Cinema: Flesh and Flash

  • Share
  • Read Later


Directed by Paul Schroder

Screenplay by Alan Ormsby

Paul Schrader is the kind of director who leaves no bra unhooked, no limb untorn from its socket in his pursuit of what he believes to be the true and terrible image. Cat People is clearly the work of a solemn literalist (and a man with a taste for perverse ritual), not that of a cynic or a sensationalist. But motive makes small difference in the end result. The film best serves the values of the dimmest lurker in the deepest shadows of the grind house: it has lots of nudity, plenty of gross-out guts and gore, two or three scares—and it makes no sense whatsoever. Anyone grownup enough to gain legal admission to the movie (it is rated R) will probably find himself either reduced to guffaws or wishing he had stayed home looking at his poster of Nastassia Kinski wearing a snake.

A few golden-agers may even find their minds drifting back to the original Cat People (1942), from which this picture is less adapted than knocked off. Perhaps the most sophisticated horror film of its decade, it begins by considering a condition that might have served Freud as a case study in sexual hysteria. A young woman named Irena believes that if she makes love she will turn into a leopard—whereupon a man falls obsessively, irresistibly in love with her. Thereafter, through the play of sound and shadow, Director Jacques Tourneur suggests that it might be a good idea to take her at her word. The film is very delicately spooky, the more so because no rational explanation for her lamentable condition is advanced, neither hide nor hair of a leopard is ever spotted, and certainly no scene in which woman literally turns into cat, or vice versa, is ever played.

All these are offered, unfortunately, in the new version, which stars Kinski, flat of voice, spirit and chest, as Irena. There is a fake anthropological prologue in which Hollywood's tribe of all-purpose primitives is seen tethering its maidens rather uncomfortably close to a black leopard's lair, thus establishing Irena's heritage, lost in the mists of the backlot. And there is Malcolm McDowell, quite persuasively feline, as her brother. In his human form he is something of a tomcat, which, of course, means he keeps turning into a big cat, with unfortunate results for the ladies he stalks. He keeps proposing incest as the only safe and sane way for cat people to have a little fun in their lives.

But Irena is a nice girl. She would remain a virgin, if only she could forget about that nice zookeeper (John Heard). If only he could forget about her—which should be easy, since the cheerful and lovely Annette O'Toole plays his first love. Soon Irena is switching back and forth between cat and human forms, though it must be said that her transformations are more fastidious than her brother's, which feature much smoke and bile.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2