Monday, April 18, 2011

Movie Monday: Cat People

For this week's Movie Monday we snuggle up alongside some Cat People!

I vaguely remember seeing Cat People once on cable when I was a kid; since then I allowed the general consensus on the film--that it's a deeply flawed film that can't hold a candle to the original--to shape my view of it every time I saw it mentioned.

But I figured why not give it another shot?
Cat People opens in some unknown place and time, where a barren landscape seems to be populated only by large, fearsome cats and a small band of tribal people:
These shots are quite beautiful; scary and menacing. I couldn't help but think they probably cost more than the entire 1943 original movie.

Anyway, we view some sort of sacrificial ritual going on, where a beautiful woman is put in front of a large, growling cat. Nothing is said, but you don't get the sense that this whole thing is not about the woman being used as food.

We fade from the woman's face to another face, this time belonging to Irena (Nastassja Kinski):
Irena is on her way to New Orleans, to visit her brother Paul, whom she has not seen since their parents died and she was sent off to a foster home.

Paul (Malcolm McDowell) is warm and friendly, as his housekeeper Female (yes, that's her name, played by Ruby Dee). But after Irena falls asleep, Paul leaves:
We cut to a seedy motel where a prostitute meets up with a prospective "John". She undresses, but instead of a man waiting for her under the bed is a leopard! It grabs at her, chasing her down the hall.

She falls down the stairs, and turns to look at her attacker. There's a moment where the woman's bra pops open, which made me laugh because it looked so gratuitous. Probably not the reaction the filmmakers were looking for at this moment.

A few hours later, the police and local zookeepers arrive, seeing as how somehow there's a leopard pacing around a motel room! The head zookeeper, a man named Oliver (John Heard) climbs up a ladder and shoots a tranquilizer dart into the leopard.

The next day, Irena finds herself outside the leopard's cage, and that's where she meets Oliver. He is immediately taken with her, and offers her a job at the zoo's gift shop. They go on a semi-date where Irena is receptive but also guarded and sad.

After the leopard mauls another zoo worker by ripping its arm off, it escapes. Soon after, Paul reappears, telling his sister the truth about their family: they are were-cats--half-human, half-leopard. They can only mate with their own kind (ewwww!), for if they don't they transform and end up killing their lovers. Only by practicing incest are their transformations kept at bay.

As you might imagine, Irena is less than thrilled to hear this, and takes off to go on a getaway with Paul at a small cabin. They almost make love, but Irena calls it off. After Oliver falls asleep, Irena goes outside to hunt (getting fully naked in the process). She attacks a rabbit, and next we see her, its during the film's one genuinely scary moment that wasn't directly inspired by the original. Oliver wakes up when he hears a noise, and turns on a light, only to see:
Irena screams, smacking the lamp to the ground, returning the scene to total darkness. Its a great "jump" moment, probably the best scare scene in the movie.

Paul decides to kill Oliver so he can have Irena for himself, but Oliver is waiting for him and shoots him. When Oliver does an autopsy on the cat, he cuts it open to find just Paul's severed arm inside.

(There's an interesting little goof during this scene: as Heard slides the real-life leopard onto the autopsy table, he lets its head bang on the metal table a little too hard. If you listen closely, you can hear a crew member exclaim "Easy!" to Heard)

Irena is now trapped: without Paul, she will now turn into a leopard if she ever makes love, which means she will have to kill to become human again. Irena does eventually make love with Oliver, and she does indeed turn into a leopard. She leaves Oliver, turning to killing the cabin's crusty inkeeper to revert.

In a scene that doesn't make a whole lot of sense dramatically, Irena stalks Alice (Annette O'Toole) who works with Paul at the zoo. Its a direct recreation of the pool scene from the original, except for the fact we see O'Toole naked:
Like I said, the scene doesn't really make a lot of sense in this context: as a human, Irena is quiet and sad, but here she stalks Alice like a serial killer, suddenly becoming the heavy. But any scene that features the adorable Annette O'Toole topless is not going to generate a lot of criticism from this reviewer.

Oliver discovers that Irena has killed, and she begs him to let her "be with her own." Oliver ties Irena to the bed, and makes love to her, knowing this will trigger a final transformation.

Time passes, and we find Oliver back at the zoo, now in a relationship with Alice.He wanders by the leopard cage, and stares into the cat's eyes:
He reaches in, and strokes its fur. The cat responds, and in this quiet moment the film ends.

Watching Cat People again after so long, I was surprised that I liked it as much as I did. In the commentary track by director Paul Schrader, he admits the film is more of a "sex movie" than a horror film during the second half, and he's right: Kinski is constantly taking off her clothes, and there really aren't too many genuine scares.

The film is a remake in only the loosest sense: it features the core characters from the original (Irena, Oliver, Alice), and a few set pieces, but most of them are in a very different context (though Schrader does use the Val Lewton-inspired "bus" gag to drum up a simultaneous laugh and scare). This Cat People is trying to tell a very different story than the original.

All in all, I enjoyed Cat People a lot: it goes on a little too long and doesn't quite hang together (this film is almost double the length of the original), but the performances are good and it kept me engaged. So its reputation as a failure or cheap knock-off isn't really deserved.

Its funny to ponder that, even amid all the periods where Hollywood has gone remake or sequel-crazy (a period we're going through right now), only one of Val Lewton's 11 horror films have ever been remade. There's been talk of redoing I Walked With A Zombie, but so far only Cat People has ever undergone the remake treatment.

Maybe if the film had been a bigger hit we would have been "treated" to a slew of Lewton remakes, filled with sex and gore. But for now, Cat People remains an interesting asterisk to Lewton's legendary career.

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