Director Paul Schrader is best known for writing the story for the acclaimed 1976 film "Taxi Driver." Schrader adapted the novels "The Mosquito Coast" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" for the big screen as well. His work behind the camera has not been as widely accepted, with only "American Gigolo" being memorable to audiences. Schrader's gained some notoriety in recent years after his version of "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist" was initially shelved and then released to DVD after Renny Harlin's version was universally panned by critics and audiences. While Schrader typically writes novels based on seedy subculture, his directorial career has reached more genres and his remake of the 1942 film "Cat People" was the first horror film tackled by the writer director.
"Cat People" benefits from a familiar ensemble cast. Lead actress Nastassja Kinski was popular at the time after winning a Golden Globe for her performance in Roman Polanski's "Tess." Veteran actor Malcolm McDowell had previously starred in a number of films including the controversial films "A Clockwork Orange" and "Caligula." John Heard, Ruby Dee, Ed Begley Jr., John Larroquette, Annette O'Toole and Ruby Dee are other familiar faces who have starring roles or bit parts in "Cat People." O'Toole had been seen the previous year in "48 Hours." John Larroquette had a role in the comedy hit "Stripes" and Ruby Dee had been making films for decades. To add to the relative starpower of "Cat People," singer David Bowie performed the title song, which won two awards for composer Giorgio Moroder.
The film is about a young woman, Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski), who travels to New Orleans to be reunited with her long lost brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell). When she arrives in New Orleans, she discovers that Paul is a local minister and is introduced to their housekeeper Female (Ruby Dee). Irena was separated from Paul when their parents were killed by one of the wild animals they trained. The first couple of days Irena spends with Paul are exciting for the young woman and Paul reminds her of some of the fun memories they had as children. He sings and juggles balls, rekindling her memories of her brother and her parents. However, after just a couple of days, Paul disappears and his whereabouts are completely unknown to Female or the church where Paul works. Irena is worried for her brother, but continues to take in the sites of New Orleans.
Paul's disappearance is due to the simple fact that he is really a large black cat that transforms into his native state after sexual encounters. Normally, this could be considered a major spoiler, but considering the film is called "Cat People" and it works hard to let the audience know that Paul is the big cat. He becomes a captive feline at the zoo where Oliver Yates (John Heard) serves as curator and works with zoologist Alice Perrin (Annette O'Toole) and Joe Creigh (Ed Begley, Jr.). Bronte Johnson (John Larroquette) is a concerned official who demands that the unruly disposition of the black cat result in the animal's destruction. During Irena's journeys around the city of New Orleans, she finds herself visiting the decrepit and run down zoo. She also discovers her brother Paul and feels a connection for the large black cat, but doesn't realize that it is her brother. While sketching the cat after the business hours of the zoo, she is chased and romanced by Oliver Yates.
Time passes and "Cat People" struggles to become either a horror film or a movie with a twisted web of romance. Alice is certainly in love with Oliver and tries to protect him and win his heart. She is threatened by Irena. Irena, on the other hand has fallen for Oliver and the curator easily returns the favors and they begin to have a sensual and heated romance. Unfortunately, Irena cannot giver herself sexually to Irena. Where the love web becomes troublesome is that Paul desperately needs to have sex with his sister. For Irena is the only girl he may make love to without falling prey to the curse of returning to his cat form. He chases Irena wherever her and Paul try to hide and continually tries to talk Irena into becoming his sibling lover. So much of the plot of "Cat People" finds Alice and Irena loving Oliver with consequences and Paul and Oliver loving Irena with even more consequences. Personally, I would have snatched up Alice in a heartbeat.
There is a little horror contained within "Cat People" as Paul and Irena struggle with their own jealousy and feline form. Paul mauls a prostitute before he is captured and then tears the arm from poor Ed Begley, Jr. during a routine visit to the big cat's cage. Irena's sexual drive forces her to go primal and she tears into the flesh of a cute and innocent bunny rabbit. The best scene in the film finds Alice swimming in a pool, in the nude, and knowing that Irena lurks in the shadows and desperately wants to kill her. A large, man killing cat can be frightening enough, but when it is a jealous female looking to wipe out the very attractive competition, that is an entirely different ballgame. You never do get a sense of Irena's intentions until the end of the film and that keeps the audience guessing and provides a few chills. As a thriller, "Cat People" is far more effective than owing up to its tagline of "An erotic fantasy about the animal in all of us."
Perhaps it is the decade in which the film was produced, but in today's world, "Cat People" does not feel overly erotic. The film becomes a little playful right before Malcolm McDowell's character decides he is hungry. It is difficult for something to be erotic when the only thing running through a viewer's mind is "Yeah, she is raw meat right after intercourse!" The tension between John Heard and Nastassja Kinski's characters prevents any romantic feelings as well. I'm not sure if the erotic tagline was to capitalize on McDowell's performance in "Caligula" or if this film was truly considered racy in 1982. I felt it was a little flat (and I'm not directly referring to Nastassja Kinski's figure) in the erotic department and lacked any romantic feelings as well. Sex only served as a method of prepping a fresh meal in "Cat People."
"Cat People" wasn't a bad film. It is marred by the sensibilities and style of the early Eighties. The naïve nature of Irena becomes tiring after a while. I can understand a girl isolated from the rest of the world not being street savvy, but she acts like a young child for much of the film. I'm puzzled at how Oliver could choose her over Alice. Malcolm McDowell is always entertaining and is as such in "Cat People," but in a creepy way. The film moves along at a comfortable pace and provides a little edge-of-the-seat tension. Aside from the Alice vs. Irena question, I found myself wandering two things: #1. Will Oliver get eaten by a big black cat? #2. Will Irena finally sleep with poor Oliver? Both questions are answered in due time and kept me guessing. The answer to #2 provided an interesting little plot twist towards the end and it appeared that Alice did finally get her man after Irena was taken out of the picture. The acting was good and I enjoyed seeing so many faces before time began to take its toll. When it comes to early Eighties cult horror films, I'd prefer to sit down with "Wolfen" over "Cat People," but it would be a close call.
"Cat People" appears to be a port of the most recent DVD release of the film. I do not own a copy of that particular disc, but I can safely say the resolution and coloring of "Cat People" is subpar when compared to most of Universal's other HD-DVD catalog titles. The 1.85:1 film is mastered with the VC-1 codec at 1080p resolution and looks fine considering the age of the film, but this is one of the least impressive HD-DVD titles I've seen from the studio in quite a while. The film is grainy and lacking in detail. Some scenes were quite detailed, but there were a number of very soft scenes contained in the film. Colors look dated and are plagued by an overly warm palette. Fleshtones had a sunburn-like quality to them through much of the film. Black levels were somewhat weak and shadow detail was an issue. Grain was quite visible when the film was at its darkest. I saw a little pixilation during scenes where lighting was low. Thankfully, the source materials were in decent shape.
I watched Universal's "The Kingdom" on the same night I watched "Cat People" and was disappointed by that film's lack of a TrueHD track and felt it was weak when compared to other recent Universal A-List titles. "Cat People" includes a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack, but it is horribly flat and uninteresting to the ears. Bass response is light. The rear surrounds are used sporadically and are transparent for most of the film. The center channel is the busiest speaker and nicely anchors the film's vocals. The left and right channels handle a few ambient effects, as well as the Eighties musical score. David Bowie's singing is muted and the title song is another flat sounding element of the transfer. Dialogue during "Cat People" is weaker than average, but there were only a few lines I struggled to hear.
There are a few bonus features contained on the "Cat People" HD-DVD release. The extra materials have been culled from the previous DVD special edition and have not been given the high definition treatment. The offerings start off with Cat People: An Intimate Portrait by Paul Schrader (25:22). The flu-ridden director didn't seem too happy to reminisce about his film and allow he wasn't the happiest person to interview, the director does offer some very nice details about his film. Schrader talks about how he became attached to the project and then about his personal feelings towards remaking "Cat People." Schrader continues kicking the kids off his lawn with a Feature Commentary with Director Paul Schrader. The commentary is more informative than the half-hour interview, but after sitting through the first supplement, I could not find the inner strength to endure the full commentary. Much of the same information is provided, but with a little more depth.
The supplements get a little shorter after the two principle bonus materials featuring the film's director. On the Set with Director Paul Schrader (10:21) is a vintage EPK interview with the director. I have a feeling Schrader was a huge Marlon Brando film with his vocal delivery and attitude, but the glasses didn't help him out much. Schrader really does not say much of anything about his film and aside from his Brando impression, there is little reason to watch this horrid interview. After the supplements contained on this disc, I'm not much of a Paul Schrader fan when it comes to interviews with the talented scribe. The Special Makeup Effects by Artist Tom Burman (11:16) is a recent discussion with the artist who created the cat effects. This was perhaps the best supplement on the disc and I enjoyed hearing Burman's thoughts towards the cat transformation. A series of Cat People Matte Paintings (3:11) end the offerings on the first page of bonus materials.
Three more supplements are found on the second vertical page under the "Special Features" menu selection. Filmmaker Robert Wise on the Producer of the Original Cat People - Val Lewton (3:28) is a very short segment finds legendary director Robert Wise briefly talking about Val Lewton and shows his admiration for the low-budget horror director. This was a very nice little chat with Robert Wise and he is certainly a better interview subject than Paul Schrader. A few Production Photographs (6:46) are set to David Bowie's theme song and plays as a slideshow. If you enjoy Bowie, this is a quality recording of his song. Finally, the film's Theatrical Trailer is included. I was far from floored by the quality of the bonus materials, but considering this is not one of Universal's better catalog titles, it is not bad.
"Cat People" is one of those catalog titles that seems to be a puzzling choice for HD-DVD. Given the large catalog of Universal films, I'm not sure why this title was chosen. It seems almost dumped to the format with a barely better than DVD soundtrack and video presentation. The supplements were directly ported from the DVD release. The supplements themselves are dreadful and barely worth watching. The film itself doesn't offer much more reason to purchase the title, aside from those that are true fans of the cult film. There are far better Malcom McDowell pictures out there. I'm not suggesting something craptacular like "2103: The Deadly Wake," but another HD-DVD title such as "A Clockwork Orange." "Cat People" isn't the worst film and there are some entertaining moments, but there are just so many better choices out there to make.