Movie Review – ‘Cat People’ (1982)

Posted on by Dave

Bea Harper

Directed By:  Paul Schrader
Starring:  Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard 

I have something of a complex relationship with Paul Schrader, let alone this movie. Schrader has proven that he is a more than capable artiste when it comes to cinema with his invaluable script work for “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” as well as his directorial efforts in the form of “American Gigilo”, “Auto Focus” and “Affliction”. The man obviously possesses sizeable talent and flair for the wonderful stuff he has made. Then there is less than desirable fare such as the infamous and recent “The Canyons”… let’s just say if you haven’t already read Garrett’s review for that pooper, my sentiments echo his to the wire.


Now, with “Cat People” which is a very loose remake of Val Lewton’s influential chiller, I am undecided- on one hand it’s wonderful he decided to take the legend of the cursed beings who were unable to make love on pain of becoming a panther and killing their paramour by making it the central focus of the sphinx-like enigmatic beauty of Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski). Irena has recently moved to New Orleans by request of her estranged brother Paul (Malcom McDowall) who is the local minister (yeah, I laughed as well) after living abroad for many years. Irena is an ingenue, naive and yet with an instinctive sensitivity toward others, pure of mind and soul. Of course, what she is not aware of is her heritage- Irena and Paul are descendents of an ancient race of people who have the ability (or curse) to transform into panthers after having sex- yep, we’re dealing with werecats! The only way to revert back to their humanoid form is to kill their mates. As a means of survival, the practice of inbreeding has been passed down through the ages in order to keep the bloodline pure and secret from the outside world. It’s safe to assume that Paul asking Irena to join him isn’t merely for a family reunion, more like “Spread ’em, sis.” Not exactly what you could consider the opener (heh) to the ideal sexual awakening.


Schrader has taken on a distinctly mythical means of story telling with “Cat People”, it is far more about the sexual aspect rather than the mysterious sort, and thus, there really isn’t much in the way of thriller or tense atmosphere- actually I take it back, the tension is of the sexual sort than one of horror or unease. Every frame has a distinctly erotic castle in the air sensation, not intended to be viewed through realistic lens, but through one purely of fantasy. Oh yeah, there are quite a few gory sequences in this movie, make no mistake, but Schrader wanted to tell a fantastical story about lycanthropy, sexuality and the beast within us all. Folkloric settings, such as Irena’s ancestral seat in Africa, with red skies, blood orange landscapes and prowling black panthers are a heavy contrast to that of a 1982 New Orleans where the industrial meets the frivolous. I’ve watched this movie several times and I can’t help but imagine that it resembles something out of Anne Rice’s sumptuous erotic stories. The only thing this movie has in common with Lewton’s is the very basic plot line and that is all- there is no suspense or Lewton Buses here- this is all about the beast in the beauty.

Nastassja Kinski has always had an astoundingly unique beauty and it goes without saying, she is the core of the movie. She even LOOKS like she could be a feline with those inscrutable yet expressively wide eyes, her long, lithe body and her effortless grace. While Schrader was reported to have relentlessly pursued her (we’re talking asking for sexual favours through manipulation, folks), she doesn’t lose any of that intensity on the screen and it’s a better movie than it would have been for it. Irena has no desire to belong to Paul and when she starts to fall in love with Oliver (John Heard), who in turn is beginning to fall for her, she is conflicted that if she consumates her love, Oliver will die. Irena’s combination of coquettish innocence and deep-rooted sensuality are inexplicably drawn together in this struggle because she has to either maintain her chastity or to give in to her inherent nature- she honestly doesn’t know what to do. But one thing is for sure, she refuses to give in to Paul’s increasingly sexual advances without a fight.


The score by Giogio Morder is hypnotic and sensual, just like the rest of the film- the smouldering temperature of the wilderness of Africa and the intimacy of the present coalesce marvelously. Schrader chose the use of the score very well in order to help tell the story and of course, we have David Bowie’s “Putting Out The Fire (With Gasoline)”, which is perhaps one of the best movie songs of all time. His yearning, smouldering voice tells a story of envy, self-doubt and longing in that it could easily be applicable to the Gallier siblings- one of love, one of lust, both damned until the dust.

This is a heady movie, but for some it may be a bore- the movie goes at its own, languorous pace in quite a few places and the instances of terror are few and far in between. At times, it feels a little too sleazy- Schrader was obviously enamoured with Kinski, but in a way, the film teeters on the downright scungy than erotic- I know this movie was full of nudity (mostly from Kinski) and sexual instances, but you gotta have a balance when you make a cinematic erotic thriller/horror/drama. I dunno, that’s just my opinion, but I felt the scales tipped over a little.

Overall, this film’s reputation is polarizing- some may enjoy it, others may not, it could be considered to be softcore (though with a story to be sure), and there will be more than a few who will contest the original is the best, but the main thing to remember is that this movie didn’t take pains to mimic the first rendition, which is perhaps why I feel it’s worth checking out at least once. Bearing this in mind, this movie is sure to make you feel hot under the collar for all the right reasons… though I can’t guarantee this movie will get you laid though. Just sayin’.


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