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From the Vaults: 'Cat People' (1982)

October 18, 2010 |  1:27 am

Catposter Remake time! Although apparently director Paul Schrader ("American Gigolo"; also the writer of "Taxi Driver") insisted that he didn't intend "Cat People" as a remake of the 1942 film. Still, it's got main characters named Irena, Oliver and Alice, who all have roughly the same relationships with each other. And it's got the same conceit: that Irena, if aroused to physical passion, will transform into a panther and kill her lover. But rather than a shadowy thriller, Schrader turns that material into an erotic sort of psychodrama. Does that count as a remake? You decide!

Schrader makes Irena's duality -- sweet virginal girl/homicidal cat person -- much more literal by giving her an older brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell). As the film opens, Irena (Natassja Kinski) is meeting him for the first time; she's been raised up north by foster families but has come to live with Paul in hot, sweaty New Orleans. Paul knows about the cat-people thing and embraces it, but Irena's got no idea. I wouldn't have thought it, but these two do make a sublimely feline pair: McDowell leaps lithely onto railings, Kinski wriggles kittenishly, and both of them gaze around with their huge, hypnotic eyes. Meow!

Shortly after Irena's arrival, Paul disappears, and Irena becomes fascinated with the new black leopard at the local zoo. Irena in turn fascinates zoo boss Oliver (John Heard), to the irritation of his colleague Alice (a sublimely beautiful Annette O'Toole). Let the sexual drama begin!

It may all sound tawdry and godawful, but remember that the 1942 film was considered a B movie. Schrader's film is a rocking good time if you can manage the premise. It's a big pop mashup of myth and sex and blood and fun. My expectations were rock-bottom, but I had an absolute blast watching this. How can you not love a movie that opens and closes with David Bowie's voice?

Catkinsk This film refines the cat-people myth a bit: Apparently, in Ancient Times, early humans sacrificed some of their women to mate with giant cats. Their offspring look human but become cats when sexually aroused, and can only return to human form after they've killed. Ergo, it's only safe for cat people to mate with each other. And the gene pool is shrinking. Yep -- Paul's intentions toward his sister are not entirely brotherly.

This quickly transforms Paul into the hissing villain of the film, which is a bit of a shame as his character is almost the most interesting one. Apparently he's a Christian preacher, something the film barely touches on but something I was anxious to hear more about; I mean, what kind of sermons does a cat preacher preach? Especially one who's apparently used to slinking around cheap motels and killing working girls? I know New Orleans was a den of vice and all, but let's have some more detail! Oh, I just wanted more McDowell generally. He's so much fun prowling and preening around onscreen; there's not nearly enough of him.

But there sure is plenty of the brassiere-averse Kinski, which is just fine! With her saucerlike eyes, cropped hair and pouty lips, she reminds me a bit of Cillian Murphy in "28 Days Later." But when she strides around rural Louisiana in the altogether (are cat people immune to bug bites?) she's unmistakably female -- and feline. I loved the moment when she leaps into a catlike crouch as her adversary appears in the window. She also gets the movie's best moment, after transforming and roaming the wilderness in search of prey, she chases a nice plump bunny; back in the house, her human companion hears a noise and turns on a light, and a blood-soaked Kinski screams, "Don't look at me!" The screen mercifully returns to darkness.

Irena You can't blame Oliver for being helplessly infatuated with her, but, with apologies to gentlemen, it's not a state of the male mind that's very interesting to watch, and the movie spends a lot of time on Oliver. Heard is fine but he's best in his all-too-brief scenes with O'Toole's Alice -- like Jane Randolph's Alice, she's the only person who can really bring Oliver's real personality out -- but here she's given regrettably short shrift. We spend a lot of time watching Oliver in his little leather jacket, standing around staring at Irena and exhibiting his perfect tan. I'd rather have been watching one of the cat siblings leap around.

But there are other perks. I was ecstatic to see Ruby Dee as Paul's landlady, Female (pronounced fuh-MAUL-eh); her character gets hauled off to jail halfway through, and it's a good thing, or else she'd have out-sexyed Kinski. Dee has always been a vision. And John Larroquette shows up as a detective -- it's always nice to see the narrator from "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."

There are quite a few tribute scenes to the original. Most famously, the swimming-pool scene is re-created almost frame for frame (except that, since this is an erotic thriller and all, Alice gets to be topless). It's a nice shout-out to the 1942 film but it's also a bit perfunctory. We've already seen Irena transform into a big ole fanged beast, via some pretty sweet makeup effects. So there's not much point in having her prowl the rim of a pool wholly in shadow. I imagine people watching the movie in 1982 said, "What are they doing this for?" and people who were fans of the 1942 movie had already gone home.

The ending is, yeah, incredibly perverse -- but is it worse than just letting Irena kill herself via panther at the end of the first film? I think you could make a pretty good argument for "Cat People" as Lovecraftian horror, with the victim/perpetrator unable to escape the atavistic drives that force him/her to commit crime. But unlike Lovecraft's work, both the 1942 and 1982 stories are pretty damn sexy. The poor gentleman from Providence would faint dead away.

Next week, we'll return to the 1920s for some unspeakable horror. In the meantime: "Cat People," people! Let's put out fire with gasoline! God do I love that theme song.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon