Cat People (1982)

Cat People (1982), directed by Paul Schrader.

"Pretend the world is what men think it is."

Orphaned and separated from her brother since childhood, Nastassja Kinski rejoins him in New Orleans and gradually learns that they are not exactly human: sex transforms them into black leopards and only killing can change them back again. She's a virgin and hasn't had to face this yet, but brother Malcolm McDowell tells her they can avoid the curse by having sex only with each other. He's entirely happy with that prospect but she's not having it.

Kinksi is ideal for the role: she's innocent like an animal, foreign like a black leopard, and has smoldering erotic reserves, which is what it's all about. She gives it her all: full frontal nudity with bondage. In the pre-DVD years I had a used beta tape version, a rental store copy, and this scene was obviously "often viewed".

McDowell got a lot of these intensely weird roles, and here he has appropriate feline grace, craft and craziness.

The plot is only loosely parallel to the Lewton/Tourneur original Cat People (1942). More sex, blood and gooeyness with brief animatronic effects. They retain the bit where Irene stalks Alice in the darkened swimming pool. Annette O'Toole contributes her own bit of nudity here, for which many thanks.

The good: we still have mysteries looming just out of sight. I think Kinski's last scene achieves something filmmakers want but seldom deliver: the erotic that is emotionally moving apart a sexual, hormonal response.

The bad: the leisurely pacing is all wrong; it doesn't drive the plot forward. The director wanted to avoid "horror film gimmicks", but it's not clear what he wanted instead. The actors, New Orleans and the score all contribute to a good film, but the editing decisions are just not right. Some scenes make no sense: the cat autopsy, for example.

Apart from that: it's always an issue in horror films of how much should be explicit and how much suggested. I can't say the blood, body parts, and stickiness make it a better film, but without that it would be a much softer fantasy/romance. What to do?

This was available on HD DVD but I've not heard of a Blu-ray. The fan base may be small (5.9 at the IMDB), but I'd buy it, despite its problems. (Later: the Blu-ray appeared),

The DVD has a commentary track by the director. He gives details on the technical processes of the pre-digital era and praises the crew. This was not originally meant to be a personal project, but that changed. The conception was for an erotic/horror genre film, but they gradually reduced the horror element. He says he would have gotten beaten up less by critics if a different title had been used; the original is a low budget atmospheric classic and both Lewton and Tourneur are revered by film fans.

Other bits from the commentary:

Years ago whenever I thought of the early 1980s I would imagine a musical background: a mysterious but mellow synthesizer with African percussion. Later I realized it was Giorgio Moroder's main theme to Cat People. The closing lyrics are sung by David Bowie, which version Tarantino used again in Inglourious Basterds: Shosanna's music just before the big fire in the theater.

See these tears so blue
An ageless heart
that can never mend
These tears can never dry
A judgment made
can never bend
See these eyes so green
I can stare for a thousand years
Just be still with me
You wouldn't believe what I've been through