by Jack Sommersby
With an interesting story premise and the luscious Kinski starring, you might feel inclined to give this a look-see, but the film never does manage to get out of second gear.Cat People is a major comedown for writer/director Paul Schrader, who made a fine directorial debut with the Detroit-set Blue Collar, nosedived with the atrocious Los Angeles-set Hardcore, and regained his footing with the excellent Beverly Hills-set American Gigolo. Here, working with someone else's script for the first time, a wildly inconsistent piece of hodgepodge by Alan Ormsby that's an update of the well-regarded 1942 Cat People, he's attempted an erotic horror film, but it's neither scary nor sensual -- rather, with its fuzzy story points and dramatic vagueness, it's amorphous, porn-arty, and ultimately embarrassing. For some reason or another, Schrader (who also wrote the script for the shaky Taxi Driver) wants to prove he can deliver heaping helpings of graphic violence and nudity, but to what end, one is inclined to ask throughout, being that, for all the expert technical contributions and decent-size budget, there aren't too many good scenes to be had. The film takes luridness to a spurious degree, which isn't necessarily the worst quality if it's backed up with semblances of precision, but Schrader, a talented man, never gives himself over to the material -- it's as if he didn't believe he were capable of this genre, and so scene after scene cries out for the kind of focus and vitality that would make them play. (Cat People could've possibly worked better if a competent hack had had a go at it.) The B/W original was more manner than matter, but it had a nifty metaphor at the center: a beautiful woman, who literally turned into a deadly black panther when sexually aroused, represented men's uneasiness toward headstrong, liberated women. Obviously with a 1982 version that kind of metaphor is dated (though not necessarily irrelevant), and after about an hour into the running time you keep waiting for Ormsby and Schrader to come to the point. Even an undemanding genre exercise needs an impetus to keep the audience involved, but there's a druggy dissociation to Cat People -- it's awash in garish primary colors, adorned with odd camera angles, smothered in synthesizer music, and all to very little avail because we're never connected with what's going on. You keep waiting for the picture to get started; you're practically yelling at the screen for things to shift out of first gear; you're left yearning for something to genuinely respond to.
"Unnecessary, Unctuous Remake"
Nastassja Kinski is well-cast as the initially mysterious Irene, recently arrived in New Orleans from Europe to live with her long-lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell). They're orphans, with their circus-performing parents having died when they were young; she comes to live with him in his immense downtown house. (She's been taken care of by a foster couple from overseas, and graduated from an art institute, though it's not clear why her and Paul have been separated this long, or how Paul was finally able to locate her after all these years.) But it's plain as day Paul harbors a carnal attraction to his beautiful sibling: he can't take his eyes off her, and when he casually touches her it's with a thinly veiled libidinousness; and, still a virgin and nervous in the company of men, she's suspicious of him. McDowell, always a fearless actor, matches up well with Kinski: we can believe they're brother and sister; and they both have a feline facial quality that's neither too much nor too little. But, of course, Paul isn't all he seems, and neither is Irene (though she doesn't know it yet). So when a hooker is mauled by a panther in a cheap motel room late that night, and Irene doesn't find Paul at work the next day, we make the connection. The panther is tranquilized by zoologist Oliver (John Heard) and his off-and-on-lover work associate Alice (Annette O'Toole), and the night after, with the panther behind bars in a public display at the zoo, Irene, who's gone there on a whim, is caught there by Oliver after-hours as she obsessively sketches the animal. They go out for a meal, and Oliver is instantly infatuated, and she to him; he gets her a job in the gift shop, and their relationship slowly develops. Paul, insanely jealous, spells out the truth about their family tree: that they turn into panthers during sexual intercourse and kill their partner; in essence, they can mate only with their own kind. (There are flashback scenes going back several hundred years where we see virginal young women tied to trees and sacrificed to huge cats, or the women willingly going into a cave to give themselves over to the waiting cat inside. And they're mostly laughable, and not just because Albert Whitlock's matte paintings are lacking and David Bowie's lyrics on the soundtrack are centuries-too-modern obtrusive, but because Schrader can't give the outlandish aspects the tackiness they need. He's presenting this malarkey with a straight face.)
Cat People isn't shy about laying on the blood and skin, but they exist in a film that wants us to think they're rooted in some kind of subtext that, well, just isn't there. And since the filmmakers have explicitly literalized just about everything, with absolutely nothing left to the imagination, all the potential kick has been drained from the material -- what you see is what you get, and its ultra-low contextual value makes you feel sorry for the writer and director who seem to think they're "onto something." The film doesn't play by any sort of rules, like Paul having turned into a panther before the hooker has arrived in that motel room, which goes against the intercourse-transformation underpinning provided; and Paul, trapped in the zoo cage as a cat, manages to escape through the grate with a steaming pile of disgustingly gelatinous substance left behind and reappear the next day as Paul the human as if he'd just returned from a business trip. Ormsby writes strained dialogue and has little affectation for his characters: they don't have a whole lot of depth, and lack the corners and nuances that would lift them out of two-dimensionality. Everything in Cat People is on the surface, and Schrader, a superb visual stylist, apparently thought the "look" he devised with his usual team (visual consultant Ferdinando Scarfiotti, cinematographer John Bailey) would be enough to carry the day, but it's empty, fancy-pants window dressing -- you can see what Schrader is trying to lay on you, and the stunning obviousness of the treatment makes it more than a little bit insulting. We're expected to be titillated by this soupy material just because of the emphasis on the primal and visceral, but Ormsby and Schrader are like elementary-school kids who've brought a dead rat and Playboy magazine to class with a lot of show but very little tell in the hope of "shocking." Which is why a central issue is never delved into: on their first date, Oliver tells Irene he "prefers animals to people," and just a couple of days later he tells her that she's the one he's been looking for all his life. So has this quintessential animal lover consciously fallen in love with Irene the human and/or subconsciously fallen for the animal lurking inside her? And because the Freudian aspects to the Irene/Paul relationship are banally applied, we're never fascinated by it, just fatigued.
This isn't because Kinski and McDowell don't do their jobs -- they do. Especially Kinski, who gives us all the emotional lucidity that could be squeezed from her role; and when she's buck naked, prowling around in the woods outside Oliver's bayou cabin at night, sensing a rabbit and tracking it by its heat pattern, her sensuous body, moving with the utmost confidence and grace, could render even the most stodgy old coot in the audience utterly helpless in his seat. And later on, when Irene has fully comprehended her physical duality and jealously stalks Alice, her eyes spookily dark and grin evilly curling, she's indeed frightening. (Why, though, isn't this followed through on? The next scene she's back to being doe-eyed innocent.) Oliver is a crucial role, too; unfortunately, Heard, who gave a dynamite performance as the embittered Vietnam veteran in the extraordinary Cutter's Way the year before, is unaccountably drab. There's something about Heard here that I've never seen before: an uncommunicative remoteness, aloofness that keeps us from responding to him more often than not; so when Oliver is ultimately willing to risk his life out of unfettered love/lust, it doesn't wash -- we just think him a fool. In a much smaller role, Scott Paulin, as a police buddy of Oliver's, gets more of a rapport going with the audience, but O'Toole, who was fetching as Gary Busey's love interest in the comedy Foolin' Around, is underused. Still, even with an array of fully rounded characterizations, Cat People would still be a botch because Schrader makes the proceedings too diaphanous for mainstream horror fans, too psychologically sophomoric for non-fanciers of the genre. The special effects, especially the man/woman-beast transformations, are like third-rate spare parts from The Howling, and the attempted scare moments, like Paul crashing through a window to get at Irene, are carelessly telegraphed. Schrader never does find a consistent rhythm, making the near-two-hour running time slog forth to the point of inertia. And the action scenes, whether it's Oliver trapped in a room with the Paul-as-cat, or the Irene-as-cat trapped on a bridge with police barricades on both ends, are poorly juxtaposed. Maybe a De Palma or Cronenberg could've neutralized some of the ludicrousness with their unique brand of sly naughtiness, but with Schrader's solemn, almost-always-awkward handling, Cat People drowns in a sea of inanity.The DVD offers up good video and audio, and there are a decent amount of special features: audio commentary by Schrader and some interviews with him.
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originally posted: 12/05/12 08:29:14