Cat People (1982)
Cat People (1982)

Genre: Supernatural Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 58 min.

Release Date: April 2nd, 1982 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Paul Schrader Actors: Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O’Toole, Ruby Dee, Ed Begley Jr., Scott Paulin, Frankie Faison




n ancient tribal ritual demands the sacrifice of a young woman to a black panther, which is somehow linked to commercial artist Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski), who, in present day, arrives in New Orleans. She’s met by her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell), who takes her to a grand home, tended by the kindhearted Female (Ruby Dee). After the siblings reminisce about childhood activities, and then settle into their spaces, Paul sneaks into Irena’s room and lunges onto the end of the bed in a catlike fashion.

That same evening, a hooker is attacked by a massive black leopard, inexplicably relaxing in a seedy motel. As if to highlight the film’s exploitation approach, the prostitute’s bra snaps open as she flees from the cat’s clutches. At the same time, the camera lingers on bloody gashes on her ankle – another anticipated exploitation component. And Kinski’s wardrobe never seems to include standard undergarments.

Three zoologists, Dr. Oliver Yates (John Heard), Alice Perrin (Annette O’Toole), and Joe Creigh (Ed Begley Jr.), are called in to tranquilize the beast. The following night, Irena goes in search of Paul, who has been missing all day, which leads her to the captured panther, now housed at the zoo. And Oliver takes an immediate liking to the young woman, offering her a job as a cashier at the gift shop to keep her nearby. “I prefer animals to people,” he jokes, struggling to hide his bewitchment.

Particularly with David Bowie’s dated, titular theme song popping up continuously, “Cat People” doesn’t know whether it wants to be a slasher film or an erotic thriller or a psychological mystery or a romantic drama. The tone and the subject matter keep shifting – getting weirder and less congruous. In one moment, Oliver and Irena share a flirtatious dinner; in the next, Joe’s arm is being torn off in an excessively gruesome (and unlikely) manner. And the dialogue grows more frank and lewd, too.

It’s obvious early on that the vicious cat and the uncertain people are cat-people of sorts, which factors into the title and the basis on the 1942 film of the same name. But the updated setting and focus on bloodshed, nudity (practically every main character gets naked at some point, Kinski quite a lot), and sexual violence have a difficult time finding their places in the familiar plot. Rather than concentrating on the mystery and the accruing body count, this modernization dwells on the central romance, the perverse connection between the cursed siblings, and dismembered corpses – all visual components that resonate minimally.

With the intention of renovated realism, the film comparably struggles, unable to avoid unintentional humor in the bizarreness of transformations and the stalking of prey – despite the various, graphic amendments. At its best, it reminds of “An American Werewolf in London” or “The Thing” (from the same year), though it never goes far enough with the practical effects and makeup to be a competent monster movie. Perhaps most problematic of all is the fact that none of the characters are sympathetic; they’re either murderous, confused, or blinded by lust. Their success or failure feels inconsequential. Ultimately, this endeavor falls into the category of works that should not have been remade – or, at least, it should not have bothered to use the original screenplay as a starting place (especially since anyone familiar with Jacques Tourneur’s classic won’t find the duplicated scenes – chiefly a swimming pool sequence – all that amusing).

– Mike Massie

  • 2/10