Whether he’s focusing on eroticized violence or masochistic sexual encounters, Paul Schrader has never shied away from exploring the darker side of human nature. Lustful situations often crash into moments of desperate rage, shoving his characters toward a purgatory of uncertainty while making them fully aware of their failures. Schrader’s screenplay for Martin Scrosese’s Taxi Driver and later directing efforts like Hardcore and American Gigolo firmly identify him as one of the seediest auteurs to rise out of the 1970’s New Hollywood, if not the most consistently dirty.
So it comes as no surprise Schrader’s flimsy remake of Jacques Tournuer’s horror masterpiece Cat People deals almost completely with the animal instincts hiding beneath the repressed surface of everyday life. In a strange and awkwardly shot prologue, Schrader stylizes the sexual origin of the Cat People by glimpsing the sacrificial joining of man and beast through a clay red vision of Mesopotamian brutality. Schrader then dissolves from the glaring eyes of a Black Leopard to the equally studied pupils of Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) arriving in modern day New Orleans, a graphic match foreshadowing the long-lasting torment to come.
Irena’s feline lineage, represented through the menacing stare of new found brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell), wreaks havoc on her quest to find some normalcy amidst the glitz and grime of The Big Easy. Apparently siblings are the only “true” mate for the Cat People and Paul has been waiting a long time for a shot at love. To confuse the matter even more, John Heard plays curious and passionate zoo curator Oliver Yates, who entices Irena away from her concealed instincts, much to the chagrin of Paul’s grizzly advances.
It’s clear early on Schrader’s vision isn’t too concerned with story or pacing, but with extreme visual and audible stimulation. Bloody wounds and screams of the nightlife become the motifs that define Cat People. The pain of rebirth comes to represent both the beginning and destruction of physical love. Gone are Tournuer’s brilliant use of off screen space and stylish black and white images, replaced by a typical 80’s synthesizer score and lambasting blue and red hues highlighting a world consumed with deceit. Irena’s sexual awakening seems more symbolic of a director obsessed with his subject’s image rather than her plight as a dimensional character.
But the film still has a daring flare to it that raises it up from the depths of trashy camp. The kinetic filmmaking undoubtedly pops during a few scenes, like when Irena makes her first kill deep in the swamplands and returns to Oliver bloodied and confused, very much a woman on the verge of something terrible. It’s a haunting moment of clarity surrounded by glossy fluff.
For all it’s over the top characterizations and meandering musings, Schrader’s Cat People does serve as an interesting link in his long chain of work dealing with sexual comeuppance. In the end, danger is never far from the bedroom. However, aside from the occasional filmmaking virtuosity, the film rides a swirl of eroticism right into the ground, making one yearn for the mystery and horror of the original. One thing’s for certain. No one will ever confuse Paul Schrader with Jacques Tournuer.