Cat People (1982): Paul Schrader’s Remake of 1942 Classic

Made in 1982, Paul Schrader’s loose adaptation of the 1942 horror classic of the same title, is an artistically ambitious but emotionally inert tale.

The pretentious, 2001-style beginning, is a montage that aims to link between panthers and an ancient tribe of humans.

The tale proper is set in the present time, in New Orleans, where the waifish Irina (Natassja Kinski, daughter of famed German actor Klaus Kinski) meets her older brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell, miscast), a minister, for the first time since their animal trainer parents had died and she grew up in foster homes.

Paul’s Creole housekeeper, named Female (vet African-American actress, Ruby Dee), helps Irina settle into her brother’s home, when Paul disappears rather mysteriously.

In a sleazy motel, a prostitute is visited by an angry panther, instead of the expected human client. After mauling her, the cat is captured by police and a team of three zoologists: Oliver (John Heard), Alice (Annette O’Toole), and Joe (Ed Begley Jr.).

Visiting the zoo where the scientists work, Irina is drawn to the newly captured panther. Shortly after the panther’s violence turns deadly, it escapes, and soon Paul turns up with a preposterous story about his family’s cat heritage and his sexual bond with Irina.

Running away from her dangerous brother, Irina gets romantically involved with Oliver but she is afraid of consummating their passion.

The movie is well crafted and erotically charged (Nastassja Kinski was Schrader’s girlfriend at the time), but the rampage in the last act is too bloody and violent, and the ultra-detached an stylized movie leaves a bad taste due to its lack of thematic coherence or emotional resonance. Dividing critical response, Cat People was a huge commercial flop.

End Note

The zoologist characters refer to the panthers as leopards; “panther” is actually a generic term for any large cat, especially a black one, but Cat People’s panthers are actually leopards whose black color comes from melanism.

Running time: 119 minutes.

Released: April 2, 1982

DVD: October 10, 2000