Friday, January 05, 2018

Cat People (1982)

Cat People (1982) 4/5

 The legacy of Paul Schrader’s Cat People might have less to do with the film than with the David Bowie/Giorgio Moroder theme song “Cat People (Putting out Fire with Gasoline),” which has appeared in films like Atomic Blonde as well as unexpectedly shown up the American version of The Office. Quentin Tarantino’s use of the song in Inglorious Basterds is an absolute showstopper. Bowie clearly liked the results so much that he wanted to put the track on his album Let’s Dance, but because MCA refused to let the song be released by Bowie’s label EMI, he had to make due with a re-recorded version, which just doesn’t have the same lush atmosphere that Moroder was able to pull off.

But this review isn’t about what a great song “Cat People” happens to be or even how amazing Bowie was (because if you get me started, we’ll be here all night. No, this review is of the actual Cat People remake directed by Paul Schrader and released in 1982, which is doubly overshadowed, by both the original and the song. But if you’re willing to resonate at the same frequency as the film, then you’ll appreciate what Schrader accomplishes with his take on the b-movie turned horror classic.

The film begins with a prologue that takes place in an unspecified time and place, perhaps an imaginative take on northern Africa. The very first shot is of blood red sand that blows away to reveal skulls and bone fragments. We then see as women are ritually tied to a gnarled, naked tree and consumed by leopards. A pall of red shrouds the images, which are pure Hollywood constructs, put together through sets and matte paintings. The artificiality only enhances the dreamlike atmosphere of the wordless introduction before cutting to the film’s version of Irene, played by Nastassja Kinski, arriving in New Orleans.

She’s there to meet here brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell), but curiously doesn’t recognize him when he approaches. We’re not immediately clued into the backstory between Irene and Paul, but they were separated when they were younger and are just now reuniting. I’ll avoid major spoilers, but in the long tradition of Malcolm McDowell playing a creep, there’s an immediate incestuous subtext. It should also come as no surprise that Paul, like his sister, is also a cat person. (If the original had been titled Cat Person, then Schrader’s remake could have pulled the old Alien/Aliens trick and used the title Cat People, but, alas, it was not to be.)

From here the film follows the broad outlines of the original, but only contains a couple of scenes pulled directly from forty years prior. After showing up in New Orleans, Irene explores the city and finds her way to the local zoo where she encounters zoologist, Oliver (John Heard). Most of the film follows their burgeoning relationship as Irene slowly uncovers her secret past.

(There are a few spoilers in the following paragraph.) In the forty years since the original film, what could be shown and discussed in cinema had clearly changed. It was suggested in the original film that Irene would transform into a panther after having sex and potentially kill her mate, including Oliver who she marries in the original (although it’s suggested that the marriage is never consummated.) Here the rules of being a cat person are slightly more complex. If Irene or her brother have sex, then they will transform into a panther, but they can only transform back after they have taken a life. It’s later revealed that there is one exception: cat people can have sex with relatives and not transform. Paul believes that now that he and his sister have been reunited after all these years, they should run away together. After all, their parents were also brother and sister. (End of major spoilers)
Schrader takes the psychosexual subtext of the original and places it up front and center. According to Wikipedia, John Heard almost turned down the film because he thought it was pornographic. (McDowell also reportedly almost turned down the role, which, if you look at his IMDB page, must have been the only time he has that thought in his entire career. [As of this writing, he has six movies lined up for 2018 alone.] I mean, three years earlier he starred in Caligula.) Kinski spends much of the second half of the film in varying stages of undress. Even the film’s poster makes the explicit nature of the film, referring to the movie as an “Erotic Fantasy.” But none of this seems out of place considering how much many of these themes ran through the original.

It’s not much of a stretch to lump in Cat People with the werewolf craze of the 80s, including An American Werewolf in London, The Howling (and its many sequels), Silver Bullet, and, of course, Teen Wolf one and Too. It makes sense to see these films as reactions to the rise of the Moral Majority political organization, which formed in 1979 and became more prominent during the Reagan administration. Where the Moral Majority wished to police sexuality, werewolf and werecat movies of the time were happy to metaphorically showcase how hidden desires monstrously transform when unaddressed.

Schrader’s attempt to shake up and reveal taboo subconscious thoughts is nicely bolstered by his choice of setting. The original film takes place in New York, but Schrader smartly moves the events to New Orleans, which is emptied of pedestrians giving the city an eerie shroud as if the world around Irene exists only in her mind. Splashes of red and green only highlight the effect. There’s a clear connection between the use of color in Cat People and the neon noir of the 80s, which is fitting because the original film similarly makes use of noir’s chiaroscuro. The film prizes atmosphere and images over tight plotting and only becomes more oneric as the movie somewhat meanders to its conclusion.

Schrader’s Cat People justifies the idea of remakes as more than just a way for a studio to cheaply cash in on name recognition. This 1982 remake takes advantage of the forty year distance as well as Schrader’s unique eye. Paul Schrader came to prominence as a screenwriter with fellow New Hollywood alums, penning Taxi Driver and Raging Bull among many others. And while he’s not a household name like Spielberg and Scorsese, Cat People suggests that he can be a formidable director.

No comments: