Re-making a horror classic is always going to be tricky business as it opens you up for hard comparisons, but the most successful way to tackle such a daunting task is to simply take the general premise of the original and then go off in your own wild and different directions, David Cronenberg’s The Fly a perfect example of this, and in 1982 director Paul Schrader took the foundations of RKO’s 1942 Cat People and turned it into an erotic horror film that was rife with nudity and gore, which one has to admit is about as far from the original as one could get.
I’m betting the pitch meeting for this remake went something along the lines of “I bet people will come if we give them full-frontal nudity of Nastassja Kinski.” Okay, maybe the genesis of this film wasn’t all that crass but I bet I’m not all that far off as this “erotic horror film” was heavy on the erotic and surprisingly light on the horror. When compared to Paul Schrader’s remake the original film was the epitome of understatement, relying on the dance of light and shadow to create the atmospheric mystery of their tale, but while watching this remake one quickly realizes that Schrader had no interest in making a straightforward take on that classic because other than a few nods to the original it pretty much stands on its own, and what really sold this darkly erotic tale was the casting of Nastassja Kinski in the lead role as she completely embodied the feline danger and sexuality which makes all that follows that much more believable.
The plot centers around the character of Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) who arrives in New Orleans and is met there by her long-estranged brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell), they were separated at a young age when their parents died, and Paul takes his sister to his New Orleans townhouse where she is introduced to his enigmatic housekeeper Female (Ruby Dee) and from here on out the sexual tensions mount between all characters involved, which is a little concerning as it doesn’t seem to matter if you’re a blood relation or not, and possibly a benefit. Cut to a prostitute finding her “John” missing and a large black leopard hiding under the bed, which horribly mauls her while she flees for her life, and this signals the rest of the cast to get involved, led by zoologist Oliver Yates (John Heard) who is aided in his travails by his assistants Alice (Annette O’Toole) and Joe (Ed Begley Jr.) in the attempt to capture this wayward cat. It’s when they bring the black leopard back to their zoo that things start to really go off the rails.
This vicious black leopard is, of course, none other than Paul Gallier and later in the film he explains to her their shared werecat heritage, which has something to do with primitive humans sacrificing/mating their women with black panthers to create some sort of hybrid and these “Cat People” transform into leopards when they have sex and only by killing a human can they regain their human form, but there is one somewhat icky exemption. He tells her that their parents were siblings and because werecats are ancestrally incestuous only sex between werecats can prevent these transformations. Needless to say, Irena is not at all interested in bumpy uglies with her brother and she flees into the arms of our stalwart hero, who is about as boring and uninteresting as his 1942 counterpart in the original film was. It would have been so much better if she’d hooked up with Annette O’Toole instead, in fact, she has more sexual chemistry with her brother than she does with dry white toast Oliver.
As mentioned, Paul Schrader wasn’t interested in remaking the 1942 classic yet he strangely included the element of a jealous Irena stalking and harassing Alice while in leopard form, but without actually bothering to set it up, so while we do get some hints that Alice and Oliver may have had a prior relationship there is nothing done on screen that would make Irena jealous of Alice, it’s almost like a switch in her head is suddenly flicked to “evil” and thus this once sweet and innocent girl is all claws out to get Alice away from her man. It makes no sense and is very inorganic. This film suffers from some serious pacing issues and the dynamic between this love triangle is a clear victim of this, that plot element probably should have been jettisoned sometime during the early script stages because even though the “pool homage” sequence is very well executed it doesn’t serve any purpose other than to remind fans of the original film and how much better it was.
• If having sex triggers the change then why did Paul transform into a cat before the prostitute had even shown up? Does masturbation also trigger the change and he just got impatient waiting for her?
• Irena stays after the zoo’s closing hours, apparently sketching a black leopard takes all day, and I know this zoo is supposed to be underfunded but how can no one notice a pretty girl standing in front of a cage long after the place has closed down?
• The cages in this zoo are so small that they pretty much qualify as inhumane, but they do let the orangutan watch soap operas on a small black-and-white television, so they aren’t all complete bastards here.
• In the original film Irena is approached by a strange woman who calls her “Sister” in Serbian and while the same thing happens here, we also get the bizarre change of having Alice translate for Irena, instead of Irena, who was Serbian in the original, knowing what was being said to her.
• Joe uses a wrist strap attached to attach an electric prod to his arm, which allows the big cat grabs the prod and drag the idiot into its clutches. The whole scene is ridiculous as no trained animal handler would ever have a tool tethered to their body as that’s just asking for the animal to grab the item, and thus themselves.
• After killing Joe, a naked Malcolm McDowell somehow gets out of the cage and out of the zoo without a single person seeing him, and once again I must point out this zoo’s really shitty security.
• I know men are often ruled by their penises but when your “girlfriend” returns from a nude stroll through the woods covered in blood you may want to rethink the relationship.
Despite some script and pacing issues, Paul Schrader’s Cat People is a surprisingly good little film with the performance by Kinski as a sexually confused virgin being the glue that holds the entire production together and Malcolm McDowell’s creepy incestuous brother adds an extra level of horror to the proceedings. Then there is the fantastic score by Giorgio Moroder and David Bowie’s belting rendition of the title song, which just adds more things to love about this remake. The practical special make-up effects by Tom Burman are quite solid, with the werecats literally bursting out of their skin and reminded me of the excellent werewolf film The Company of Wolves, which came out a few years later, and even if cinematographer John Bailey wasn’t the “masters of light and shadow” that cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was for the original, Bailey and Schrader still managed to create a world of dark fantasy that was steeped in sex and violence.
Paul Schrader’s Cat People is definitely its own animal and lovers of the original film would do best to avoid comparing the two as Schrader was able to marshal together a very talented group of actors and crewmembers to give us not a film that was not so much a remake but a darker and more sexually explicit take on a similar premise, and with Nastassja Kinski giving us the most sensual and sexiest cat in cinema history and making this is a must-see for fans of both horror and erotica.
Cat People (1982)
Movie Rank - 7/10
This film may not stand up all that well when compared to the likes of Cronenberg’s The Fly or Carpenter’s The Thing in the area of great remakes but it’s still a well-crafted horror flick that has managed to stand the test of time and has rightfully become a bit of a cult classic.