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Cat People

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Cat People

Starring: Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell
Director: Paul Schrader
Rated: R
RunTime: 118 Minutes
Release Date: April 1982
Genres: Horror, Erotica, Suspense

*Also starring: John Heard, Annette O'Toole, Ruby Dee, Ed Begley Jr., Scott Paulin, John Larroquette

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

Whenever someone mentions "1980s" and "horror film" in the same sentence, the first association is usually FRIDAY 13TH, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET or myriad of similar low-budget "teenage slasher" films inspired by their respective successes. But, in the beginning of decade, horror films didn't exclusively belong to the world of B-cinema. At least some of them had high budgets and ambitious directors at their helm. One of such examples is CAT PEOPLE, 1982 horror by Paul Schrader, film that enjoyed quite popularity at the beginning of the decade only to completely vanish from moviegoer's memory in few years. That same fate was experienced by many great 1980s hits, but rarely was so unjustified like in the case of this film. The only explanation could be found in critics' snobbery. CAT PEOPLE was remake of classic 1942 B-horror, and, as such, it simply had to be inferior piece of work. Also, large quantities of violence, gore, sex and nudity didn't help either - many critics viewed Schrader's film as exploitative.

Plot of this movie begins when 21-year old Irena Gallier (played by Nastassja Kinski), who spent most of her life in orphanages and foster homes, arrives to New Orleans to finally reunite with her older brother Paul (played by Malcolm McDowell), who works as priest. Irena is so thrilled to find long lost family that she doesn't care about few bizarre and mysterious details of Paul's lifestyle, including long periods he spends outside home. During one of such periods Irena visits local ZOO and becomes obsessed with one of its exhibits - magnificent black panther. The animal was brought in the cage after attack on prostitute. Oliver Yates (played by John Heard), zookeeper who had caught the beast is still puzzled by many unexplained circumstances of the bizarre incident, as well as the origin of the panther. His attention, however, shifts towards beautiful young woman who spends all her time in front of panther's cage. He falls in love with Irena, who, although still a virgin, returns his feelings. When Paul returns home, he would show not only unusually high degree of insight into Irena's romantic life, but also his own unnatural jealousy. This revelation is just one of many shocking discoveries and events that would turn Irena's life into ultimate nightmare.

Many people who criticise Schrader for using too much sex and nudity in his version of CAT PEOPLE probably didn't pay attention to movie's tagline "An Erotic Fantasy For The Animal In Us All". While Tourner in his 1942 version had to rely on small budget and only hint things, Schrader was able to enjoy benefits of big budget, like location shooting or special effects by Albert Whitlock, as well as liberal censorship standards of pre-AIDS era that allowed more explicit erotica in mainstream Hollywood. All that enabled Schrader to use 40-year old original in order to explore one of the most common motives in various forms of art - connection between Eros and Tanathos. This motive, which was exploited as one of the most boring cliches of "teenage slasher" genre (which was, among many things, parodied in Craven's SCREAM), was brought to its purest and most logical incarnation in CAT PEOPLE. Unlike the killings of horny teenagers in cheap 1980s horrors, committed by sexless, passionless and machine-like monstrosities who are there to please puritanical desires of the audience, homicidal violence in CAT PEOPLE comes from the same source as sex itself - dark depths of our collective unconsciousness - and it is equally irrational and primordial in its nature, and the killers are even more motivated by carnal desires than the victims. Connection between sex and violence is even underlined with the imagery that twists around all movie cliches - in most of the other films, nakedness of the characters symbolises their vulnerability; in CAT PEOPLE nakedness symbolises their "natural state", in which they are more prone to indulge into their irrational and homicidal instincts and thus become even more dangerous than with their clothes on.

Schrader's ambitions in this film were matched by his talent as a director. CAT PEOPLE is much slower than most of the other horror films, but Schrader uses this great length to slowly yet methodically build characters and atmosphere. All the scenes in this film possess certain eerie quality - from the mythical, primordial past depicted in the prologue to the exotic architecture of New Orleans. Camera of John Bailey builds such atmosphere together with the a very good musical score by Giorgio Moroder, which was very popular in early 1980s, same as David Bowie's title song. However, the screenplay by Alan Ormsby is somewhat disappointing - many lines of dialogue are weak, and characterisation is incomplete, especially in the end.

However, the acting is superb, although most of the leading talents hardly managed to repeat the same success in the decades to come. Young Nastassja Kinski, whose career in next two decades would be tragic example of missed opportunities, simply shines in her first major Hollywood role. This role could be rather thankless, because most of the viewers (especially males) would pay more attention to her willingness to expose her body in front of camera, than her actual acting abilities. But those abilities are there nevertheless, and Nastassja Kinski is great in her portrayal of young woman, torn between virginity and carnal desires, between her need of normalcy and frightening dark forces within her unconsciousness. Her partner, John Heard, who would become of the most reliable Hollywood supporting actors in 1980s and 1990s, is more than good in one of his rare leading roles. But the greatest of them all is Annette O'Toole, whose character of Yates' colleague and former girlfriend Alice allowed both her and Schrader to play with genre conventions - in the beginning, while she establishes her relationship with Irena, she plays the part of sexually active and "experienced" Bad Girl vs. young, innocent Irena; in the end, the tables are turned and Alice is next-door type who is symbol of good and normalcy against Irena as Evil Seductress. Unfortunately, Malcolm McDowell, who plays potentially most interesting part of Irena's troubled brother fell victim to typecasting, and his Paul is almost indistinguishable from psychotic villains he had played in million other films.

All in all, despite its shortcomings, CAT PEOPLE is film that hardly deserved its slide into relative obscurity. This is very good piece of filmmaking and one of the rare examples of "erotic thriller" which gives good name to that ill-reputed genre.

Copyright 2000 Dragan Antulov

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