Undermarked Oversights: Cat People (1982)

After Jaws hit it big in ’75, a little marine bio horror flick by the name of Orca paddled along just two years after. By design, they’re nearly identical twins – as a renegade sea “monster” is hunted for the betterment of an Oceanside town, blending model construction of the creatures with real archival footage as a semi-ominous score flutters in the background – only with Richard Harris funneling both Roy Schieder and Robert Shaw’s characters into his own. The result is, well, pretty close to abysmal, as wonky scientific ideas and poorly-aged production values make it obnoxious in comparison.

I bring this up because Paul Schrader’s Cat People does nearly the same thing, only with An American Werewolf in London as its framework. With John Landis’ werewolf picture landing Academy Award recognition for its phenomenal make-up work, a path was opened for a copycat, if you will. Sure enough, two years later, a “reimagining” of Jacque Tourneur’s horror work took on a nearly identical structure -- only this time, the imitator didn’t stink.

Cat People is pure fantasy, without question. It calls on its audience to wrap their heads around the concept that predatory panthers mated with human beings in the past, resulting in catlike half-breeds that wander the earth today. They’re an “incestuous race” as Malcolm MacDowell narrates to us, only able to engage in sexual activity with their own kind – or, as the story implies, one specific hybrid. If they try, or if the get in “heat”, then the results are … transformational. In comes Natassia Kinski’s character Irene, the supposed sister to New Orleans resident Paul (Malcolm MacDowell). After long-distance communication over many, many years, she comes to stay with him in the lust Creole environment. Quirky brother-sister chemistry buds, one of them darts off into the night, and, lo and behold, we’ve got a hooker attack in the city with a panther closed off in a hotel room waiting for the zoo’s curator (John Heard) to come and cart him away.

Marking an odd departure for the Blue Collar and American Gigolo director, Cat People expounds on style over substance – and it works to the film’s benefit, as it builds a surprisingly artistic experience within a B-level horror flick. Featuring the “vocal stylings” of David Bowie, apocalyptic reds in its past setting, and a bizarre quarrel among lovers that amounts to a panther-girl-animal catcher triangle, it’s a truly unique experience. Schrader has a way of splicing honesty and allure into mundane situations, labeling him as a somewhat romantic filmmaker who produces less-than-romantic pictures. Shown by a conversation between Heard and Kinski at the oyster bar, he’s able to add a thickness about the room while saying very little.

But Cat People quickly becomes about three things: watching Kinski, watching the cats, and seeing how the two interlace with taboo attraction. Seeing as how Schrader’s little slice of horror churns around primal sexuality, it’s fitting that it wavers little from those core allures. They almost work as a bizarre form of framing device, as we’re first introduced to the panthers in the wild and a more humanistic Irene. They slowly inch closer to each other, utilizing Kinski’s slinky demeanor to grow more and more catlike amid a higher saturation of glimpses at caged panther.

It all slams together in a beautifully shot scene in the woods, a mid-point in a rather long and plodding horror film that operates as the catalyst behind Irene’s transformation. Granted, it doesn’t hurt that Kinski’s beautiful nude frame graces the screen from start to finish, but the rawness present is entrancing as she silently sweeps through the woods and eyes potential “targets” for her latent predatory nature. Kinski has received recognition for her stunning role in Roman Polanski’s Tess and others, but she almost seems hand-molded to play the sharply feline Irene within this odd trip into ‘80s style horror experimentation.

The result is mesmeric; watching her transform, both figuratively and literally, becomes a refreshing and bizarre allegory to the consuming nature of desire and destiny. Blunt dialogue and disbelief aside, Cat People is a surprisingly overlooked gem that works as a piece of blood-drenched, flesh-happy artwork that relishes in its periodic style.

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