Cat People (1982)

*. OK, I think there’s really only one question that Paul Schrader’s Cat People poses today: Why don’t we laugh at it?
*. I mean, in the first place it’s really silly. It expands on the Val Lewton classic by adding a bunch of mumbo-jumbo about leopards breeding with humans in ancient times, and then throws in a kinky incest angle as well. It has Malcolm McDowell looking buggy. It has lurid lighting. It has a Giorgio Moroder score.
*. It should play like camp today. And assisting the camp view is something that Kim Newman points out: it’s in earnest. This is one of the essential features of camp, that it doesn’t realize how silly it is. As Newman observes, “Paul Schrader’s Cat People is one of the few totally serious horror films of the 1980s. The Howling and An American Werewolf [which both came out a year earlier] incorporate enough deliberate comedy to take care of the more ridiculous, but necessary, sides of their movies, but Cat People is almost solemn.”

*. Newman makes another point that I think is worth noting. Schrader adds several obligatory nods to the 1942 film but they’re done so quickly and are introduced so apparently at random that they don’t register except as dismissive gestures. The woman who calls Irina “sister” in the bar just appears and disappears, the bus turns into a streetcar and comes out of nowhere, not as the culmination of a scary walk, and the pool scene doesn’t make any sense at all (as Newman notes, Irina has not yet turned into a cat).
*. I take it from this that Schrader wasn’t actually that interested in Lewton’s movie. Apparently he even regretted using the title because it made people think of it. In fact, I’d go further and say he doesn’t seem to have been that interested in the horror genre. There are plenty of opportunities to build up creepy suspense sequences but they aren’t followed up on. I think this is what Pauline Kael meant when she said she found it “confusingly put together”: “Just when a scene begins to hold some interest, Schrader cuts away from it; the crucial things seem to be happening between the scenes.”
*. Did they even need to do the transformation scenes? Probably, after audiences had seen what could be done with werewolves. But it’s one part I actually wish they’d left out. All we get are bits and pieces anyway, and they don’t look good.
*. And yet despite all this not only do I not laugh at Cat People, I actually kind of like it. I think there are two main reasons for this.

*. The first is Nastassja (billed as Nastassia) Kinski. I said I didn’t think Schrader was that interested in Lewton’s movie, or making a horror movie at all. What he was interested in was Kinski, who apparently he was involved with during the shooting.
*. David Thomson: “There was a moment, in the early eighties, when Kinski was the rage, a sensation . . . the most beautiful girl in the world. Her greatest interest may be in pioneering the new brevity of such rages.”
*. New brevity? “It” girls have always had a short shelf life with the fickle public. Personally I don’t think Kinski was the most beautiful girl in the world, but she is easy to look at. And she moves well in the nude. That’s not as easy to do as you may think. She really sells being natural au naturel. I suspect that this is what Roger Ebert was noticing when he said “Kinski is something. She never overacts in this movie, never steps wrong, never seems ridiculous; she just steps onscreen and convincingly underplays a leopard.” Note that repetition, maybe unconscious, of “step.” Maybe it’s the modeling background but Kinski can do the catwalk. Not deliberately sexy, but appearing to be unconsciously so.

*. I’m not sure if she’s in the running for one of those “great performance in a terrible movie” awards, but the fact is she’s so good on her own that she takes Cat People all by herself up from being a bad movie to one worth watching several times. With no help at all from the script she projects innocence, seduction, danger, and pathos. And, of course, heat. Even Oliver can’t help minding the gap between the top of her waders and those booty shorts she’s wearing.
*. To give her performance the full credit it deserves, what other actress could have held her own and then some against a creepy/manic/horny Malcolm McDowell? And yet in their scenes together who do you find yourself watching?

*. The other thing I like about Cat People is the ending. It’s unexpected and surprisingly downbeat. Irena decides she wants to be among her own kind, but that makes no sense to me because (1) she is, presumably, the last of her kind; and (2) ending up in a private cage in the zoo isn’t exactly being among her own kind, even if there are other big cats in her immediate neighbourhood.
*. There’s another whiff of kink in her being bound spread-eagle to the bed, but then nothing much is done with the concept. One thinks again of Kael’s complaint that just when things seem about to get interesting Schrader cuts away. But then Oliver (John Heard) doesn’t seem like a very passionate guy. I wonder if he actually likes Irena more as a panther.
*. Then there’s the zoo itself that Irena ends up in. Zoos are bad enough places most of the time, but the New Orleans Zoo here (which was actually a set built on Universal’s back lot) really looks depressing. So much for creating a liveable habitat for the animals. They’re just cages with cement floors. It makes the ending grim indeed.
*. So I don’t laugh at Cat People. It should play as campy as hell today but then you see Nastassja Kinski’s sculpted buttocks rolling through the bayou and you kind of buy into the whole idea of the love cats of antiquity still walking the earth. And feel a bit sad for their passing.

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