Paul Schrader’s 1982 Cat People is a film I’ve always had problems with. I saw it years ago and hated it. I saw it again a few years back, and still hated it. But on a third viewing I’m finally starting to appreciate it.
This time I tried really hard not to think of it as a remake of the brilliant 1942 Cat People (interestingly enough director Paul Schrader’s biggest regret about this film is that he didn’t change the title). Trying to see it as an entirely different movie only vaguely inspired by the original seems to have done the trick.
Although it retains some of the themes of the original the plot in fact is radically different. A young woman (Irena, played by Nastassja Kinski) arrives in New Orleans to be re-united with her brother whom she hasn’t seen since she was a very small child. Her brother Paul (Malcolm MacDowell) is a preacher, and he’s a little odd although very friendly. Very friendly indeed. The next day he disappears without explanation and is gone for days. Irena finds herself drawn to the zoo, and especially to a black leopard there. Zoo curator Oliver Yates takes a liking to her and offers her a job.
She soon discovers that she and her brother share a strange secret. They could have sex safely with each other, but not with anyone else. They are lycanthropes of a peculiar sort, cat people, and sexually they must confine themselves to their own kind. But Irena is already starting to fall in love with Oliver, and he is well and truly obsessed with her. And Paul has re-appeared, and the police are asking awkward questions, and in general it’s pretty clear that Irena’s life is about to get very complicated indeed.
Many people would no doubt take the view that any work of art should be able to stand on its own merits and that director’s commentary tracks on DVD are therefore unnecessary since if the director has to explain what his intentions were then he has clearly failed. That might be true in an ideal world, and it might be true for people much cleverer than myself, but I find that there are some cases where the director’s commentary tracks is absolutely essential to a proper appreciation of the movie. For me this is one of those cases.
Finding out that Paul Shrader was brought up in a strict religious household and did not get to see any movies at all until he went to college is one of the keys to the movies. This is a horror movie made by someone almost uniquely uninfluenced by the great tradition of horror movies. The movies Schrader discovered at college were European art-house movies, so when he came to make a horror film it wasn’t older horror films that inspired him, it was the movies of people like Bertolucci and Antonioni.
So when it came to making a horror movie it’s not that Schrader was embarrassed by the idea of doing such a movie. He simply didn’t know how to. So he took the script Universal had given him and used it to make the sort of movie he did know how to make. The result was not a horror film so much as an art film about sex, myth and obsession. Schrader says that when making the movie he decided that when the audience expected violence he’d give them sex, and when they expected sex he’d give them violence.
The movie is preoccupied by the nature of myth in general, but Schrader was also consciously basing the movie on Dante’s 13th century La Vita Nuova. Zoo curator Oliver is an all-American Dante, and the exotic mysterious Irena is Beatrice. Oliver has had little experience with women and hopelessly idealises Irena. The ending of the movie makes sense once you understand that Irena is Beatrice and that Oliver’s actions are close to being a form of worship.
I also often find that the commentary track help because it allows me to watch the movie again without following the story, seeing it purely as a visual spectacle. And Schrader, heavily under the influence of production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, clearly intended the movie to be seen in that way. The themes of the movie are explored through visual rather than verbal means, and Schrader also approached it as a kind of exercise in style. Josef von Sternberg had described his 1934 masterpiece The Scarlet Empress as a "relentless excursion into style" and that to some extent seems to be what Shrader had in mind. It was also an exercise in the use of colour.
Visually the movie benefits from having been made in the pre-CGI age. The extensive use of matte paintings gives it a wonderfully artificial dreamlike feel, and there are images that seem to be pure dream imagery, like the huge leopard statues at the zoo. Combined with Giorgio Moroder’s score the movie ends up having a unique and very European feel.
Malcolm McDowell is as disturbing as you’d expect but Kinski is very much the star of this film. Her performance is extraordinary, and may well be the best of her career.
I’m still not entirely persuaded that the plot of this 1982 version really works but it’s a bizarre hallucinatory kind of experience that makes it a movie not quite like any other.