will turn her into a panther. Naturally, forty years after the original we get a remake that touches on much of the same ideas but absolutely ramps up the sex. Cat People from 1982, it could be argued, exists specifically because Nastassja Kinski does full frontal.
Irena Gallier (Kinski) arrives in New Orleans at the behest of her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell). The two have not seen each other in years, having been raised separately after the death of their parents. While Irena was raised in a series of foster homes, Paul was raised mainly in psych wards. He now lives in the Big Easy with his housekeeper (Ruby Dee), who is literally named “Female,” pronounced “fe-MAH-lee,” and perpetuating an ugly stereotype.
Anyway, in a seemingly unrelated note, a prostitute named Ruthie (Lynn Lowry) heads to a client in a fleabag motel and winds up assaulted by a black panther. Animal control in the form of local zoo curator Oliver Yates (John Heard) and his former lover now assistant Alice Perrin (Annette O’Toole) arrive, tranq the panther, and bring it to the zoo. Meanwhile, Irena can’t find her brother. If you think those two things are connected, you’re right. Soon enough, Irena is drawn to the zoo where she meets Oliver, who gives her a job in the gift shop. And, shortly thereafter, one of the zookeepers (Ed Begley Jr.) has his arm ripped off by the panther. The next day, the panther is missing and Paul has returned.
Okay, you get what is happening, at least on the surface. What you haven’t gotten yet is just how deep this particular rabbit hole is going to go. Because you’re watching a movie and can do simple addition, you’ve figured out that the panther is Paul. And, because we’ve learned that Irena is still a virgin but definitely has an affinity for cats and some cat-like features, you’ve probably guessed that she is a panther as well. You’re right. Now here’s where it gets creepy.
Paul tells her that they are both cat people, like their parents. When they have sex, they turn into a panther. The only way they can return to their human form is to kill someone. Then he drops the real bomb—the only way to prevent that transformation after sex is if that sex is with another cat person…and they are naturally incestuous. In fact, their parents were siblings. And now Paul wants them to be a mated pair despite her attraction to Oliver, since there will naturally be terrible consequences if that relationship gets consummated. So yes, this is a film where the love story by design includes a heavy element of incest.
Naturally there are a few more deaths, and it’s not going to be a surprise that Irena and Oliver are eventually going to make the beast with two backs so that Irena can get some beast time of her own. But it’s a doomed love affair, much like the original movie. In fact, the biggest difference here is that Nastassja Kinski’s Irena is willing to risk becoming a panther while Simone Simon’s Irena remains virginal even when married.
I did like that Paul Schrader was smart enough to keep an eye toward the original. There’s a sexed-up (read: topless) version of the pool sequence from the original film as well as the stalking sequence. This little homages are nice, since they are some of the better parts of the original Jacques Tourneur version.
But make no mistake—this movie was clearly designed to be as titillating as it is unnerving. Kinski does a lot of nude in this, including a brief full-frontal moment and Annette O’Toole goes topless in the pool sequence. This is absolutely a movie that was about finding that repressed sex aspect of the original film and getting rid of the “repressed” part of it.
But is it good? It’s okay. I like the charm and simplicity of the original film a lot better than this. This does feel needlessly tarted up in a lot of respects. The incest angle absolutely doesn’t help in this respect at all. It’s also 45 minutes longer than the first film, and while some of that is warranted (the original feels very compressed in many ways), not all of it is.
Why to watch Cat People: It takes the original story and ramps up the sexy.
Why not to watch: It has a heavy incest/bestiality vibe.