Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cat People (1982)

Forty years after the original 1942 Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur under the guidance of sophisticated horror producer Val Lewton, Paul Schrader remade the seminal horror classic. Schrader's Cat People nods to the original in many ways, following its basic premise and even recreating a few key scenes in homage to Lewton's shadowy, evocative horror, but in most ways it's quite a different work. Schrader minimizes the horror of the premise, pushing it even further into the background than Lewton, who often used his horror frameworks as mere excuses to explore deeper subtexts, ever did. Schrader is interested in the baroque eroticism of the story more than anything: the idea that there exist people who, when they make love, are transformed into vicious black leopards, and must kill before they can resume their human forms. Schrader uses this outlandish set-up to create a lush, absurd, sexually ripe film in which sex is dangerous and shiver-inducing, in which the promise of release carries with it an electric charge of terror.

Nastassja Kinski, as the virginal young Irena, is perfectly suited to this aspect of Schrader's vision; she brings to the film a raw, sultry sensuality that convincingly conveys the impression that she might bite or claw you at any moment, as easily as she might kiss you. At the film's opening, she has come to New Orleans to visit her long-estranged brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell, radiating nearly as much deadly energy as Kinski), since the pair were raised in separate foster homes after the death of their parents when they were very young. Schrader gets a lot of mileage out of these two, particularly from the weird sexual tension between them, as Paul insists that they need to make love, that in fact they can only make love with one another. The film sets up a divide between the strange sensuality of Paul and Irena and the ordinary world, as represented by the zoo where Paul, in leopard form, is captured for a time, and where Irena gets a job thanks to the zoo's curator Oliver (John Heard), who falls in love with her as soon as he sees her. As in the original film, Irena's otherworldly sexual energy is juxtaposed against the girl-next-door appeal of Oliver's co-worker and current girlfriend Alice (Annette O'Toole), who wears braids and is girly and playful, a stark contrast to the simmering, pouty Irena.

It's a familiar dichotomy, the good girl and the bad girl, the familiar and the foreign. In the original film, it was the fear of literal foreignness that Lewton was exploring, but here it's a more metaphysical fear/attraction to the unknown, the mysterious and frightening. The film alternates this blossoming sexual tension with dark humor and moments of suspense and horror, but Schrader never really tries to resolve the film's different moods and modes into a coherent whole. Instead, the goofy humor — like an ape intently watching a TV soap opera, or an eccentric cab driver who suggests that the only zoo worth visiting is the Bronx Zoo — is allowed to jar uncomfortably against the truly grisly bursts of gore and the open sexuality. This becomes especially apparent when a zoo orderly, the primary fount of comic relief in the film's first half, meets a particularly gory end in the jaws of the leopard.

The film lopes along after this, its plot never quite making sense, and never seeming to care whether it does or not. Schrader is more concerned with making individual scenes vibrate and throb with the potential of violence or sexual bliss, and whether it all fits together in the end is at best a secondary concern. Paul drifts in and out of the film at will, lurking in the shadows, watching from the trees, smashing through windows and finally being killed and reborn in a way that evokes David Cronenberg's body horror effects — a loose end that's never picked up again as the film focuses more singularly on Irena in its latter stretches. There's something feral and frightening about Irena, virginal and yet so sensuous, even (or especially) when her mouth is smeared with blood. Once she accepts her nature, Kinski plays Irena as though she's constantly stalking her prey, even in human form; her walk, her posture, the expressions on her face become cat-like. Even her sexuality becomes predatory, and she manages to make disrobing seem like a threat, slinking through the shadows, the muscles in her back twitching as though she might pounce at any moment.

In making the film all about mood, about the resonances of the underlying themes, Schrader is in some respects drawing on the example of Lewton, whose films always made the tangible horror secondary to the psychological and emotional subtexts of the stories. Schrader's film draws on the original Cat People in more direct ways, too, with homages to specific scenes. Of these, the most obvious is the famous pool scene, which Schrader recreates more or less intact: a young woman taking a swim when the lights go out, and she hears noises in the darkness suggesting a big cat stalking around the borders of the pool. This is Schrader's most complete tribute to Lewton, beautifully capturing the edgy and haunting atmosphere of the original, heightened here by the lovely green and blue hues of the lighting, and adding a hint of sexual frisson as the topless Alice floats in the center of the pool, bare and vulnerable in the gloom. That's yet another contrast: Schrader makes the pale, fleshy Alice seem soft and prey-like in her nakedness, whereas when Irena takes off her clothes she only becomes more predatory, as when she takes a naked stroll through the woods and winds up on all fours, chasing a rabbit with a hungry gleam in her eyes. This dichotomy suggests the two dominant tropes of movie femininity, the woman as victim and the woman as dangerous femme fatale; Schrader doesn't so much investigate these opposing stereotypes as present them in their raw form, for equal parts contemplation and delectation.

Schrader's other tributes to Lewton are more matter-of-fact, like the sinister and cat-like woman who addresses Irena as a sister and then disappears from the film, a source of unresolved mystery just as the similar figure was in the Lewton Cat People. Schrader's tribute to the famous bus scene in the original is the only homage that falls flat, that sticks out as a naked tribute and nothing more, because Schrader can't recreate the sudden thrill of terror that Lewton achieved just by having a bus abruptly stop in front of a fleeing young woman, making a noise very much like a leopard's growl. In most other ways, though, Schrader doesn't even try to compete with Lewton, a wise move since the original Cat People is a near-perfect horror film, a rich and evocative work that maintains its ability to elicit deep chills even today. Schrader's film, despite its obvious debt to the original, strikes out in a different direction, amplifying the sexuality and violence underlying the original story, allowing these dangerous forces free reign. If the resulting film is messy and jagged, with loose ends dangling shredded and bloody as though a leopard had taken a big meaty bite out of the script, that's to be expected from such a raw work. Schrader risks, and occasionally falls headfirst into, silliness and tackiness in order to get at the silly, risky, frightening, exciting feelings of love and lust.


Scare Sarah said...

It's a pretty good version. Lots of good imagery and still quite spooky. Great write up.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Very nice Ed. I am a big fan of this version so it was nice to read such a well-written and informed piece on it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

It certainly holds you attention, but there's a rela problem in this rendition. The whole point of Lewton is making a small budget go as far as it can. Schrader had sky's-the-limit budget for the remake. This results in some haunting moments. Shots of cats walking about in a beautifully colored dreamscpe suggest Vincente Minneli on really good acid. Kinski is of course perfect. And she and McDowell do a great "Les Enfants Terribles" act. But the sense of surprise just ins't there. I think it might have worked better had Cronenberg idrected Paul's script.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sarah and Jeremy!

David, it's true that, as a Lewton adaptation, it falls short of the original by far, but then what wouldn't? It makes little attempt at horror, little attempt at matching Lewton's mastery of shadowy suspense. Instead it's big and lurid and messy, packed with haunting moments and weird psychosexual subtexts. Yeah, it's far from perfect, and Cronenberg, as always for this kind of project, might have done better, but it's a pretty interesting and effective film in its own right anyway.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Paul's quite a fascinating figure. As a screenwriter he did all the heavy lfiting on Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ -- enabling Marty to skate stylistically though. Taxi Driver is a special case. Mrty considers it Paul's film with him merey the metteur en scene.
Of Paul's own films Fernando Scarfiotti is the auteur of American Gigolo in many ways. Though it also established Paul's position as a "Fag Stag." He's one of those very rare straight men fascinated by "the gay world" (such as it is.) This was in many ways behind Mishima (though it doens't figure much in the narrative fragments as such) but really comes through in his best films as writer-director, Light Sleeper and The Walker

Tony Dayoub said...

"Schrader uses this outlandish set-up to create a lush, absurd, sexually ripe film in which sex is dangerous and shiver-inducing, in which the promise of release carries with it an electric charge of terror."

Your statement about the film, and Mr. Ehrenstein's characterization of Schrader as a "Fag Stag" both seem to be a reaction to/result of Schrader's Calvinist Christian upbringing. It has always fascinated me how he wrestles with his deep-seated fascination/repulsion with sexuality so publicly through his films.

CMrok93 said...

It's creepy, and has some very freaky images hat stick in your mind even after it's over.