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Cat People


‘…the divisions between us run red in Schrader’s dark, almost demented vision of embryonic good and evil…’

Recent chat in the comments section about writer/director Paul Schrader reminded me that another viewing was due for Cat People, his 1982 sex and leopards kinko movie that remade a critical touchstone, Val Lewton’s classic 1946 thriller. But while purists may have complained about how little the director imported from Lewton’s film, just a trio of key scenes albeit verbatim, some malcontent attendees were more interested in Schrader moving forward with a run of form including Taxi Driver, Hardcore and American Gigolo. Scorsese and DeNiro were faltering in the same period, but Schrader was a hot, commercial property and Cat People’s credentials for top-drawer kink are impeccable.

Cat People opens with a dream/scene very much in tune with Schrader’s pictorial grasp of mysticism (Mishima), featuring the laden synths of Giorgio Moroder and a specific title song that made a significant contribution to the Bowiefication of early 80’s cinema (The Hunger, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence). Red filtered desert, skulls, gnarly trees, religious rituals; we get a glimpse of a tribal sacrifice in an obscure area of the world where cats are worshipped and children are sacrificed to leopards. We then jump forward into a modern world of Top Cat (glimpsed on a television screen), where orang-utans watching soap operas for some reason. Top cats Paul (Malcolm McDowell) and his visiting sister Irina (Nastassja Kinski) are experiencing extreme sexual tension in a positively moist New Orleans; Paul wants an incestuous relationship with Irina, but a third element in a romantic triangle comes in the form of zoo curator and big cat expert Oliver (John Heard).

‘Will you leap through his hoop, put his head in your mouth?’ Getting bitten isn’t the worst thing that can happen in the dream-logic world of Cat People; there’s horrible piles of bones and mutilated victims with ‘genitalia ripped out’; the kind of medical detail that horror required in this period. ‘I have a weird metabolism’ explains Paul with some portent…’I don’t eat meat,’ counters his sister; Irina’s desire is not to give into her true nature. That incest plotline crossed a line for many, although Paul’s lore logic states clearlt ‘We can only make love with our own,’

So Oliver’s attempts to stop the inevitable truth about Irina emerging becomes a good fight, and Schrader assembles his icons in time-honoroured horror film order. With a swat of a fly, we move to a straight homage to the arguably the first jump scare in movies, the Central Park bus, and the swimming pool stalking by shadow, although a seemingly chance encounter in a cafe is imported to more subtle effect. ‘We are all connected,’ is a potential takeaway, but the divisions between us run red in Schrader’s dark, almost demented vision of embryonic good and evil.


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  1. I haven’t thought of the movie One From The Heart in ages, and that deserves a rewatch asap. I love Cat People today as much as I did when it first opened. Graphic, earthy, sexy fun. I also appreciate how the film helped to confirm the validity of my self-imposed rule to never reach into cages.

    • It does have tension, atmosphere and sudden, bloody action. So in some senses, it reaches back to the original. Never go full Ed Begley Jr.

  2. Half bonkers, half fever dream, I will never forget this movie because of Nastassja Kinski and what effect she had on a teenage Wakizashi. Phew! Did it just get hot in here?

  3. I checked with Stefan, and he concurs this is a must visit:

    This hot new club has everything: baby-eating leopards, genitalia-removed victims, and a very close brother and sister. Visit the CAT CLUB.

    • There seems to be a consensus that he was piling on the gak round about this time, and if people are still talking about your consumption four decades later, you were probably higher than Cocaine Bear. But that sense of seriousness wasn’t where horror was headed in the 80’s, and I kind of like it looking back. Kinski is great in this, as she is in One From the Heart. She’s always great.

  4. Funnily enough I picked my old DVD of Schrader’s Cat People off the shelf a few days ago for a rewatch. I liked it. Quite dark and grimy in places, particularly in the siblings’ relationship and discomfort, yet still a lot of fun. A lot more nudity than Tourneur’s brilliant original of course, although that does add to the sense of sexuality and vulnerability. A Google search revealed that I stayed in an AirB&B just a few steps away from the house where the pair lived when I visited New Orleans when on holiday a couple of years ago – I would have walked past it every day I was there. What else is going on behind closed doors in that humid city?

      • No backtracking now, you have admitted that Cat People is a real world where people exist, I’m senting Ed Begley Jr over with an electric cattle prod. Lots of them in early 80’s cinema, Tootsie, Alien…

    • Come, come, it sounds like you were seeking out the locations for this film. Why do I never see you and the leopard from the city zoo at the same time? Why did that glamorous woman curse you in the cafe? I’m not giving in to my animal impulses, never! I am not an animal!

      Obviously, I love the old version, but in the age of idea-free reboots, Schrader for sure had a dark vision of this, and I kind of like the way he repositions the orginal scenes within a far more daring narrative.

      • Damn, you caught me out. There’s nothing I enjoy more than the blissful freedom of roaming the night in my panther form. Seeking out those like myself. But don’t tell anyone – nobody would believe you anyway.

        • I’m more of a Wolfen guy, like to prowl the streets with a Stedicam and the chroma key set to strobe.

      • In Schrader’s film making class he says the first thing when starting a film is to have a personal problem to explore, and to bring that into the script and direction. I don’t think I want to know what particular problem occupied Schrader when developing cat people. Perhaps he just didn’t like kittens.

        • I guess he’s said that his American Gigolo protagonist was a mad who could not give or receive love, and Irina finds herself in a similar situation. For very different reasons to the ones here. But Schrader had a big canvas to throw it on, and that notion of giving into the primal to discover your true self is something he returns to. Thinking George C Scott’s scream at the end of Hardcore.

            • I had the poster for AG on my bedroom wall when I was 16. Never found it to be anything less than great. Style, content, existentialism, music, cars, LA, Blondie, Gere, Moroder, Armani, that’s all you needed to make a film back then. Simpler times.

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