'Cat People' is one of those completely ludicrous but strangely compelling cinematic car crashes that could only have been made in the '80s. Not so much a remake as a "re-imagining" of the 1942 Val Lewton classic of the same name, writer-director Paul Schrader takes a dated piece of drive-in pulp and elevates it to the plane of faux-high art. He panders to '80s decadent sensibilities with heaping helpings of gratuitous gore and lots of leering shots of Natassia Kinski's boobies, but infuses it all with enough thematic complexity that 'Cat People' retains a fascinating, hypnotic power that ultimately elevates it above Schrader's self-defeating pretensions.
On paper, the plot is hilarious. Kinski stars as Irena, a beautiful young woman "on the verge of her sexuality" (i.e, she's a virgin and really horny). After her parents are killed under mysterious circumstances, she is called out to New Orleans by her long-lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell). Immediately after Irena steps through the front door, Paul tries to get her into the sack with a rather strange idea of seduction -- long speeches about "repressed animal instincts" and an ancient curse that causes their bloodline to turn into leopards after mating. According to the legend, Paul tells Irena, they must mate with their own kind, or be fated to kill their lover in order to revert back to human form. Makes a venereal disease seem tame, doesn't it?
Amidst Paul’s clear-cut pleas to "keep it in the family," Irena falls in lust with a local zoo curator Oliver (John Heard). Torn between two potential lovers, Irena must make a choice -- does she give in to her incestuous family bloodline, or does she risk making love to Oliver and transforming into one of the Cat People?
As a monster movie, 'Cat People' doesn't really work. Yes, the best classic monster stories (Dracula, Frankenstein, et al) are meant to work as allegories, but at least their villains were more or less believable in the framework created. Not so with 'Cat People,' because even with a healthy suspension of disbelief, the transition between human/cat doesn't even make even illogical sense (nor is it rendered with particularly believable make-up effects). By making the graphic elements of the story so overt, Schrader undercuts his own mythology. Silly ideas like this are best left to the imagination, but Schrader doesn't have the suggestive touch that Lewton displayed in the original. Instead, as he proved with his seminal scripts for the classics 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull,' Schrader is a hardcore realist -- not exactly a sensibility that gels with fantasy-horror.
Taken in the context of the film’s own behind-the-scenes story, ‘Cat People’ is arguably a much more interesting film. As we learn in the HD DVD's supplements, Schrader's own marriage was dissolving during the film’s production, and in an unintended case of life imitating art, he developed an immediate obsession with Kinski. It's particularly fascinating that that the director’s admitted point of entry to the story is Heard's Oliver, if only because he's such a putz. Fearful of women, he is attracted to Irena precisely because he is afraid of her; meanwhile, Irena is jealous of Oliver's girlfriend, Alice (Annette O'Toole), who Irena knows can please Oliver sexually in a way she never will be able to.
In hindsight, this lends the film an inherently misogynistic subtext. Schrader repeats the visual conceit of voyeuristically placing of the oft-naked, nipple-baring Kinski on a cinematic pedestal (framing her as an object to be leered at), and in the film’s disturbing conclusion, makes Irena an animal locked in a cage by her "owner" Oliver. It's the ultimate in female objectification by way of the dominant male gaze. As icky as they may be, the real-life parallels in all of this are intriguing, and to Schrader's credit, admissions like these are rarely made publicly (let alone documented in a disc’s supplemental package). Such soul-baring doesn't transform 'Cat People' into an undiscovered classic, but it does make it a far more interesting a film to analyze.
Critical musings aside, 'Cat People' is certainly a stylish and well-produced film. The New Orleans locations drip with atmosphere, and Schrader was smart to employ Giorgio Moroder, whose typically '80s synthesizer-heavy score remains one of the best soundtracks of any horror film of the era. Add to that some impressive production design, elegant cinematography, and the sensual Kinski, and 'Cat People' holds up as an imperfect but intriguing little cult gem.
Universal remastered 'Cat People' for a DVD re-issue back in 2002, and this first-ever HD DVD release is minted from that same source. It's an OK effort that presents the film in a better light than its earlier video releases, but it’s still far from the finest catalog efforts Universal has produced.
The source print certainly has some rough edges. The opening credits are not promising, with loads of grain and softness. Things perk up in brighter shots (a good portion of the film is shot in wonderful New Orleans exteriors), but there is still healthy grain and a lack of sharpness throughout. Colors are well-saturated for a film released in the early ‘80s, particularly the intriguing use of a red/cyan palette (as director Paul Schrader remarks in the disc's extras, it's hardly a common look). Still, hues suffer from chroma noise on the heaviest reds and blues, while dark scenes have poor shadow delineation. Depth and detail are fine, but the image never looks three-dimensional. At least the 1080p/VC-1 encode is nice and smooth, with no obvious compression artifacts such as macroblocking.
Although Universal has kindly ponied up for Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit) on 'Cat People,' in all honesty the film's elements are so dated that it doesn't offer much of an upgrade.
Typical of a 1982-vintage picture, 'Cat People' only sporadically uses the rear channels. There are a few very obvious discrete effects with the panther attacks, though even here the bleed to the surrounds often sounds as if only the mid-range has been extracted. Giorgio Moroder's enjoyably retro synth-score is also frustratingly confined to the front soundstage -- indeed, most of 'Cat People' sounds like a well-done stereo mix. Dynamics are pretty good but not spectacular, with only average low bass extension and a flat feel to the highs. Dialogue is also a little muddled in the mix, though largely intelligible throughout. A listenable but wholly unremarkable TrueHD track.
Universal first issued 'Cat People' as a special edition DVD back in 2002, and I was surprised by the wealth of extras included. That same line-up is included here, and it's sure to please the movie's small but devoted cult following (myself included).
'Cat People' may be an entirely preposterous chiller, but it does create a genuine mood, and Natassia Kinski is perfectly cast as the vulnerable and mysterious Irena. This HD DVD release is solid enough for a dated b-movie, with above-average video and audio, plus a healthy dose of supplements. Is it truly a stand-out catalog release from Universal? No, but die-hard 'Cat People' fans should be more than happy.