Paul Schrader’s Cat People
40 years after Jacques Tourneur‘s classic 1942 thriller was released, Director Paul Schrader (Blue Collar, Hardcore) crafted a mesmerizing modern retelling and injected it with a mix of tantalizing eroticism and shocking graphic horror.
A young beautiful woman named Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) travels to New Orleans to visit her estranged brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) who is a minister. Irena is brought to his home where she meets Female [pronounced: fee-mah-lay] (Ruby Dee) Paul’s devoted Creole housekeeper. She gets settled in but soon the mood changes from hospitable to ominous when Paul enters her room quietly. He watches her as she sleeps then pounces in slow motion onto the bed and continues peering at her.
Across town a local prostitute gets her latest job and goes to meet the man in a hotel room. As she runs down her rates to the unseen person, she notices a strange liquid substance on the bed. She smells it then feels something flopping below near her feet. It’s the tail of a large black cat under the bed. Suddenly the woman screams and runs for her life from the demonic feline. She doesn’t get far before seeing her leg has been partially torn off.
The next day three local zooligists: Dr. Oliver Yates (John Heard), Alice Perrin (Annette O’Toole) and Joe Creigh (Ed Begley Jr) are called into capture the rabid leopard who is holed up in the room. They manage to subdue the vicious animal and bring it back to the zoo for further inspection. Meanwhile, Irena begins looking for Paul after noticing he’s gone missing. She is somehow drawn to the zoo where she finds the leopard and stays with it. Hours later, Dr. Yates finds Irena outside the cat’s cage and when she runs away, he chases after her. After cornering Irena and letting her know he wants to help, they go out together for oysters (what else?) and soon form a romantic relationship.
After tearing Joe’s arm off at the zoo, Paul is able to escape and he confronts Irena. She finally realizes that he is not the gentle soul he first appeared to be. His transformations from man into cat are every bit as destructive and violent as any werewolf could be. He explains to her the secret family heritage and how their parents were actually brother and sister. Paul then informs her that the “werecat” people are incestuous beings and when one of them has sex with a human they transform into a cat. Only when the cat kills a human can they change back to human form. The reason Irena hasn’t had any trouble so far is because she’s never had sex.
When Paul finds out about Irena and Oliver he tries to kill him, but in the nick of time Alice Perrin saves Oliver and shoots/kills the leopard/Paul. Back at the zoo, Oliver performs an autopsy on the leopard and finds a piece of arm inside the cat, but the rest is just a hollow covering. After finally deciding to make love with Oliver, Irena tries to run away to save him from being killed because of her “problem”, but he finally tracks her down and literally makes Irena his pet, keeping her at the zoo.
I think what Schrader’s version of Cat People succeeds in doing well is providing a truly captivating atmosphere (much like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner) for the viewer. The fact Schrader filmed it in New Orleans gives it an especially gothic, haunting setting (thanks to production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti) which just enhances the fantastic storyline. The film’s visual style even represents a cat with it’s sleek, sexy, dreamlike photography. The scenes in the ancient Cat World with it’s bright red background gives it a look of a distant planet like Mars. Last but certainly not least, Composer Giorgio Moroder‘s moody synth score provides a perfect audio accompaniment to the feline themed action on screen.
Cat People certainly could have been another thoughtless remake but Schrader instead gave it a lot of class and a beautifully rendered artistic quality.