Monday, July 2, 2007

Cats Are People Too . . .


Continuing on with my mini-tribute to the summer films of 1982, the next classic I’m highlighting is yet another remake - Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader’s Cat People. Much like The Thing, this film was also maligned as inferior to the original at the time of its release, but two decades later it has also aged extremely well (for the most part) . . .

Cat People is based on the 1942 film of the same name, produced by the legendary Val Lewton. Lewton’s name is well familiar to horror fandom, with titles such as I Walked With A Zombie, The Ghost Ship, The Seventh Victim, and several other classics to his credit. The original film told the tale of Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a young, New York City designer who falls in love with architect Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). When the two marry, Irena reveals that she is under a curse which will cause her to transform into a deadly panther if she has physical contact with a man. Needless to say, this causes a rift in the marriage, and sets up the action for the film when Oliver becomes friendly with a female colleague.

The film was praised by critics, and rightly so. It possesses a great sense of style, and opts for a subdued approach rather than the outrageous spectacle of other “monster” movies from the time. In so doing, the film exudes an aura of foreboding and menace. Consequently, it has remained fairly effective generations later, and often is at the top of the list of classic horror favorites.

Flash forward 40 years to Schrader’s version, starring the beautiful Nastassia Kinski as Irena. This time around the action is transplanted to New Orleans where Irena arrives to be reunited with her long, lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell). Separated when very young, Irena is overjoyed to meet Paul so that she can finally belong somewhere and have a family connection. Unbeknownst to her, Paul seeks to make her his bride as they share the curse of the cat people! Things get really “hairy” when Irena develops an attraction to local zookeeper Oliver (John Heard), and deadly consequences follow.

As with John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, critics pounced on Cat People with scathing reviews. The film was condemned as nothing more than an inferior retread, loaded with unnecessary, gratuitous sex and gore. Again, in the summer of E.T., the critics (and audiences) missed the boat. Just like The Thing, Cat People uses its sometimes extreme effects and actions to enhance the tale. In fact, Cat People is even less deserving of such criticism, as its outbursts of violence are fairly sporadic by comparison. Even the sexual component is mild in consideration of other films of the day, and is done in a way that isn’t exploitative. It all fits with the tone of the film, and things rarely stray off course.

But enough about wrongheaded criticism, what really makes the movie special is that, like the original, it establishes a terrific mood. From fantasy images of the early days of the cat people cast in hues of orange, to the shadows of the New Orleans zoo, Schrader provides the viewer with a visual feast. But that’s just half the equation, as the music is also pitch perfect. Composed by Giorgio Moroder (Scarface, Flashdance), the synth-heavy score adds to the sumptuous mood of the film. The only caveat is that Moroder’s style is very 80’s. If that’s not your bag, you may be turned off. On a related note, Moroder teamed with David Bowie to provide the theme song of the film, and it’s one of Bowie’s best!

Last but not least, what makes Cat People a classic in its own right are the performances of the lead characters. Kinski manages to be both vulnerable and dangerous, Malcolm McDowell (wild as always) is menacing yet sympathetic, and John Heard is terrific as the man in the middle of the storm. Added with the modern setting and sensibilities, the film really is a well-conceived update of the original. Aside from the 80’s soundtrack, the film has aged remarkably well . . . and hopefully will someday see a critical reappraisal ala The Thing.





9 comments:

george said...

love me some moroder.

Jim Blanton said...

I'll second that emotion. My personal favorite Moroder moment was his 1984 restoration of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. It takes serious courage to rescore that film with the likes of Billy Squier and Loverboy : )

Pamela K. Kinney said...

Thank you. I loved both versions of Cat People. This is not unlike the erotic paranornals I write as romance author Sapphire Phelan. it's dark and erotic and very well done. One of few remakes that is good as the original.
Pamela K. Kinney

JM said...

Jim -
Since you're talking about the summer of '82, how about a little love for "Poltergeist"? I just took a trip out to the shooting location in Simi Valley... photos on my blog.
Hope you're doing well,
Joe

Jim Blanton said...

Hey Joe!
Oh, I'll definitely be getting to Poltergeist : ) Given my love (mostly) of all pre-Mangler Hooper output it cannot go without mention. I'm sure someone will come up with another title, but at the moment I can't think of a more frightening PG-rated film . . . certainly haunted me as a kid. Plus all the great Hooper/Spielberg controversy!

How cool was seeing those original locations? Did you skateboard through the suburban sprawl with Jerry Goldsmith blaring on your Ipod?

Hope you're doing well also. I've finally recovered (physically) from THB2 : )

Pamela K. Kinney said...

I lived in Santee, California, the town the little girl lived in too. An enjoyable film. But then Speilberg could do good films like that--scary and then with a child-like qwuality too.

Jim Blanton said...

He definitely has his moments. My favorite Spielberg horror entries were his earliest with Duel and Jaws. Those are incredibly intense, and they've aged really well also (at least in terms of generating suspense).

Of course with Poltergeist there's a whole debate over whether it was Spielberg or Tobe Hooper who actually directed the film. You can see bits of both I think, but more on that later . . .

JM said...

No Ipod, but the music was stuck in my head for hours.

I must be the only one who was actually entertained by "The Mangler."

Jim Blanton said...

The Mangler is another film I haven't seen in years. Perhaps I should give it a second look . . . after all, Silver Bullet turned out pretty good : )

I just by default associate it with Hooper's downhill slide post-Cannon (and my less than positive, fuzzy memories). John Muir liked Crocodile from what I recall, which I also still need to see. Although I don't know that I can ever bring myself to watch Hooper's remake of The Toolbox Murders.