Sunday, August 5, 2007
#8. Cat People (1982)
After writing 1976’s classic TAXI DRIVER, Paul Schrader turned his eye to directing and within four years delivered three of the most interesting and talked about films of the late seventies. These were the brutally powerful BLUE COLLAR (1978), the haunting HARDCORE (1979) and a film that clearly signaled the new decade, the flashy AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980).
By 1981 though Schrader found himself exhausted, stoned and suddenly unable to write so he decided working from someone else’s material might be a refreshing change for him. Universal studios had been in a remake mood and when they offered him a chance to make a very loose retelling of Jacques Tourneur’s classic 1942 film CAT PEOPLE Schrader jumped at the chance in the hope that it would break his writers block. Ironically CAT PEOPLE did indeed snap him out of his creative lull but the impersonal project would prove to be the most difficult and personal vision he ever put on film.
While prepping the film Schrader visited his friend Francis Ford Coppola on the set of ONE FROM THE HEART and caught a glance of Nastassja Kinski filming and knew immediately that she was the only one who could play the complicated leading role of Irena. Universal initially balked but soon gave in and the young Kinski was given her first lead in a film since Polanski’s TESS.
I must admit before I go on that I have a real bias towards Paul Schrader’s CAT PEOPLE. It is a film that I grew up with and the film that introduced me to Nastassja Kinski. While I was re-watching it the other night attempting to cast a critical eye towards it I found myself routinely just slipping into its hypnotic groove and my own memories of it. Viewing the film now I can see that it is not perfect and I will do my best to point out some of what I see as its faults, but at the end of the day Schrader’s film remains pretty special to me so I am not sure how successful this initial ‘review’ will be.
Schrader’s CAT PEOPLE is more of a film about sexuality rather than a typical horror film. The Calvinist born Schrader, who wasn’t allowed to even watch a film before his 18th Birthday, knew a lot about Sexual repression and the power and promise a sexual awakening could hold. It is really easy to draw parallels between the idea that losing ones virginity, or even having an orgasm, as leading to something unspeakable, primal and dark with Schrader’s extremely strict upbringing.
Shot on location throughout late 1981 mostly in and around New Orleans, with some studio shot material back in Hollywood, one of CAT PEOPLE’S biggest assets is indeed the sticky, humid feel of the American South. I have seen the film compared to the works of Anne Rice and while I am not sure how accurate that comparison is, the film’s location does give it a very distinct and primal feel. This is not an example of a film that could have been shot anywhere, as indeed New Orleans is one of the most important characters in the film.
Like many of the early eighties most iconic pictures, CAT PEOPLE is an overwhelmingly visual work. It has a very specific and striking look that makes many of today’s pictures seem particularly bland. While one would typically look towards the cinematographer to thank for this with CAT PEOPLE the story is a little more complicated.
A very talented director of photography, John Bailey, shot the film but Paul Schrader has acknowledged over and over again that the film’s unique, erotic and sinister visual scheme belongs to Production Designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti. I will be looking more closely at Scarfiotti’s work in a future post but it is worth mentioning here that Schrader at one point asked the Directors Guild to have CAT PEOPLE billed as, “A film by Paul Schrader and Ferdinando Scarfiotti.” That was denied but it doesn’t take away from the fact that this film is a true collaboration and without Scarfiotti’s remarkable work would have been a much less notable film.
Another of CAT PEOPLE’S key aspects is the music of Giorgio Moroder. I will be looking more at Moroder’s score in a later post as well but his pulsating score not only gives the film a driving unstoppable feel but would give the music world one of the most memorable soundtrack albums of the eighties. I will also be looking at the remarkable title track that would turn out to be a fascinating one off collaboration between Moroder and none other than David Bowie.
CAT PEOPLE can pretty easily be broken up into sections. The prologue clearly being a brief but memorable opening scene explaining the origins of the film’s title characters while the rest of the film could be broken up into four or five acts, with a haunting a quite tragic little epilogue. Viewing the film today it seems that the middle section is probably the weakest while the final two acts (roughly the last 40 minutes or so) is among the most memorable of the eighties.
Among the few problems I see with CAT PEOPLE is that at times it seems like Schrader slips and seems momentarily confused by what it is he is making. A couple of moments feel much more exploitive and B-movie like than the rest of the stylish, almost art house, feel of the film, like the odd zoom in to Lynn Lowry’s face after she is mauled and Schrader’s almost embarrassing filming of Kinski’s behind in short shorts during a pointless fishing scene. The film also has a few attempts at humor that don’t work typically referencing cats, Ed Begley singing WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT being one of them, but for the most part Schrader succeeds in making CAT PEOPLE a remarkably consistent film tone wise. Certain sections involving the police seem to drag a bit and a slight streamlining of the film would have probably been to its advantage but overall CAT PEOPLE holds up as well as almost an early Eighties film and certainly plays better than most ‘remakes’ since.
I have gone out of my way to not give too much mention to the fact that CAT PEOPLE is billed as a remake. With the swimming pool sequence and some of the film’s themes excepted, Paul Schrader’s CAT PEOPLE is less a remake than a personal re-thinking. Schrader has admitted that the original meant very little to him so it isn’t like he had any notion of actually remaking it. CAT PEOPLE, in actuality, would have played a lot better to its critics had it not been labeled a remake at all, but Universal demanded marketing it as such and it continues to be labeled a strict remake by many.
The cast is uniformly good in the film with special mention going to Malcolm McDowell’s chilling performance as Irena’s brother Paul and Annette O’Toole’s fresh-faced Zoo assistant Alice. The casting of O’Toole was interesting and quite a coup for Schrader. He needed someone distinctly American looking to contrast with Kinski’s dark and exotic European look. O’Toole is fine in the role and the scene between her and Kinski in the spa is one of the film’s most erotic and memorable.
McDowell is awesomely menacing in the role as the incestuous Paul. The amazing CLOCKWORK ORANGE and IF star is one of Britain’s’ greatest actors and I think Pail is one of his best performances. Everything from the way he stares longingly at Irena to the way he moves is striking. Most importantly McDowell manages to make the character sympathetic and suggests that his life is as much of a nightmare to him as it is his unfortunate victims.
CAT PEOPLE belongs though to the 23 year old Nastassja Kinski, who gives one of her greatest and most complex turns as Irena. The arc of her character is fascinating; from the incredibly naïve and innocent aspects of her character in the first half of her film to her increasingly sexual, paranoid and finally deadly second half performance. Kinski is breathtaking in the role and takes a lot of chances with it.
While she had had nude scenes before, most notably in STAY AS YOU ARE, Schrader was the first director who used Kinski’s body as much as her face and CAT PEOPLE remains one of the most forcefully erotic films of the eighties because of this. Had the film been made today, the amount of nudity, fetishism and its overwhelming adult nature would be impossible. Indeed when the film did premiere on TV in the mid eighties the entire last act was completely taken out and a much tamer, and less effective, ending was utilized.
Kinski’s best moments in the film come when she is called upon to suggest that there is something internal, that she isn’t completely aware of, pulling her towards an inescapable destiny. Some of the most notable scenes for her are the scene in the rain where she looks down at Paul and screams realizing how she might end, the brutal “Don’t look at me” sequence, her menacing moment by the pool with a terrified Annette O’Toole and finally the last forty minutes of the film where she portrays a woman who has nearly given up fighting her destiny completely. It’s a remarkably assured performance and remains a highlight in Nastassja’s 30-year career.
CAT PEOPLE would open up in 1982 to a lot of publicity and controversy. While it wasn’t the hit that the studio wanted it wasn’t a bomb either, but it failed to earn back its budget. Critical reaction was violently mixed but at the very least CAT PEOPLE caused a lot of conversation and it did manage to get one of America’s most interesting filmmakers juices flowing again. Schrader would follow the film with the unforgettable MISHIMA (1985), a film often considered his masterpiece.
CAT PEOPLE has never been out of the public eye and the image of Nastassja standing in the rain was reprinted on many posters and t-shirts throughout the eighties. The film would prove most popular on home video and has never been out of print. The current dvd of it contains a nice selection of extras including two revealing interviews with Schrader, as well as his commentary, and a handful of other valuable if short featurettes.
CAT PEOPLE continues to divide film fans and critics between people who love it and those who absolutely despise it. There isn’t a lot of middle ground with it, something that I think often symbolizes the greatest of art. Whether you are a fan or not, CAT PEOPLE is a uniquely personal film by one of our most controversial filmmakers. It isn’t a film that belongs to our overly sanitized and politically correct world though, and that adds yet another intriguing layer to an already multi-layered and important work.