1982, Best Summer Ever: “Cat People”

July 28, 2012

If you have a movie that features people who transform into leopards and chomp on the population of New Orleans, naturally you’re going to assume it’s a horror movie. The problem with Cat People is that it’s directed by ‘70s film icon Paul Schrader, whose screenplays for movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Hardcore—movies that explode the human heart and take an ambivalent look at it in all its prurience and virtue. Schrader thought he was making a tale of psychosexual nightmares. What he made instead was a were-cat movie in which Nastassja Kinski got naked a lot. Have you seen the poster? Yeah, then you know what this movie is about.

Cat People is a very loose remake of the Val Lewton classic from the 1940s. Whereas in that movie, a woman’s sexual repression caused her irrational belief in were-cats, in the 1982 update people actually transform into leopards if they get some action. Well, you can see why Schrader would be attracted to the material, right? Sexual repression is pretty much his game. If there’s someone feeling guilty about choking the chicken, rest assured Paul Schrader is all over that shit.

In this case, it’s Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell, who play siblings, despite the fact they look about as related to one another as Scarlett Johansson and a couch. Apparently, their parents were circus-folk and committed suicide and Irena (Kinski…and I’m just gonna call her that, since “Nastassja” takes a lot of typing) went to live in a boarding school. They’re reunited now that she’s finished…college? I guess. I dunno. Anyway, she moved to New Orleans to live with her brother, a street preacher. Because when you think of New Orleans Gospel preacher, you think of Malcolm McDowell.

“C’mon people, stop weeping and trembling, I’m just saying mass, here.”

Things are freaky off the bat, and one of the weird things about this movie is that I can’t tell if Schrader wanted to build suspense into it or not. I mean, first off, you got McDowell—who, let’s face it, is the harbinger of bad juju in a movie. And then you make him a priest. And then there’s a scene where he perches on the edge of Irena’s bed—like a cat!!!—and watches her while she sleeps. And then there’s a scene where a hooker is attacked by a black leopard. So, I think we’re all on the same page, here: McDowell transformed into a leopard and ate the hooker, right? I mean, that’s a fair bet in any movie with Malcolm McDowell in it.

“Generations” would have been 100 times more awesome if McDowell turned into a leopard and ate Troi.

But damned if Shcrader doesn’t seem to want to address the were-catism yet. No, instead, we get Irena’s sexual awakening after meeting John Heard, the zookeeper that captures cat-Malcolm after he attacks the hooker. In short order, Heard gives Irena a job at the zoo and they start dating (despite the fact that his idea of courtship seems to be treating her with thinly-veiled contempt). All the while, cat-Malcolm paces in his cage and eye-fucks Heard as if to say, “Touch my sister and I will lay such a chomping on your ass.”

Sex-on-a-stick, 1980s style…

Well, cat-Malcolm finally escapes when he rips off Ed Begley Jr.’s arm (understandable) and rushes home where he confronts Irena as human-Malcolm and spills the story: in the ancient times, their ancestors sacrificed their children to the leopards, and the souls of the children grew inside the felines, until, after generations, they were left with a curse that they would transform into black leopards after sex and had to kill and feed on a human being to transform back. Basically it’s like a crossover fanfic between True Blood and Manimal.

Malcolm’s entirely-reasonable idea of how to escape this conundrum is that he and Irena just have sex with one another—just as their parents did! (newsflash: apparently incest causes your children to look like German supermodels and not, say, rejected extras from Clive Barker’s Nightbreed). Well, Irena doesn’t believe this (of course we know it’s true), and everything goes Pete Tong as cat-Malcolm attacks Heard, but gets killed in the process, and Irena begins to feel the burning of her loins, and quasi-feline blood.  The latter means she runs around naked in the moonlight, which is simultaneously the main reason this movie got bankrolled, and a horrifying look back at the personal grooming practices of the early ‘80s.

Look upon the genetic-freak product of incest if you dare!

So, with Malcolm dead, you’d think the movie would pretty much be over, but instead it has, like, a full act left to go. The movie’s got this weird, languid pace that doesn’t do a whole lot to build tension. Kinski gets naked a lot, which helps hold your attention, but mostly you’re just watching, waiting for someone to get eaten. I mean, I see what Schrader was going for here—the themes of sexual repression are pretty well spelled out in McDowell’s horny priest and Kinski’s sexually-immature hottie—but the movie never quite gels into anything terribly provocative. Schrader just can’t make this movie work right.

For example, Cat People begins promisingly enough with a surreal-looking sequence that takes place in what looks like the deserts of North Africa someplace. The cinematography is gorgeous, as yellow sand blows over a shallow grave full of bleached, white bones, and David Bowie’s “Puttin’ Out a Fire” slowly builds on the soundtrack (we hear it a lot in this movie, and it’s the second-best thing in it). Alas, it goes on too long and magic is lost, and that’s before we get to see a woman sacrificed to a big, black leopard, which…uh…you know, I’m not sure what Schrader was aiming for, but for all the world it looks like that leopard is licking that woman’s face off. It gives some credence to the rumor that Schrader was so stoned when he made this movie he lost an entire day of shooting when he just stayed in his trailer getting baked.

“So, that’s the cat that licked our ancient ancestor to death…here kitty kitty…”

So, that’s Cat People. Lots of gore. Lots of bare Nastassja Kinski flesh. David Bowie on the soundtrack. Hell, throw in some coke and speech by Ronald Reagan and you’ve most of the staples of the 1980s covered right there…


  1. Your writing is very entertaining. I often hit up your site at work. Very funny. Stay black my african brother.

    • Only way I know how.

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