Twice-Told Tales #5: Cat People

Cat People

Twice-Told Tales is a feature in which I compare horror remakes to their originals. My goal is to find the remakes that justify themselves beyond the cash-in. Wish me luck.

In 1982, Universal released not one but two remakes of old RKO horror movies, Cat People and The Thing. Neither was successful; Cat People earned mixed reviews and middling box office while The Thing flopped hard. With time, however, The Thing enjoyed a sweeping revival and is now widely regarded as a classic. The same can’t be said for Cat People, but it’s still a respectable movie in its own right.

A striking prologue opens the film in some dreamy red-desert land where a black leopard seems to hold sway. Men ritualistically bind a young woman to a tree and sacrifice her to the big cat. We see a similar sacrifice at the same location at another point in time, and then the movie brings us to the present day.

A young, virginal woman, Irena (Nastassja Kinski), arrives in New Orleans to reconnect with her brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell). The siblings are long-separated orphans who haven’t seen each other since childhood. As Irena sleeps in Paul’s guest room, he perches over her bed with a look of feral hunger.

The film shifts to a seedy hotel, where a prostitute checks in and expects to find a john in her room. Instead she finds a black leopard, which maims her. A team of local zoologists, including Oliver (John Heard), manage to capture the cat. When Irena wakes, she learns that Paul has vanished.

Irena finds herself drawn to the zoo and the leopard. Oliver likewise finds himself drawn to Irena. The leopard kills Oliver’s co-worker and escapes. Paul turns up at his place again and confronts Irena with a hell of a revelation: both he and she are werecats. They turn into leopards when sexually aroused and can only revert back to their human form after killing someone.

In other words, Paul was the leopard in the hotel, and killing the zoologist has returned him to form. Worse yet, the only way Paul and Irena (and the rest of their race) can mate without turning into leopards is by incest. He’s up for it; she runs to Oliver.

A warped love triangle develops from there. Oliver pines for Irena, but she’s afraid to sleep with him in light of her secret. Paul also pines for Irena, but she rebuffs him for obvious reasons. Paul (in leopard form) attacks Oliver, but another zoologist guns the cat down. Oliver’s autopsy on the leopard reveals that something supernatural is afoot, leading him to discover Irena’s true nature. Suffice it to say, her rather unique lineage complicates their romance.

Cat People borrows the core of its premise from a 1942 film with the same name. The original was a collaboration between producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur for RKO Radio Pictures. The studio wanted a cheap horror movie to compete with Universal’s Frankenstein, Dracula, and Wolf Man monster mashes. Lewton’s approach to horror was psychological; he relied on the power of suggestion, playing on viewers’ primal fears of unknown threats lurking in the shadows. The result resembled film noir rather than Universal’s gothic monster-centric formula, and it’s little wonder that Tourneur and his cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, went on to film a definitive noir, Out of the Past, five years later.

The original Cat People takes place in New York with Simone Simon in the Irena role. She’s a Serbian immigrant who’s been living stateside for some time, working as a fashion designer. Oliver is an engineer who encounters her at the zoo, where she’s sketching the caged black leopard. Shortly after they meet, Irena tells Oliver that her ancestors fled to the mountains to escape persecution. These refugees practiced witchcraft and somehow acquired the ability to transform into leopards when highly aroused.

There’s a love triangle here, too, with Oliver’s co-worker Alice harboring jealousy toward Irena. Once their rivalry is established, Alice senses that she’s being stalked through Central Park. Alice finds herself being pursued again a few scenes later; this time her unseen stalker corners her in a swimming pool. These are wonderfully tense sequences, and one can see why cinephiles still hail Cat People for them. One can also see why the remake’s director, Paul Schrader, would pay homage to them in his version.

I don’t care to favor one version over another. I think it’s interesting to watch both films as they both tell essentially the same story in radically different ways, each movie vividly representing its era. The 1942 movie feels like a product of wartime rationing. It’s stark and austere, and it generates dread with very few special effects. Working under a tight budget, its creators presented an alternative to the then-dominant horror model. They showed that you didn’t need castles or cemeteries or mad-scientist labs or all the other conventional trappings to set the mood. Nor did you need actors made up as monsters to deliver a payoff. Sometimes a bus or a hand shadow puppet could be just as effective.

RKO Radio Pictures fell on hard times as the years passed, and its parent company shut it down by 1957. That parent company turned to Universal as a collaborator when it re-entered the feature-film arena in the early ’80s. The Cat People remake was a Universal-RKO co-production, and its ultramodern sheen owed far more to MTV than to Lewton.

If the prologue doesn’t put one in the mind of an early ’80s music video, the subsequent dream sequence probably will. Lord of the synthesizer Giorgio Moroder is on hand for the soundtrack, as is David Bowie. The remake adds sex, from generous amounts of Kinski nudity to the incest subplot to an S&M-tinged climax. It doesn’t shy away from violence, either; the slow-motion closeup of blood splashing over Kinski’s shoes would have been unthinkable pre-Peckinpah. Its budget allowed for decent special effects, most notably in the autopsy scene. Whereas Lewton had irked RKO’s executives by his minimal use of the leopard, (which the studio paid to rent, damn it), the remake is happy to show off its big cat. The leopard may receive more screen time in the remake’s prologue than he received throughout the entire original.

The original is still the more highly rated film by critics and audiences alike, but the remake has enough going for it. It especially works as a showcase for Kinski, who carries the movie admirably. The role requires her to be sympathetic, a little otherworldly, and yet seductive enough that a man would be tempted to sleep with her knowing full well that she could morph into a panther during orgasm. She plays the part as well as anyone could.

McDowell is fun to watch as usual and also well-cast. If you need someone to play a minister who lusts after his sister and chains women in his basement so he can devour their flesh, McDowell is your guy.

Schrader will always be remembered as the man who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but his Cat People is just one movie in a long, varied, and often compelling directorial career. (Affliction and Auto Focus are also Grimgata-approved.) At least he takes chances with the material. His version can be called silly or campy or pretentious or trashy, but it’s also bold enough to risk being all of those things while having the nerve to take itself seriously. Visually it’s often eye-catching and always stylish. The ending is memorable and even touching in its own odd way.

Cat People was somewhat lost in a horror glut when released. It arrived in theaters a step behind 1981’s competing werewolf movies (The Howling, An American Werewolf in London) and a step ahead of 1983’s The Hunger, which applied comparable flair and sensuality to vampirism. It wasn’t a hit like American Werewolf, nor has it gradually built a following like The Thing. But with nostalgia for ’80s horror currently in full swing, sometimes it’s worthwhile to revisit an effort that no one’s likely to canonize. Cat People is far from perfect, but it’s also atypical and ambitious, and anyone looking for a horror movie about forbidden desires could do much worse.

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