Cat People (1982)
By: Stuart Giesel on May 2, 2014 | Comments
Scream Factory | Region A | 1.85:1, 1080p | English DTS MA 5.1 | 118 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Paul Schrader
Starring: Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O'Toole
Screenplay: Alan Ormsby
Country: USA
1982 was a banner year for American films, and film fans no doubt remember it was a year that an esteemed writer/director took on a glossy remake of a classic black-and-white horror film, upping the special effects and gore quotient for a modern audience whilst attempting to keep the queasy, sinister themes of the original intact. Yes, that was John Carpenter's landmark remake The Thing. But the other horror remake was Cat People, based on 1942's The Cat People. Nauseatingly, the tagline on the front cover of Scream Factory's otherwise solid Blu-Ray release of Paul Schrader's Cat People proclaims that the film is "an erotic fantasy about the animal in us all". Maybe that was Schrader and writer Alan Ormsby's intention, but it's an eye-rolling proclamation nonetheless. Fortunately there's nothing quite so cringeworthy in the film proper.

The original Cat People was about a New York fashion artist who feared she would turn into a black panther whenever she got intimate with someone. The Cat People remake takes this basic concept of "were-cats who can't fuck without risking the health of their lovers" and sexualises it for an 80's audience, adding an additional layer of ick with its incest angle. Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) meets her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) in New Orleans and stays with him and his oddball housekeeper Female (Ruby Dee). A prostitute is attacked by a large black panther, and New Orleans Zoo curator Oliver Yates (John Heard) and his assistants Alice (Annette O'Toole) and Joe (Ed Begley Jr) capture the beast and put on display at the zoo. Irena is instinctively drawn to the animal, and in the process begins a romantic relationship with Oliver. However, there is a very specific reason as to why she's drawn to the panther, a reason that has severe implications for her relationship with Oliver and for her brother.

Updating the film from its 1940's incarnation has meant that director Schrader, writer Ormsby and the crew are able to infuse this particular Cat People with elements that the original could only hint at, or shy away from completely. So what we have here is a strong sexual theme running through the film, made explicitly-so thanks to Kinski's frequent nude scenes or the other scenes of sexual activity, nudity and frank dialogue. The violence is infrequent, but bloody and graphic when it happens - there's a shocking scene about halfway through that is sure to stick in the mind. And then there is the taboo theme of incest which a film from the 40's would never dream of mentioning, let alone featuring as a plot device. But is all this to the film's benefit? Overall, I would have to say it is, mostly thanks to some especially fine performances, a deliberately slow but never boring style, and some skilfully directed scenes and a legitimate sense of danger. Some may mourn the loss of the original's noir-ish look and feel as well as its slow-burn sense of dread. You can see the point of people who believe that Schrader's Cat People has, by comparison, effectively jumped the shark thanks to its explicit content, but it would be doing the film a disservice to believe all it wants to do is shock by any means necessary.

Firstly, though the story is, when you get down to it, admittedly simplistic, Cat People is filmed with an artistry that is often lacking from horror films. Schrader brings a painterly eye to the proceedings, most clearly in the red-hued desert landscapes that show the origin of the "cat people", but frequently he and cinematographer John Bailey prove with their choice of camera placement and shot composition that this is no throwaway horror cheapie. The ambiance is further bolstered by the eerie synth score work by Giorgio Moroder, which is ultimately overshadowed by the Cat People theme, Putting Out the Fire, by Moroder and David Bowie, which open and close the film to great effect. Effects work is sparse but effective when they take front-and-centre, and for the most part the creature effects and gore is well done and not overplayed.

There are no dud performances to be seen. You might assume Kinski was only hired for her striking physicality and looks, but she proves her acting chops in what you have to assume was a fairly difficult performance, showing a clear mental progression for her character without betraying the material or making it sound cheesy or silly. Heard is a solid, reliable support, as are O'Toole and Begley Jr who, unfortunately, have less to do. McDowell overplays the craziness of his character, but then no one quite does madness like McDowell and you tend to cut him more slack than you would another actor. He's still spine-crawlingly creepy and effective.

Beyond these elements, what works most effectively are the animal scenes, by which I mean the cheetahs which were apparently coloured black to look like black panthers (panthers being apparently impossible to train). These big cats, when they do appear, are thrillingly effective - it's almost impossible to watch Cat People in a dark room with the volume cranked up and not be a little nervous and overawed at the raw strength and beauty of these magnificent animals. They exhibit a genuine danger that we so infrequently get in films, particularly nowadays where filmmakers would probably opt for CGI cheetahs or panthers over the real thing. It is no discredit to the other aspects of the film or to both cast and crew in saying that were these real large cats not used for their particular sequences, Cat People likely would have fallen flat.

Elsewhere the potent mix of eroticism and horror works well enough, even if the pace flags in spots. The New Orleans setting helps, of course, bringing with it oft-associated elements such as voodooism and a sweltering, laid-back climate that are often associated with thrillers set in that city - Angel Heart springs most readily to mind. Of course, for more prurient viewers of the period, Cat People was for its time a cornucopia of pre-Internet mastubatory fodder thanks to Nastassja Kinski and her frequent full-frontal nudity scenes, as well as for the lovely Annette O'Toole, who has a memorable topless scene in an indoor pool. For the ladies, they had to make do with the infrequent male rear nudity presented by Malcolm McDowell (though his freakish character is sure to be off-putting for most) and the now sadly-departed John Heard.
Is Cat People a complete success? It's undeniably effective in creating an atmosphere of unease, if not exactly dread, but the languid pacing will prove to be off-putting for some, and the ending - which should be celebrated for what it doesn't do as much as what it does - will undoubtedly be seen as anticlimactic by certain viewers raised by American horror film tradition and all the expectations that come with it. But if you like your horror films a little off-kilter and don't mind a bit of sex mixed in with your cinematic blood, you could do a lot worse.
The Disc
Scream Factory have to be commended for bringing a title such as Cat People, which to this day doesn't quite scream "cult classic" so much as overlooked gem, to Blu-Ray. Presentation-wise, the picture and sound quality is par for the course, certainly nothing exemplary. The picture is a little flat, but colour is strong, particularly in those red landscape scenes and any time a bit of blood comes on the screen, but you get the feeling that there's been a bit of noise reduction going on - things look a little too over-processed and not as natural a transfer as it could have been. Audio is a little better, especially whenever the black panther(s) get a look in, and their snarls and roars really kick things up a notch. David Bowie's Cat People theme also sounds great in DTS 5.1.

As far as features go, it's a pretty thin collection. The disc includes interviews with Paul Schrader, actors Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O'Toole, and composer Giorgio Moroder. It's certainly interesting to hear their perspectives on the film and their memories of the production. Other than the interviews, you get your standard assortment of trailers and TV spots and a photo gallery of posters and production art.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Whilst not as outright successful as the best horror remakes (namely 80's The Thing and The Fly) Cat People is an enticing and intriguing blend of eroticism and horror, with some standout scenes that are sure to linger in the memory long after the film's over. It's certainly worth picking up if you have any interest in the material or just like your horror films a little less traditional.
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