Upon its initial release CAT PEOPLE was greeted with some violently different critical reactions. Some critics, such as Roger Ebert and Jack Kroll, really responded and gave it rave reviews while others, such as Richard Schickel and Andrew Sarris, had major problems and mostly trashed it. Whatever the reactions were it was a film that caused, and has continued to cause, much debate. Here is a sampling of some critical thoughts from the time and a few current views.
"Of all the qualities that work against eroticism, silliness is most injurious and pretentiousness a close second...the film stands or falls by whether audiences will love Kinski...with her slightly rounded child's stomach and her strong long-waisted, small-bosomed body, she is a very credible cat woman, and she has a steady intensity that lets her surmount the film's relentless silliness. She is also an original in this day of carbon copies."
-Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times-
"In the closing shots of CAT PEOPLE, Schrader makes his most perverse use yet of Bresson-to wrap up what is not only his most perverse but most wayward film to date."
-Richard Combs, Monthly Film Bulletin-
"You can laugh at this movie but you can't really make fun of beauty as powerfully singular as Nastassia Kinski...There are gaps in the narration, inexplicable lapses of intelligence...and too many climaxes."
-David Denby, New York-
"Kinski has really got it, no matter how many times she turns into a panther. Some will be turned on by the fear of a panther, others by the sight of Nastassja Kinski, who's every inch an actress with everything up front."
-Archer Winsten, New York Post-
"A pretentious and nasty little movie that is both too explicit and too murky to be fun."
-Joseph Gelmis, Newsday-
"A classic of this noble genre...scary sexy, brainy....it has the quintessential cat-person in Nastassia Kinski...Kinski has brought back one of the screen's most potent archetypes-the disturbing woman. More than in TESS or ONE FROM THE HEART, her effect in CAT PEOPLE is the primal perturbation of flesh and spirit generated by the mythic female...Kinski is a stunning young predator who's bewildered by her own sexual power...Schrader's best work as a director...A Classic."
-Jack Kroll, Newsweek-
"The work of a solemn literalist (and a man with a taste for perverse ritual), not that of a cynic or a sensationalist...Kinski, flat of voice, spirit and chest."
-Richard Schickel, Time-
"Not a success on any level...the more I look at Kinski, the less I think she can do...there is little evidence that Schrader can go from low to high either...On the meat market centerfold level of discourse, it must be reported that Annette O'Toole is more amply endowed in the upper regions than Kinski."
-Andrew Sarris, Village Voice-
"Nothing works...Schrader even mishandles Kinski...her feline grace becomes merely listless."
-Howard Kissell, Women's Wear Daily-
"(Unlike frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese, Schrader was a non-fan of the Tourneur film.) Unjustifiably compared to the original film upon its release, Schrader's Cat People is more of an erotic reinvention of the Bodeen story...Though Schrader keeps the Fangoria crowd at bay with a series of grisly tableau's, he remains less concerned with the body-horrific than he does with the rituals of sex—mandatory and otherwise."
-Ed Gonzales, Slate-
"Schrader's most underrated film is a supremely stylish, sensual nightmare."
-James Sanford, Kalamazoo Gazette-
"The cornerstone of the piece, arguably, is Nastassia Kinski's performance as Irena. Schrader states, in his audio commentary, that he chose her for her unique appearance ("European rather than American," he says, and I can't think of a better way of explaining it), and while this undoubtedly plays a great part in her effectiveness in the role, it is her performance that sells it. She is extremely cat-like in her mannerisms, meaning that we believe that the beast is inside her despite the fact that we don't see her transform until near the end of the film."
-Michael Mackenzie, DvdTimes-
"Schrader tells his story in two parallel narratives. One involves the deepening relationships among the sister, the brother, and the curator. The other, stunningly photographed, takes place in an unearthly terrain straight from Frank Herbert's Dune books. The designer, Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and the veteran special-effects artist, Albert Whitlock, have created a world that looks completely artificial, with its drifting red sands and its ritualistic tableau of humans and leopards -- and yet looks realistic in its fantasy. In other words, you know this world is made up, but you can't see the seams...a good movie in an old tradition, a fantasy-horror film that takes itself just seriously enough to work, has just enough fun to be entertaining, contains elements of intrinsic fascination in its magnificent black leopards, and ends in one way just when we were afraid it was going to end in another...Kinski is something. She never overacts in this movie, never steps wrong, never seems ridiculous; she just steps onscreen and convincingly underplays a leopard."
-Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times-
I must say that I am sometimes amazed by certain things I occasionally come across in reading older reviews but Schickel and Sarris going out of there way to mention Kinski's breasts size floored me. It's amazing to think that these two inept and juvenile reactions masquerading as reviews actually appeared in publications like Time and The Village Voice.
I might post some other reviews on this film as I continue researching old articles in the next few days. I think these show fairly well though the polarizing effect the film had on many that saw it.