According to new interviews on the Blu-ray of Cat People, the 1982 remake of the 1942 horror classic was originally presented as part of a series of Universal horror remakes—an idea the studio seems to trot out every decade or so, usually to little critical acclaim or popular interest. But the film’s director, go-to Scorsese screenwriter and professional guilt chronicler Paul Schrader, did not and does not see Cat People as a remake, and wishes he had changed the title to further differentiate it from the original.
But Schrader differentiates plenty in the movie itself, which plays somewhere between exploitation and a fever dream, with the additional gore and extra-additional sexuality that couldn’t be depicted 40 years earlier. In Schrader’s version, Irena (Nastassja Kinski), a young woman with an unassuming manner and an innocent face, arrives in New Orleans to meet her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell), whom she has not seen since their childhood. She also meets a friendly zoologist, Oliver (John Heard), after her brother’s disappearance coincides with a local leopard attack on a prostitute.
Yes: Paul is that leopard. He and Irena belong to, and may be the only survivors of, an ancient race of human-cat hybrids. When their kind has sex with a human, they are literal wildcats in the sack, and then out of the sack, and then the sack is covered in blood; they only become human again after killing. Paul’s prostitute-mauling romp gets him caught in cat form, delaying his transformation back into a human. Paul proposes that he and his sister only have sex with each other, to prevent further bloodshed. This further stresses the virginal Irena’s conflicted relationship with Oliver.
I realize this may sound more than faintly ridiculous, and Cat People isn’t not ridiculous, but Schrader appreciates the atmospheric and metaphorical possibilities of his movie’s mythological loopyness, and gives it humanity via his leading actress. Kinski, less than 20 when the movie was released, has the right magnetism: a positive charge on the opposite side of McDowell’s negative. The movie can be read as extended bout of anxiety about sex—lose control, and it can ruin you!—and Kinski’s expressive face makes that anxious desire vivid. She’s an expressive gothic heroine, even when the movie occasionally mistakes of slow repetition and obsessive excess.
Cat People is flashy, then, with its stylistic flourishes (like the impressionistic, painterly scenes set in the ancient land where humans were sacrificed to cats as mates), but doesn’t go quite as far over the top as one might expect. One of the tensest scenes is one of the quietest, as Irena waits for a feline transformation that she hopes won’t come. That sense of anticipation permeates the film; even in the less atmospheric daylight, the zoo feels dangerous, with its animals in small cages, looking surly and coiled. In the end, it’s not a particularly frightening or even all that dread-suffused movie, but it definitely creates a mood.
The film arrives on Blu-ray in a collector’s edition, though its new interviews with Schrader and the cast are relatively brief and standard-issue, with the stars basically describing the movie you’ve just watched: Kinski talks about how she was drawn to the role because it was “unusual, physically and psychologically”, and so forth. Schrader’s interview is the most informative; he mentions that his most significant change to the remake’s screenplay was to jettison the “old dark building” horror-movie ending, and he notes, having recently rewatched the film that it’s “cool, in a way, to see non-CG animals” in a movie.
Noticeably absent is super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who worked on Schrader’s film well before his Disney years, his action-maestro years, or even his Simpson-Bruckheimer partnership (he also produced Schrader’s earlier breakthrough as a director, American Gigolo, which probably got Schrader a job wrangling a big Universal horror remake in the first place). Bruckheimer’s later movies would appeal to the 15-year-old boy living inside so many adults; Cat People locates a different and messier inner teenager.