August 16, 2002 -- "Cat People" is one of those "guilty pleasures" that Roger Ebert talks about. It is a sort of sleazy soft porn horror flick with the stylistic flair of a European art film. Most guys like it for the full frontal nudity (Billy Bob's boob count would be off the charts on this one) and the kinky "tie me up" sex scene, but it is an interesting film to look at for other reasons.
Director Paul Schrader ("Mosquito Coast") is an unabashed fan of European art cinema. That led him to hire Ferdinando Scarfiotti as a "visual consultant" on the film. Since Scarfiotti wasn't in the union, he could not be officially credited with the job he really did, production design. Scarfiotti, who went on to win an Academy Award for "The Last Emperor" worked with one of Schrader's heroes, director Bernardo Bertolucci, on several films. Scarfiotti had free rein on the project and his impact on "Cat People" was huge. The use of color is stunning from the opening credits onward. The predominant colors are salmon and lime, with healthy doses of red and green. Costumes, wall colorings, exteriors all fit into this bright color scheme. An old movie theater in one scene is lit with green lights on the outside. Inside, there is a profusion of bright colors (the building had been converted into a church). The camera is placed high in order to pick up the bright colors on the floor of the building. The building really doesn't fit into the story, but the filmmakers couldn't resist all those great primary colors.
The opening scenes, reminiscent of "2001, A Space Odyssey," look like they were filmed on Mars. There is that overpowering reddish salmon color. The myth which sets up the story is lycanthropy, the ability of a big cat with a human soul to change from a human shape to a cat and back again. Supposedly, the cats took human form after eating human sacrifices because they accumulated human souls. Once they assume human form, they stay that way until they have sex with a human. Then the cat must kill a human to regain their human form. This is a rather silly myth. Even if it was believable, the film isn't even internally consistent. In several scenes, cat people show physical cat traits without sex and they revert back to human form without killing anyone. In another scene, a cat who turns into a human escapes from a locked zoo cage without any explanation how this was done. The big panthers in the opening scenes appear to be from Africa, yet the cat people are white, not black. One of the few black characters in the film, played by Ruby Dee, seems to have some knowledge of what is going on, but how she is connected to the myth is a mystery. Most werewolf movies are more believable than "Cat People" because they observe the rules of lycanthropy more consistently.
Natassia Kinski (of "Tess") stars as Irena Gallier, a woman with a mysterious, troubled past. She arrives in New Orleans to visit her brother, Paul Gallier (Malcolm McDowell of "A Clockwork Orange") and strange things start to happen. Paul Gallier believes that the only way he can have safe sex (without turning into a leopard and killing people) is to have sex with his sister, who is also a cat person. There was nothing mentioned about the potential of such a coupling for producing kittens. Instead of cooperating with her brother, Irena falls for a handsome zoo worker, Oliver Yates (John Heard of "Pollock"). Her brother is jealous. He spies on her and broods a lot while crouched in trees, sort of like Michael Skakel.
Irena, who is a virgin, has never turned into a cat before, so she is quite skeptical about this whole cat people idea. Imagine that. Things start to get messy. There is blood and cat vomit, detached limbs, bits of flesh scattered around. It gets pretty gruesome. When Yates starts seeing big leopards on the loose in New Orleans, leopards which disappear, he starts getting suspicious. In addition to the blood, there is a lot of nudity in the film. It is surprising it is only rated "R." On the director's commentary track on the DVD, Schrader says people have gotten more puritanical since 1981. He says we go through cycles of puritanism. He also says something about giving the audience sex when they expect violence and vice versa. He must have thought the audience was expecting a lot of violence. The ending of the film is quite different than the ending of the original 1942 version of "Cat People." The two films are quite different, except for one scene at a swimming pool with a topless Annette O'Toole ("48 Hours"). Of course, in the original, there were no nude scenes. Schrader said he wished he had renamed the film so it would not be compared to the original. He argues it isn't a real remake, and it is not.
Another problem with the film is the acting. John Heard is not strong as the romantic lead. He is more effective as a supporting actor (and that is the role he has primarily played in his career). Kinski isn't all that believable as a cat person. My idea of a cat person would be someone a lot stronger and more self-confident, like Eartha Kitt. Oh, I know, Kinski is great to look at, but that's just physical beauty, not acting. The fact that Kinski looks good, but isn't really right for the part, parallels the problem with the film. It looks good, but doesn't really work as a story. Malcolm McDowell and Annette O'Toole are both good in their roles, however. Also tucked away in minor roles in the film are John Larroquette of "Twilight Zone: The Movie") and Ed Begley Jr. of "The Accidental Tourist"). One actor in the film who looks like Richard Roundtree and dresses like Shaft is actually Frankie Faison of "Mississippi Burning"), but that's not his voice you are hearing on the soundtrack. Another actor's voice was dubbed in because Schrader didn't like Faison's voice.
So what have we got? We've got a horror film that isn't really a horror film. It is more of a kinky, sexy love story with European art film overtones. We've got over-the-top colors and set design. Good photography, except for possible soft-focus problems discussed more below. We have a film that has a weak plot and weak acting, but very strong visuals and a strong musical score. Schrader himself says he was concentrating on visuals in this movie, which was made right after his 1980 film, "American Gigolo." The final product is a film that is essentially unconvincing and weak, but which is very stylish-looking. This film rates a C.
The DVD has some good features. Technically, the image did not seem sharp, particularly in the dream, fantasy and flashback sequences. Black levels seemed quite low. That could have resulted from the filmmakers playing around with colors. The image appeared fairly sharp in outdoor, sunlit scenes. The sound was good and the score by Giorgio Moroder is striking. Special features include "Cat People: An Intimate Portrait" with commentary by Paul Schrader (some 20 years after the film was made). There is the usual feature commentary. It is quite informative. In one scene, Schrader talks about how he copied a shot of a cage from one of his favorite films, Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Conformist." Calling attention to that shot, however, invites the viewer to spot a mistake, a reflection where there should be none. Schrader also indicates in the commentary that he was involved with Kinski during the making of the film, but that they had broken up at the time Kinski asked to have the nude scenes deleted from the final film.
Another feature, "On the set with the director" appears to have been filmed around the time the film was made in 1981. In it, Schrader doesn't look too embarrassed when he is referred to as an auteur. Asked about the once popular theory among critics (Schrader started out as a film critic) that directors are auteurs (basically artists with God-like control over a film), Schrader indicates he doesn't entirely buy into the theory. While the director does have the final say (sometimes), the efforts of the editor, the musical composer, the director of photography and the screenwriter are also key components to the final product. The director usually doesn't do all this himself, although some directors are capable of handling all these jobs. Critic Pauline Kael was one of those who attacked the notion of directors as auteurs. It appears she would have had little to argue about with Schrader at the time he made the comments which appear on the DVD.
There is also a featurette on the makeup effects used in the film. This is an interesting feature because most of the effects used in the film would be replaced nowadays by digital effects. In 1981, the tools of the trade were makeup, blue screens, matte paintings, animatronics, backwards motion cameras, rotoscopes and other devices. It was a lot more work and not nearly as flashy as digital effects. The makeup and other effects worked, however, and they were kept to a minimum, perhaps in part because they were so difficult to do in those days. The result was special effects did not overwhelm the story or the development of the characters. The effects stayed in the background most of the time. Part of this was by design. Some directors, even now, show restraint when it comes to special effects. Other directors lean on special effects the way a lame person might lean on a cane. The original "Cat People" film was the ultimate in restraint. The creatures were never shown in that film.
Yet another featurette on the DVD is an interview with veteran director Robert Wise (directed "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and edited "Citizen Kane") who also worked on a sequel to "Cat People" in the mid-1940s. Wise talked glowingly about the producer of the original "Cat People" film, Val Lewton. Other features on the DVD are production photos, matte paintings (and the final versions of the scenes the paintings appeared in), production notes and the theatrical trailer. The dual-layer DVD comes with Dolby (TM) digital 2 stereo sound in English with English, Spanish and French subtitles available. The letter-boxed aspect ratio of the image is 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. While the film itself has its problems, the DVD is also loaded with information and useful features for fans of this film. The DVD rates a B.
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