7 July 2009 | Quinoa1984
on its own terms it's 'moody', creepy, and also campy
What made Paul Schrader tackle this production I'm not sure. In a year when John Carpenter was doing his rendition of the short story, not even entirely so much the film, of The Thing, Schrader and his screenwriter decided to go back to the source of one of those stories no one really reads but pretends they have when in reality it's the original film everyone remembers. But this is an opposite case of Carpenters: where the original The Thing was, arguably, not really the masterpiece everyone remembers (albeit influential), the remake truly was. Jacques Tourner and Val Lewton crafted one of those quintessential horror films that scares precisely because how little we see of the actual panther on camera, while Schrader's film, actually, isn't a masterpiece of horror, not quite close at all really. And it's not even because Schrader decided to show the cat on screen, many times over (maybe it's a leopard, they look similar but it's closer to panther to me).
No, it's a different film due to permissiveness of the time period (it's the 80s vs the 40s, so this time we get plenty of nudity, "bad" language, and the Giorgio Moroder musical accompaniment which has dated pretty terribly), and with its subject matter being far more based on the romantic than in the original film. It's a strange effort this Cat People, where incest even comes into question (or rather it's right out in the open, at least between the two parties), the look and feel of New Orleans and the Bayou becomes another character, and the characterizations become enhanced by the mere presence of Malcolm McDowell's inimitable face and Nastassja Kinski's irrepressible sexual charisma on camera. Not to say she can't act, since she can hold her own very well even when she's seemingly doing not much except walking naked through a field at night or, um, walking naked in a room or, you know, not naked in a swimming pool.
How much is actually taken from the original Tourner film or the short story I really can't say for certain. The pool scene is the only one I can recall specifically lifted from the original (and, not too sorry to say, 42 for the win on that one). But comparisons can get too petty in this instance, perhaps, since Schrader's goal is to analyze the characters in this setting, what sex and desire and the psychology of a were-cat does to a person, or to people who realize what they're capable of, as opposed to just simple horror. Schrader's direction has some genuine moments of thrill, or just plain artistic satisfaction, like a not-so simple composition of a tracking shot of one of the hookers walking along on a street at night at her foot level. I'm even reminded of De Palma, whom Schrader worked with once before.
But at the same time, for all of the versatility of the actors, and the occasional moments of surreal imagination, there's also much camp as well (Ed Begley's character's fate for example) and a few really cheesy parts or just scenes that don't work or, perhaps, are too saddled with a need to push the button of sex on film. It's a hot number that works well, more or less, and would take a deeper analysis to dissect than I can give it right now. It's respectable, at the least.