Directed By: Paul Schrader
Starring: Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard
Tag line: "An erotic fantasy about the animal in us all"
Trivia: In one of this movie's deleted scenes, Nastassja Kinski's real-life mother played her half-cat half-human mother
Produced by Val Lewton, 1942’s Cat People was a low-budget film that gave its audience nightmares, which it did without ever giving them a good look at the movie’s monster. In contrast, the 1982 remake of Cat People kicks things off with an extended prologue set in an exotic locale, where we watch as a young girl is seemingly sacrificed to a black leopard. From this opening sequence alone, its obvious director Paul Schrader wanted to take his film in a much different direction, clearly showing what was only alluded to in the original.
Irena (Nastassja Kinski) travels to New Orleans to be reunited with her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell), who she hasn’t seen in years. But what she hoped would be a joyful family reunion takes a dark turn when Paul starts making sexual advances towards her. Later that night, in another part of town, a prostitute (Lynn Lowry) is mauled by a black leopard, which is then trapped in the small motel room where the attack occurred. The following morning, Oliver (John Heard), who works for the local zoo, is called in to capture the creature, which, after a few vicious outbursts, is eventually subdued. As she’s out touring the town, Irena stops by the zoo and notices something oddly familiar about this black leopard. While there, she also makes an impression on Oliver, who, despite being in an off-and-on relationship with co-worker Alice (Annette O’Toole), finds himself drawn to the exotic Irena. After going out on a couple of dates, Irena begins to fall in love with Oliver, but her happiness is cut short when Paul reveals the secret of their lineage to her, including the fact they descend from a race of cat people that, because they kill anyone they’ve had sex with, can only mate with one another. At first, Irena refuses to believe him, but slowly learns the truth after moving in with Oliver, who does everything he can to lure the reluctant Irena into bed.
Restricted by the censors and its budget, 1942’s Cat People had to rein in the sexual elements of its story while, at the same time, limiting the on-screen violence. The resulting film is a masterwork of mood and style, a tense tale told with darkness and shadows as opposed to actual creatures. Of course, by 1982, movies could show a whole lot more, which is exactly what director Schrader does in his version of Cat People, a sexually charged tale of forbidden lust that doesn’t shy away from blood and gore. As Irena, Kinski is positively alluring, emitting an erotic energy that never once lets up (even when she’s fully clothed, you can see it in her eyes). As for the violence, there are a number of graphic scenes (the most shocking of which involves Joe, an assistant of Oliver’s played by Ed Begley Jr., who gets a bit too close to the leopard), and even when we don’t witness it first-hand, Schrader ensures we get a good glimpse at the bloody aftermath.
Being a fan of classic films, I rank Val Lewton’s Cat People as one of the most important horror movies ever produced, a textbook example of what can be accomplished with limited resources at your disposal. I’ll always love the original, yet I feel 1982’s Cat People needed to be made, a recent take on the story that conveys the sexual frustration of its lead character in a more visceral manner while also showing us, in sometimes gory detail, what happens when her kind gives in to temptation.