1942’s Cat People was the first in a string of low-budget horror movies produced by Val Lewton for RKO Pictures. He would go on to produce such ’40s favorites as I Walked With a Zombie and The Body Snatcher, but Cat People is arguably his greatest work. The film is considered a landmark of the genre, and it also invented the “Lewton Bus” scare technique, which is more popular now than ever.
In 1982, director Paul Schrader (Hardcore) helmed a remake of the classic, which earned the cult classic status of its own. The story, written by Alan Ormsby (Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things) (although most assume Schrader had an uncredited hand in the script as well), is loosely based on DeWitt Bodeen’s original story – but the end result is fairly far removed from the source material.
After spending her youth and young adulthood in a series of foster homes, Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) visits her brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange), in his New Orleans home for the first time since their parents’ death. It’s an awkward relationship to begin with, and the situation becomes more strange when Paul disappears. While he’s gone, a mysterious black leopard appears in town and kills a hooker.
The wild animal is captured by the workers from a local zoo, lead by zoologist Oliver Yates (John Heard, Home Alone). Irena visits the zoo and senses a strange connection to the caged animal, complicated further by her attraction to Oliver. The leopard disappears from the zoo and, wouldn’t you know it, Paul reappears. He attacks Irena, revealing to her that they are part of an ancient breed that transforms into leopards upon sexual arousal. Only the incestuous act of sex with another like them prevents the werewolf-like transformation.
Although sexuality played a key role in the original, the most noticeable difference in the remake is the increased eroticism. The curse can be seen as an allegory for the carnal urges inside all humans. Rampant nudity is the name of the game, with nearly ever female baring her breasts – including Kinski, who spends much of the second half of the film in the buff. Being a product of the ’80s, it’s no surprise that the film also amps up the gore content.
The original Cat People employed a lot of shadow play because it did not have the means to pull off leopard attacks, and the remake uses similar tactics with a greater mixture of actual animals and puppetry. Schrader handles the visuals with finesse, never allowing the subject matter to come off as too schlocky. He also does his best to keep the eroticism from feeling exploitative. But to say it’s void of any cheesy moments would be a lie; one particular scene of a bra popping open makes that an impossible task. Schrader injects the film with dose of a stylish experimentation to explore the mythical aspects, particularly the magnificent orange desert setpiece.
The eclectic cast is a treat. Kinski, despite not having much dialogue, is fantastic as the lead; she’s innocent at a glance with a hint of something deeper behind those big, catlike eyes. McDowell, as always, is a master of his craft. Along with the aforementioned stars, Cat People features Annette O’Toole (It) and Ed Begley Jr. (Arrested Development) as zoo workers, Ruby Dee (Do the Right Thing) as Pauls’ housekeeper, Frankie Faison (The Silence of the Lambs) as a detective and Lynn Lowry (Lynn Lowry) as one of several scantily clad victims. There’s also a Golden Globe-nominated score composed by Giorgio Moroder (Scarface), complete with a theme song, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” sung by David Bowie.
Scream Factory brings Cat People to Blu-ray in expectedly impressive fashion. The video and audio both offer noticeable improvements over past releases. There’s no commentary track (although Schrader recorded one for a previous DVD issue), but the disc includes new interviews with all of the key players: Kinski, Heard, McDowell, O’Toole, Lowry, Moroder and Schrader himself. They’re brief but interesting segments. Trailers and galleries round out the extras.
Many modern horror remakes could learn a thing or two from Cat People. 40 years removed from the original, the film takes the basic concept and does something refreshingly bold with it.