We shouldn't just dismiss this as 1980s horseshit, you know. It's directed by Paul Schrader, the writer of Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, American Gigolo and The Last Temptation of Christ. He's an important man in movies. No, we should respect the 1982 Cat People as the work of a serious filmmaker and consider what it has to say, after which we can safely call it boring and stupid.
The biggest question this film raised in my mind was that of whether to throw the DVD in the bin after watching it. There would be no advantage in doing so, since it's merely one of far too many discs in my DVD wallets, but for quite a while it was coming across as worthless enough for there to be no point in keeping it. Eventually I changed my mind. Its ideas just about make it worth hanging on to for the moment, but it'll be top of the list to go should I ever find myself doing another clearout.
Most obviously, it's a 1980s remake of Val Lewton's Cat People. Of all the decades that could have tried to measure up to Lewton's subtlety and understatement, I can't imagine a more hilariously inappropriate choice than the eighties. The original was a huge hit for RKO back in the forties, but the story it depicts is a mind-boggler. A man and a woman settle down to a loving married life together, despite the fact that the wife refuses to sleep with or even kiss her husband. You'd expect him to be going around with balls like watermelons, yet Lewton keeps all sexual tension strictly as subtext and instead keeps us watching the characters' tragically evolving relationships. I remember thinking that it might be interesting to see a sexed-up version of this story that could address all the stuff Lewton couldn't in 1942, so here it is and I was wrong.
There are a few interesting ideas. It had never occurred to me to wonder why the Cat People hadn't died out if they always kill their mates, but this film puts me right. Their answer is both logical and sick. I like it. They also introduce a male Cat Person played by Malcolm McDowell, which is a really clever innovation since it's much more interesting and extreme to show a man who can't have sex without turning into a killer panther than it is to show a woman in the same situation. Men's sex drives work differently. One can easily believe that McDowell's character would go nuts and turn into a monster like this, whereas a woman simply wouldn't do all that. That ended up somewhere pretty extreme, which I thought basically justified the film's existence. There's nothing remotely similar to this in the original Lewton film and it's suggesting all kinds of parallels with the destructive side of male sexuality.
McDowell's giving a better performance than he appears, by the way. He's barely even present in his early scenes, but that's simply being true to the character's mental state. Watch the entire film, then tell me that McDowell's character has even the slightest shred of interest in dinner chit-chat. I think not. There's one shot where he's not even human, simply staring into the mirror like an animal. Him I liked. Note his altar boy hairstyle in the opening scenes, incidentally.
Besides, he's fitting in with a general tone of emotionally distant performances, with the exception of Ruby Dee's vivacious landlady. Nastassja Kinski was nominated for something for her work in the lead role, you know. While I'm looking for good things to say, I also liked the cat transformations. Why do the movies keep doing werewolves when cat people look better? Schrader is also on to a winner with how he's shooting his animals, making the panthers seem impressively dangerous and the other zoo inhabitants seem cute, e.g. the bathing elephant. I was mildly horrified by the brick enclosures that the zoo animals lived in, but this isn't an RSPCA film.
Everything else in the movie is worthless.
Their big mistake is to make the film about sex. Yes, I realise that's why they're doing it in the first place, but sex in itself isn't particularly interesting. Lewton's Cat People is about a woman who can't let herself have sex and yet is married to a man she loves and doesn't want to drive away through being a bad wife to him. Schrader's Cat People is simply about a woman who can't have sex. There's no relationship angle. Nothing's at stake if Kinski doesn't have sex with anyone, since the nearest she has to a boyfriend is the guy she works for (John Heard) who'd like to sleep with her but wouldn't kill himself or anything if he couldn't. On the contrary, the film's working so hard at showing sex with a Cat Person to be dangerous that it doesn't even occur to you that Kinski might jump into bed with someone. When she eventually did, I couldn't see what the hell she was thinking. Did she secretly hate him? What reason did she have for thinking he wasn't about to get carved into sushi? Admittedly in real life sex is often irrational, but not often is it this retarded.
Ironically the film's at its worst when it's being faithful to Lewton. The appearance of the Elizabeth Russell character is so throwaway as to be ridiculous. Someone with no screen presence says something meaningless, then walks out. "WTF?" says the audience, then forgets about her. Then you've got the famous scare scenes of Irena stalking Alice, which Schrader dutifully churns through even though there's no reason for Irena to be doing that. This Alice isn't a threat to her marriage or anything. She's just a friend at work. I suppose it gives us a bit of warning that Irena has for no reason at all turned sexually aggressive and evil, but that's just the scriptwriter turning his protagonist into an idiot because he's realised that in a movie about sex, she should probably be getting some. Sex is required! Brains are not! What happened to Irena to trigger this transformation is that she talked to a dead person and entered a David Bowie music video.
Almost as big a problem is that none of the actors have any chemistry together, which is a bit of a problem in a film that's trying to talk about sex and sexuality. Heard actually bored me. The nearest we get to chemistry is actually in Kinski's scenes with Annette O'Toole, who I got the feeling might have been playing her character as a lesbian when Kinski's around, but as a heterosexual when she's with Heard. There's nothing about this in the script, mind you. It's just a feeling I had.
One name on the credits surprised me, though. The executive producer's Jerry Bruckheimer.
Is this film telling a good story? No. Will it give you a boner? It's showing plenty of flesh, but no. To be honest, I found Kinski sexier when she had her clothes on. Will it scare you? No. I can respect its artistic aspirations, but as far as entertainment value goes this is another load of 1980s horseshit... although having said that, you can't say that something like Taxi Driver is exactly trying to be fun either. Cat People though is also often really boring.