"Cat People" *** (out of ****)
Walking into "Cat People" (1982) I was slightly apprehensive. Whenever I watch a movie I want it to be good. I am giving up somewhere between 90 minutes to two hours of my time. I want to have a positive experience. However, I am weary of remakes of classic movies. Hollywood has a way of overdoing everything. And you can bet your bottom dollar, whenever an older movie is adapted to attract a "modern audience" Hollywood will always sexualize the movie.
Essentially that is what happened here. "Cat People" is a remake of the RKO (who fittingly also released this picture along with Universal) B-horror movie "Cat People" (1942) produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur.
The original "Cat People" is considered one of the most influential horror movies of all-time. It made inventive use of shadows and lighting. It was made on a minimalist budget and as a result it could not show "cat people". So it was smartly decided to keep the cat people and the violence off-screen. This would become a staple in Lewton's movies. His movies leave the horror to our imagination.
When you remake a classic you better have a good reason to do so. Many people feel movies from the 1930s & 40s were restricted because of the production code and therefore couldn't deal with their subject matter in the most direct way possible. So, Hollywood believes it can remake these movies in today's world where society's standards are lower or looser if you prefer. If those movies dealt with sex or sexuality today we can be more explicit about it. I sincerely can't think of any other reason to want to remake "Cat People" other than you can now have sex scenes in the movie. For me, that's just not a good enough justification to remake a classic.
"Cat People" has themes of incest, sexual repression and the animal, killer instincts which lurk in humans. It is actually similar to what the original was about minus the incest theme. The original was made during WW2 so there was also a theme suggesting, don't trust foreigners. If foreigners are going to live in America they better learn to give up their tradition and embrace American values. That theme is not in the remake and appropriately so.
In the remake the legend of the cat people has changed. We are told, years ago, in order to survive, the cat people would offer their children as sacrifice to panthers. After the panthers would eat the children, the soul of the humans would remain inside the panthers, causing them to transform into humans. When the cat people engage in sexual activity with humans they transform into a panther and must kill in order to transform back into a human. If they do not kill they will forever remain a panther. Cat people can only have sexual relations with other cat people which will prevent the transformation process. Everybody got that?
The movie begins with a woman named Irena (Nastassia Kinski) traveling to New Orleans to meet her brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell), whom she was separated from as a child. In a not so subtle fashion the movie suggest these two are cat people. The difference is one has learned the family history and embraces their life as a cat person, hiding in the shadows, committing murder when sexually aroused, while the other lives in denial and does not act upon sexual desire.
In both movies there is a moment when Irena stands in front of a panther at a zoo and begins to sketch it. Watching the original we assume Irena does so because she feels a kinship with panthers because she turns into one. But nothing further is developed. The remake however suggest, what if Irena knows who the panther is? What if the panther is another cat person stuck in the form of a panther. This is the only significant, non-sexual, contribution "Cat People" makes to improve the original.
While at the zoo Irena meets Oliver (John Heard) the zoo's curator, who is both interested in what she is drawing and in her. The attraction seems mutual. But, if Irena is one of the cat people, how can she have a relationship with Oliver without killing him?
What I initially dislike about the original movie and this remake was there is never any doubt that Irena is one of the cat people. I would have preferred a bit more mystery. Then I thought one could make the arguement, whether or not Irena is a cat person is not important. It is the symbolism that is important. Irena's psychological hang-ups is what makes the movie and makes the character interesting. That is the driving force of the movie and makes "Cat People" less of a horror movie and more of a psychological thriller with Freudian undertones.
Although I may disagree with what I feel were the motives to remake this movie, if I lived in a world where the original didn't exist or I had not scene it, "Cat People" would be a much more interesting movie to watch. It does play around with a lot of thought provoking ideas. It is a well made movie with some good performances.
As with most remakes it is always going to be difficult to cast the movie without audiences thinking of the original actors. While no one could replace Simone Simon, Nastassia Kinski has some of the same needed qualities. Kinski is able to come off as both innocent and sexy. Sometimes the movie presents her as a naive woman that doesn't quite understand the effect she has on men while in other scenes she puts her seductive abilities to work. This helps enforce the theme of sexual repression. Irena could be a very sexual woman. She knows how to flirt with men however she must always stop herself because of the consequences. In one scene she admits to being a virgin.
The overwhelming majority of horror movies are usually precautionary tales about the dangers of premarital sex. "Cat People" is one more example. Irena, for the most part, is able to lead a normal, productive life, because she is a virgin and has not had to deal with turning into a panther. It is only after developing a relationship with Oliver do her problems begin because now she has had sex.
The movie ends on an outlandish note, if we think about it long enough and all the implications it implies. By the end of the movie I came away with the thought, we are all caged animals. Whether we are behind real bars or our skin it is all the same, we must fight our impulses, we must control our mind. Pretty scary stuff!
"Cat People" was directed by Paul Schrader. That makes a lot of sense. Schrader wrote "Taxi Driver" (1976) and "Raging Bull" (1980) and directed "Auto Focus" (2002). He often deals with self-destructive characters. His movies are about redemption. The screenplay was by Alan Ormsby who believe it or not wrote "Porky's II" (1983). I guess that explains all the sex and unnecessary nude shots.