Cat People August 4, 2015
Though widely regarded as one of the finest horror films ever made, the original Cat People, released in 1942, always struck me as a visual masterpiece luminous to the eyes but cold to the touch. It liked to hide in the shadows, keep its menace restrained, its mood Gothic.
But when it placed fear directly in our line of vision it forgot to match emotionally, emitting a shallow kind of dread felt more cerebrally than physically. Horror should pump in our veins, causing us to look over our shoulder the second the film closes. Yet despite being called a horror film time and time again, I’ve never much considered Cat People to be one. Instead, I’ve figured it to be a grotesque fantasy of bloodlust and erotica, inventively packaged but too empty to make much of a lasting impression.
Its remake, a 1982 fear-fest directed by Paul Schrader and starring Nastassja Kinski, is similar in its ability to optically arouse but remain intrinsically hollow. Whereas 1942’s Cat People stimulated our sights with hypnotizing darkness and noir-tinged doom, the 1982 version conversely stupefies with its richly saturated colors and sexual heat. The original had a small budget to work with, director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca perhaps accidentally making things visually unmistakable for the purpose of making up for monetary deficiencies. But Schrader, given larger financial opportunity, is able to work on a much larger scale, providing us with a more plentiful plot, more ocular risks, more enigmatic intrigue. I can't definitively say if it’s superior to its ’42 counterpart — they hardly resemble one another, one restrained, one indulgent — but Cat People is an artistically formidable fantasy mostly worthwhile. If its overwhelming inability to do anything besides look great wasn’t such a pressing issue, it could be considered a masterpiece.
But the storyline doesn’t allow us to become emotionally invested; conceptually marvelous yet unmistakably outlandish, it is difficult to do anything besides stare, mouth agape, unable to grab onto anything happening on the screen. Because it has to do with The Cat People, a race of centuries past so far evolved that, as of 1982, they resemble sexy humans who literally have an animal deep inside them. But things aren’t as simple as they used to be: years ago, when The Cat People were still dominant cats that laboriously reclined on tree branches in windy red deserts (shown in the form of a prologue), mating would come in the form of a female sacrifice from a nearby village. Now, though, the race is almost completely extinct, save for Irena (Nastassja Kinski) and her brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell).
In the first few minutes of Cat People, the two are meeting for the very first time — and while the impish Irena, sensuous but virginal, remains an innocent figurehead, Paul makes for a more sinister presence, not because he’s a Shakespearean villain in the making but because he’s more aware of his heritage than Irena is. In everyday life, The Cat People look like anybody walking down the street; but when in the throes of an orgasm, they transform from sexy human to black panther, killing their human mate in the process. Paul understands his threat to society and isn’t afraid to utilize it; Irena, on the other hand, is afraid to unleash the beast that resides within her.
The anxiety comes to a head, however, when she falls into the life of Oliver Yates (John Heard), a mild-mannered zookeeper who instantaneously bills her as the woman of his dreams. With her sexual nightmares looming in the background (and not to mention her brother, who wants to embark on an incestuous relationship like all Cat People before them), Irena just might have to accept who she is — at a price.
The plot is less preposterous the less you think about it; this is, after all, the kind of film that thrives on eccentric chills that trickle down the spine, expecting us to come along for the dangerous ride and forget about any sort of question we might have. Thanks to Schrader’s knowing handling of the material (he treats most of Cat People like an erotic art-house picture, which is more fitting than something akin to a more conventional horror movie), the film doesn’t face many concerns when it comes to structure. The problem with Cat People is its futile characterizations, which allows for interesting characters more fascinating to look at than to actually care about. Irena is fearful for what will become of her, but because the screenplay is more interested in giving Kinski ample opportunity to smolder, never is the impression quite made; Paul is maleficent, but it’s unclear where his villainy will go. And Oliver, taking over Kent Smith’s role from the original, is drawn out blandly. The actors are all lensed brilliantly — it’s a shame they all remain so one-dimensional than even the more erotic elements of Cat People are slightly unexciting.
But when John Bailey’s cinematography isn’t seducing our eyes, Kinski makes for the best thing about the film. A better actress than Simone Simon, she makes it impossible for us not to look at her; her full lips, sphinxy eyes, and Audrey Hepburn-like demeanor makes her a lithe sex object far too knowing to be exploited — she is magnificent. And for the most part, so is Cat People. But it’s so devoid of any kind of emotional interior that any sort of reaction is kept hidden. Fear? Arousal? Allure? It all wants to be there, but Cat People remains a beautiful film without a heart. C+