The opening credits immediately insist that director Paul Schrader isn’t interested in merely reprising your grandparents’ beloved version of Cat People, the 1942 horror film memorably directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton. Set to the background of a profoundly bright brick red, which is soon revealed to be a desert jungle-scape, Giorgio Moroder’s primal synth score prepares us for an erotic blowout that overtly literalizes the Cat People conceit for the sake of a little soft porn fun. Leopards hang from the trees, while a human tribe escorts a beautiful young woman up to the cave of what one assumes to be a particularly special leopard for some forbidden loving. Then a quick cut to the present day on the breathtakingly gorgeous face of Irena (Nastassia Kinski), in a close-up that encourages the association of her eyes with those of the powerful feline in the prior scene. The juxtaposition of the images is blunt but effective: We know the animal lurks within this woman.
It’s a bold, evocative opening. One that baldly establishes the film’s willingness to deviate strongly from the source material, particularly in its heightening of the primordial horny dread—which is Jungian, Freudian, and probably every other -ian in the book—that fuels every kind of were-animal tale. The appearance of Irena’s brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell), encourages our initially high expectations, as he’s clearly the man to put her in touch with her literal and metaphorical internal animal. Schrader and McDowell aren’t coy about the incest element either, as incest is clearly the modern approximation of the taboo of lying down sexually with jungle beasts. No, it doesn’t make too much sense, but literal-minded sense is perhaps the least necessary, and often outright unwelcome, element of an erotic story.
And then the entire picture stops dead in its tracks. The problem isn’t one of impersonality, as you might expect of a remake undertaken by a respected director for reasons of broadening his audience. Precisely the opposite, in fact: Cat People is very much a Paul Schrader film, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that the filmmaker is drawn to this kind of horror movie, either, as almost all of his films are occupied with the emotional detritus that sex—conventional and outré alike—leaves in its wake. But Schrader, at his best, is a poet of the guilt of sex, not of the joy, and that’s a problem for a film that’s clearly intended as an erotic thriller.
Cat People is still the most erotic film of Schrader’s career, which is to say that it’s sporadically erotic rather than the director’s customary not at all. For a heterosexual male, Schrader is particularly alive to the extraordinarily sensual expressiveness of McDowell’s body at this stage in his career. The actor gives a powerfully insinuating, damn near gleeful, performance that belongs to a much greater film while retrospectively reminding you that McDowell deserved a more stimulating career than he’s ultimately managed to forge. McDowell matches up well with Kinski too, a woman with a correspondingly perfect body who truly suggests his ultimate and only female equivalent. You get why Paul’s so hot and bothered to go to bed with his sister, and it has nothing to do with the convoluted backstory the characters keep jabbering about: At the end of the day, there’s no explaining raw, forbidden hunger.
But that doesn’t stop Schrader and screenwriter Alan Ormsby from trying like hell to explain everything away anyway. The film continually goes in circles: Irena wanders a zoo’s corridors exchanging tender expository somethings with potential beau Oliver (John Heard); Paul upsets the apple cart of Irena’s “stable” life with a hedonistic act; Oliver exchanges similarly tender expository somethings with ex and potential future beau Alice (Annette O’Toole); and rinse and repeat as necessary for the majority of 118 minutes. The film never takes off, never plunging into the dark, wild realm it keeps tantalizingly suggesting with the various dream and fantasy sequences. And there’s a fatal lack of narrative rhythm that’s traditional to Schrader’s films: Every scene feels twice as long as it should be, and each scene feels self-contained, isolated from those surrounding it, as well as emotionally flat and markedly uncomplicated by any nuance that might not fit into the grand schematic. Schrader feels that critics weren’t imaginative enough to evaluate his film as its own erotic thriller, rather than as an unsatisfactory remake of a classic. Fair enough, but Cat People is unsatisfying on its own professed terms too: It’s an erotic fantasia reduced to a series of static pictures of people discussing the film’s already obvious themes.
Schrader’s best films—Blue Collar, Affliction, Auto Focus—are formally conventional and allow the actors to work through his preoccupations with an emotional conviction that can be revelatory. Schrader is a major talent, but his obsession with deconstructing familiar genres has often gotten in his way, as he throws out the meat of a genre’s framework without substituting anything in its place, and so all that’s left is an emptiness that’s often literal: actors standing around in stripped-down setups attempting to enliven a moment that’s conceptually dead. And would it kill the filmmaker to occasionally crack a joke, particularly in a film that concerns a pair of shape-shifting Adam and Eve human-cat beasts intent on engaging in the ultimate interbestial fuck-fest? There’s no joy or life or danger in this Cat People, no trace of anything that Schrader may respond to in the horror genre, or in films at all. The irony of Paul Schrader’s career as a director may be quite poignant: He’s a man so in love with cinema that he’s choked up when attempting to express that love in his own art, and, terrified of condescending to an art form that means so much to him, he becomes stuffy and self-serious, compromising the vitality he intended to honor.
This transfer honors the boldness of Cat People’s color scheme with a specificity that’s never been previously matched by any domestic home-video presentation. The reds of the desert, the blacks of the cats, and the greens and blues of the actors’ eyes all register with a newfound vivacity that intensifies the sensual and hallucinatory effect of the film. Though, equally importantly, Cat People hasn’t been cleaned up too much: The softness that characterizes the cinematography of FX-heavy American films of the early 1980s refreshingly remains. The two English DTS Master Audio tracks, 2.0 and 5.1 respectively, are appropriately rich and expansively lush while maintaining the clarity of quieter sonic details.
Not much, which is unfortunate, as director Paul Schrader clearly has strong feelings about the film’s initially poor reception, which is to say that those feelings, coupled with Schrader’s formidable cinephilia, pretty much demand an audio commentary. Alas, we have to make do with a series of short interviews with most of the principles, which are pleasant but only whet the appetite for a course that hasn’t been provided. Rounding out the package is the customary stills gallery and theatrical trailer.
Cat People has never looked or sounded better, and good thing too, as the film’s fleeting pleasures are solely dependent on your ability to discern those curves, and those deep, deep eyes.