Love, The Lair-ican Style- Cat People (1982): A Love That Could Not Be

How does one put out fire with gasoline? Not very well I would imagine, but that is the suggested method included in David Bowie’s theme song to Paul Schrader’s Cat People. More on that song later, but for now, I want to welcome everyone to the first installment of Love, The Lair-ican Style, four weeks of romances that don’t fit the mushy norm. After all, not everyone wants to watch sappy stuff for Valentine’s Day. I’ll be the first to admit that deep down I’m a big softie. I like to see hearts swell with love, but if they occasionally burst open into a bloody mess that‘s not a bad thing. One of the first movies that came to mind when I thought of this feature was Cat People. While Jacques Tourner’s original 1942 version of Cat People is a certified classic, Paul Schrader hit the mark with the erotic, the gory, the strange, the sick, and the romantic with his 1982 remake.

As the film begins, Irena (Natasha Kinski) arrives in New Orleans to meet her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) who she was separated from when her parents died and they were placed in foster care. Shortly after she arrives, Paul disappears just before a panther is captured in a seedy motel after attacking a prostitute. The panther is taken to the zoo, and while seeing some of the town, Irena is drawn to the zoo and the panther in particular. She meets zoologist Oliver Yates (John Heard) and takes a job working at the zoo. The panther continues its violent behavior and escapes the zoo. Only then does Paul reappear. He reveals to Irena they are both members of a race of cat people, and if she makes love to anyone other than her brother, she will also turn into a vicious cat and the only way to change back is to take a life. Now she must choose between Oliver, the man she loves, and becoming an uncontrollable killer.

The same year that John Carpenter delved back into classic horror for inspiration for his film The Thing, Paul Schrader and writer Alan Ormsby (Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, Popcorn, My Bodyguard) raided producer Val Lewton’s catalog for Cat People (1942). They made quite a few changes, giving the cat people an incestuous back story, amping up the sex and violence, and changing the setting from New York City to New Orleans (Go Saints!), but on the whole, they stayed fairly true to the structure and some of the iconic portions of Tourner’s film. That’s not to say that the two films are not wildly different. After all, the cursed young woman in the 1942 film didn’t spend the last half of the film topless like Ms. Kinksi does, but the remake really gets it right, honoring the original and putting a very modern spin on it.

When it comes to edgy modern spin, there was a time when Paul Schrader was the go to guy. In the early ‘70’s, he made his name with screenplays for films like Taxi Driver, Obsession, and Raging Bull, and then by the end of the decade when he turned to directing, he maintained his edge with films like Hardcore and American Gigolo. By the time the early eighties rolled around, Schrader was on a creative roll, but he was also on a ton of drugs. The director himself even admits to losing a whole day of filming on Cat People because he was too high to come out of his trailer. How he managed to make a film as coherent, interesting, and visually interesting as Cat People is beyond me. Working with cinematographer John Bailey, Schrader captured a melancholy, mysterious feel similar to Tourner’s original and infused an eroticism that made the film his own.

I’m sure many people feel the driving force behind the film’s sexuality is star Natasha Kinski. While Klaus’ daughter is quite lovely, I found her performance much more interesting than her nude scenes. Throughout the film it is really interesting to watch her to see how she subtly incorporated catlike behaviors into her performance. There is only one time that she took it a little too far, and thankfully it was near the end of the film. Otherwise her performance was pitch perfect, and her chemistry with love interest John Heard is wonderful. Their scenes are really the core of the film, and the explorations of the themes of female sexuality are very interesting. Heard’s zoologist Oliver is trained to be able to handle the wildest of beasts, but the panther inside of Irena is beyond his control. By the end of the film, Oliver has no choice but to literally restrain the woman he loves in order to control her wild side. While the message is not delicate, it is well scripted and doesn’t feel either too obtuse or try to beat you over the head with it.

One of the greatest things about Cat People is the supporting cast. Then, as now, if you need someone to be a massive creep in your film, the man to call is Malcolm McDowell. As the crazy eyed, murderous, incest desiring brother Paul, McDowell is the instrument that Schrader used to build tension in the first half of his film, and as usual Malcolm delivered. While many other actors can be creepy, there is a certain look that McDowell can get that will just send shivers up and down your spine, and in Cat People he uses it to full effect. There are several other actors that make brief appearances that are worth mentioning even though they have very small roles in the film. I was happy to spot Ed Begley Jr. (Transylvania 6-5000, Best in Show), John Larroquette (Night Court), Ruby Dee (American Gangster), Ray Wise (Swamp Thing, Twin Peaks, Reaper), and Annette O’Toole (48 Hours, Superman III) all showing up in minor roles.

My first exposure so Schrader’s film came in the mid-eighties through the theme song, Cat People (Putting Out the Fire) by David Bowie. While Bowie recorded the song for the movie, he also laid down a more rocking version for his Let’s Dance album (featuring guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn). The score by Giorgio Moroder was nearly complete when Schrader approached Bowie about adding lyrics to a closing theme that Moroder had already written. Bowie accepted, but the song he penned had precious little to do with the film. Even so it’s tons of fun to think of other things to end the lyric “Putting out fire with gasoline”. My wife and I went back and forth on this for quite some time, and I think my favorite was “Putting out fire with Martin Sheen”. (If you used Charlie, it would no doubt just get worse.) The other interesting thing about the song is that it was the only modern pop song that Tarantino pulled for his film Inglourious Basterds. Used during the theater fire scene, it fit strangely well into the film and felt a little more pertinent than it did in Cat People.

Cat People is a love story, but it’s not without throats getting ripped out and Ed Begley Jr. getting his arm ripped off. It would be 20 years before Schrader had another successful film, 2002’s Auto Focus which also dealt with sexual perversions, and these days he is a director that is somewhat forgotten. Cat People is a film that certainly should not be forgotten. While many will disparage the film in comparison to the original, Schrader’s film stand fully on its own, and it’s the perfect kind of film for those of us who like a like a little bit of guts and gore mixed up in their romance.

Bugg Rating


  1. I'm extremely happy to see this film get a positive review today. All I ever hear is how cruddy it is in comparison to the original, but while it doesn't capture the Lewton's understated horror, to me, it remains a fascinating and surprisingly sexy film in its own right.

  2. I'm glad someone else does like this one. I often hear it poo poohed unfairly, and that's one of the reasons I wanted to review it. Schrader made a good choice taking inspiration from the original film and taking it to another place entirely.

    By the way did you ever listen to the show. It is now available for reals from iTunes btw.

  3. Agreed, they are two completely separate films, but this one is certainly worthy of note. Its sleek and sexy, and McDowell is excellent in the role. Its also nice to see that they took the literal path since the original had left so many ambiguities to the lycanthropic theme.

  4. To me, it's the very essence of what a remake is supposed to do: use the original source material as inspiration, then spin it into something new. It's not competing to be a "better" film, just another take on the initial premise.

    Haven't had a chance to listen yet, but I'm going to aim for tomorrow's subway ride. I normally listen to m podcasts during my work commute, but have been getting rides home lately (wow, that sounded dirty and far more interesting than it really is) but you're top on my list for the next long train ride!

  5. As much as I love Malcolm MacDowell and Nastassia Kinski, this movie just left me cold. The original works because the sexuality is so repressed, and Irina is so out of touch with her sexuality. Without the repression the whole point of the story is lost, and I didn't think Schrader found anything to replace it with.

  6. I like this film quite a bit, and I do think critical opinion is opening up more to it as an original interpretation . . . but I so love the original movie that I've never been able to embrace Schrader's version. I'm amazed at how much scarier the 1942 film is.

  7. My impression of the 1982 version is that it relied too much on having two super-sexy stars, and having Nastassia Kinski take her clothes off a lot. I have nothing against Ms Kinski taking her clothes off, but that's about all it had going for it.

    And as Ryan says, it just isn't scary the way the '42 version is. Perhaps the problem was that while Paul Schrader was a good writer he didn't really have the directing skills, whereas Jacques Tourneur was a superb director. Tourneur also had the advantage of Nick Musuraca as his cinematographer, and cinematographers don't come much better than him.

  8. I always though this film was pretty good. I rented back in the days of VHs and at the time it was really panned by critics. As a director I liked Schrader's Auto Focus and think I will look it up online after this, but I really like his Mishima, about Japanese writer and right wing radical Yukio Mishima, the most. That film also has one of my favorite Philip Glass scores and I think I need to rewatch it as well, and now that I think of it I need to see Cat People again too!


  9. jervaise brooke hamsterFebruary 8, 2010 at 6:55 PM

    Malcolm McDowell is British there-fore by definition he is a pile of garbage.

  10. Wow I am really behind responding to you folks talk about a divisive film.

    @Carl- I agree. Schrader replaced the ambiguity with just the right touch of the erotic. It never feels like SkiniMax, and that's hard to do.

    @Emily- This year I'm really trying to take a side focus on remakes with so many coming out soon. (As usual)This is one of the few really interesting ones.

    @dfordoom I can't disagree with you at all on the merits of Tourneur's film. It is a highly impressive film, and the repression and obfuscation really make the film. But don't be Schrader hater, Hardcore is up on a shortlist of my favorites of all time, he's got some chops even if he is better behind the scenes.

    @Ryan- Again I agree that the 1942 film was scarier, but I don't think Schrader was out to spook his audience even though there is a mild use of gore in the film.

    @Jervais- Alright, I've thought about it forever, and it's going to have to be done. I know you'll love it. Look out for Michael Caine in The Swarm Next week. I'll teach you to appreciate your countrymen yet.

  11. Bugg, I beg you . . . beg you . . . do not do The Swarm. Your life is not worth it! Think a million times before you attempt this. Not even Jerry Goldsmith could help me survive that thing. The scars are deep, I shall never be the same again.

    Don't do that to yourself!

  12. Ryan, maybe I just enjoy pain, but I liked The Swarm!

    "...I never dreamed that it would turn out to be the bees— they've always been our friends!"

  13. jervais"E" brooke hamsterFebruary 9, 2010 at 4:01 PM

    Lightning Bug, if you call up "Monty Pythons: upper class twit of the year sketch" on YouTube (the complete version including the introduction of the contestants before the games begin) you`ll find out where i got my name. By the way, my name is spelt with an "E" JERVAIS"E" and i wish you haden`t reminded me that Michael Caine was in "The Swarm" because thats what will now make it difficult for me to watch, the very fact that he is in the movie not the fact that it is supposedly an appalling film.

  14. @Ryan- Sorry no amount of begging can dissuade me. I'll have to learnt he hard way.

    @dfordoom- We'll see if I agree with you. -

    @ Jervaise- As I own the complete Python I was already aware of where you name came from though I guess I was not aware of how many ''e' I should put in it.

  15. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobFebruary 10, 2010 at 3:47 PM

    lightning Bug, the only Monty Python sketch that still consistantly makes me laugh is Johann Gambolputty (because i`ve always been a big fan of repetition in comedy) but a problem i still have with it is knowing that Graham Chapman was a bloody faggot, that always spoils the sketch a little bit for me (because i`m so murderously homo-phobic as my name would suggest obviously).

  16. jervaise brooke hamsterFebruary 10, 2010 at 3:53 PM

    My favorite bit from this film is where that sexy bird from that episode of Police Squad showed her tits.

  17. I'm always chuffed to read a fair, appreciative review of Schrader's Cat People, so very well done there. The score is grand, Nastassja and Malcolm have unexpected but amazing creepy chemistry despite the unusual character relationship, all the other actors are just absolutely fine, the cinematography is a marvel and it's a wonderful gothic/horror/fantasy film all around. The French seem to like it, which is telling though a generalization.

    I do love Tourneur's Cat People also, but though Simone Simon as fabulous on every level and the story and Tourneur's direction are fully engaging, I must say it doesn't fire on all cylinders for me - at least not to the extent Schrader's does. I definitely wouldn't call it scarier - suspenseful and well crafted, but Tourneur's Night of the Demon chilled me far more. For me, neither version is a truly scary film - both deal with uncomfortable themes and have moody, threatening setpieces, but I don't think the point is to truly frighten in either - scares take a backseat to marriage dynamics, guilt and psycho-sexual repression with Tourneur, and natural identity, inner conflict and sexual love with Schrader.

    I love both.


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