While it’s arguably a failure as a genre film, 1982’s undervalued Cat People is distinctively a Paul Schrader creation. Adapted from the classic story by DeWitt Bodeen, Schrader’s film should not be compared to the 1942 classic by the great Jacques Tourneur. (Unlike frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese, Schrader was a non-fan of the Tourneur film.) Unjustifiably compared to the original film upon its release, Schrader’s Cat People is more of an erotic reinvention of the Bodeen story. The bloodline of feminist horror may have begun with the original Cat People but De Palma’s Carrie (much like last year’s Ginger Snaps) found a linkage between puberty and body horror. Cat People goes one further, linking fear of penetration with a young virgin’s acknowledgement of her cultural past. Irena Gallier (Nastassia Kinski) finds her long-lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) in a voodoo-friendly New Orleans. Soon after a black panther takes a piece out of a local whore, Irena goes to work at a zoo manned by love interest Oliver Yates (Oliver Heard). The late, great Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s elaborate set designs imagine New Orleans as a post-feminist kingdom whose traditions are on the brink of destruction. For added measure, Giorgio Moroder’s synth-laden score heightens the film’s exotic textures. Churches and posters (here, Marilyn Monroe’s classic Seven Year Itch pose) fabulously hint at Irena’s sexual awakening. Though Schrader keeps the Fangoria crowd at bay with a series of grisly tableaus, he remains less concerned with the body-horrific than he does with the rituals of sex—mandatory and otherwise. Once Irena embraces her inner-pussy, she must naturally be tamed; the film’s infamous bondage sequence fascinatingly blurs any and all notions of what is consensual.
Universal Home Video gorgeously preserves Cat People’s 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Despite some minor bleeding, the transfer does justice to the film’s luxuriant, meticulous color palette. Moroder’s score and rear effects sound astonishing on the disc’s otherwise serviceable English 2.0 Dolby surround track.
First up is an exceptional commentary track by a very humble Schrader, who calls his Cat People a "beauty film" when referencing Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s designs. Schrader acknowledges Bertolucci’s influence and readily admits that his style is a synthesis of Godard’s willful camera and Antonioni’s sense of design. Most importantly, though, Schrader discusses at length the recent puritanical swing plaguing the country that only now seems to be waning. Indeed, Cat People is racy enough that it may not have been able to squeak by with an R rating had it been released in 2002. In the end, "Cat People: An Intimate Conversation with Paul Schrader" is little more than an abridged version of the disc’s commentary track, but it’s nonetheless engaging, especially when Schrader discusses the selection of Kinski for the role as Irena. The feature "Special Makeup Effects by Tom Burman" is every bit as insightful as "Robert Wise on Producer Val Lewton" is short on time. Unless Schrader was suffering from a dull moment, "On the Set with Paul Schrader" proves that the director’s hindsight is his biggest asset. Also included here are production notes, a theatrical trailer, and a nice montage of production photographs.
Though not necessarily a must-have for horror aficionados, Cat People should nonetheless please Schrader and softcore porn fans alike.