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A Reassessment File by Paul McMahon – The Distracted Critic

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Summer vacation during the Eighties. With our parents at work for the day, we would spend the occasional afternoon watching a parentally unapproved movie on cable. I had a neighbor over on this particular rainy afternoon, and we looked in the Cable Guide to discover this movie was about people that transformed into cats. It sounded pretty cool, so we started CAT PEOPLE (1982) and were blown away at first by Nastassja Kinski, then by the very realistic-looking gore, then by the sheer amount of nudity toward the end. At one point my neighbor asked: “Doesn’t anybody wear underpants in this movie?”

While the gore was cool, I wasn’t impressed by the transformations. To my memory, all of them happened off-screen. Apparently if they had sex they turned into cats, but if they killed they turned back into people? It didn’t make sense to me back then, and I would give the memory of it a knife for the gore effects (and tearing Ed Begley Jr.’s arm off) and another half star for a kick-ass David Bowie song. ( EDITOR’S NOTE: The song is “Putting Out Fire with Gasoline,” which also pops up in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLORIUS BASTERDS, and there’s an alternate, very different version of the song on his album Let’s Dance. To find the definitive version of the song – go to the CAT PEOPLE soundtrack  ~ LLS)

We open on a red-hued set, barren sand, occasional stones and a single large tree. Cave people, Neanderthals or some other kind of movie primitives inhabit the area and they tie a young girl to the tree. A black leopard comes to her, and there’s music and intensity that conveys the message that “something important is happening.” Then we see Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, 1976) get off a plane in New Orleans to be picked up by her brother, Paul Gallier (Malcolm McDowell, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, 1971, and more recently in ANTIVIRAL, 2012, which you need to go see if you haven’t yet), who she’s never met. He’s creepy, stands way too close to her and obviously wants sex. She ignores his advances.

Malcom McDowell brings the ultra-creepy to Paul Schrader's CAT PEOPLE. reassessment of cat people 1982 CAT PEOPLE (1982) - A "Reassessment File" CP Malcom

Malcom McDowell brings the ultra-creepy to Paul Schrader’s CAT PEOPLE.

We see a prostitute enter a hotel room, late because she had to find a babysitter. She teases the man in the bathroom until she puts her hand in a mess on the bed. The black leopard comes out from beneath the bed, intent on killing her, but she escapes. By the time the sun comes up, workers from the New Orleans zoo come to collect the cat, which is still hiding under the bed. We meet Oliver Yates (John Heard, HOME ALONE, 1990, C.H.U.D. , 1984), who climbs a ladder with a tranquilizer gun to subdue the leopard through the window. The cat attacks, almost knocking him off the ladder, but eventually he succeeds and they cage up the leopard in their zoo.

Irena can’t find her brother. His housekeeper says he’ll be gone all day and sends her to explore the city on her own. She is drawn to the New Orleans zoo, then makes her way to the big cat cages, where she can’t stop staring at their new black leopard. Meanwhile Oliver fights to obtain money to care for the new cat. After the zoo closes, Oliver finds Irena still staring at the leopard. He startles her, chases her, and takes her to dinner, and offers to get her a job in the gift shop.

Nastassja Kinski, a beauty whose quiet naiveté hides a dark, hereditary secret. reassessment of cat people 1982 CAT PEOPLE (1982) - A "Reassessment File" CP Nastassja

Nastassja Kinski, a beauty whose quiet naiveté hides a dark, hereditary secret.

After her first day, Oliver’s co-worker, Alice Perrin (Annette O’Toole, STEPHEN KING’S “IT, 1990), takes Irena out for drinks, even though it’s obvious Alice has a big-time crush on Oliver. A strange lady calls Irena “my sister” in French and then walks away. The very next afternoon, the black leopard goes crazy and rips the arm off zookeeper Joe Creigh (Ed Begley Jr., TRANSYLVANNIA 6-5000 1985), then disappears from the cage before Oliver can shoot it.

Irena returns home that night to discover her creepy brother Paul has returned. He says he’s been in jail and immediately starts trying to have sex with her again.

This movie is a remake of a much better film by (producer) Val Lewton (and director Jacques Tourneur) from 1942. Paul Schrader (who wrote the screenplays for the Martin Scorsese movies TAXI DRIVER, 1976 and RAGING BULL, 1980) got the directing job here on the heels of two well-received films, HARDCORE (1979), and AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980). It’s a pretty sure bet that he was angling to be considered a serious director, and doing a horror movie wasn’t something he wanted on his resume. To combat that, he attempted to take all the horror elements out and make a cerebral piece about the differences between familial relationships and the relationships we choose. The problem with his strategy is, horror stories are almost never improved by hiding away the horror (a lesson we recently learned from Mike Nichols’ 1994 attempt, WOLF).

John Heard, Ed Begley Jr. and Annette O'Toole are the human pieces in a larger, darker game. reassessment of cat people 1982 CAT PEOPLE (1982) - A "Reassessment File" CP Zookeepers

John Heard, Ed Begley Jr. and Annette O’Toole are the human pieces in a larger, darker game.

The way Schrader uses incidental dialogue to introduce important plot points without calling attention to them reminded me of Robert Altman’s style. Every scene seems fluid, as if each one fell together organically without anyone actually trying to construct a story. The end result is that Schrader seems to believe we have a lot more information than we actually do. When it is finally revealed that this small race of beings do, in fact, become cats if they have sex with a human, only to turn back to their human form once they kill someone, we’ve already pieced it together and begrudge the time it takes to spell the whole scenario out. By that time all we want to know is why Paul Gallier wants to have sex with his sister, but that answer isn’t made obvious.

The acting is fine throughout, though I wish they’d given Nastassja Kiniski more to do in the second half of the film. Halfway through she stops being a fully alive character and becomes stage dressing, walking around naked and barely interacting with anyone else. There are bit parts played by Ruby Dee (Mother Abigail in the TV miniseries of Stephen King’s THE STAND, 1994), Scott Paulin (PUMP UP THE VOLUME, 1990), Frankie Faison (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, 1991), Lynn Lowry (both versions of THE CRAZIES, 1973 & 2010), and John Larroquette (TV’s NIGHT COURT, and the narrator of both versions of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, 1974 & 2003), but no one is used to their full potential here.

CAT PEOPLE loses its purpose midway through, and isn’t able to right itself before the credits roll. At least you get a great David Bowie song, though.

I’d recommend seeing the original CAT PEOPLE from 1942 instead.

Original assessment: one and a half knives.

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Reassessment: one knife.

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© Copyright 2014 by Paul McMahon

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