Cat People (1982)

Directed by Paul Schrader

Have you ever wondered how it might feel to make love to a black leopard? In "Cat People," one more or less finds out.

"Cat People" is one more in a series of updated horror films that have had a renaissance in the contemporary cinema. Although it boasts Malcolm McDowell and Nastassia Kinski in the starring roles, "Cat People" (a remake of the 1942 film of the same name) fails to add any original material to the horror genre.

The film suffers from a case of split personality and ends up with two half-baked versions of what it wants to be. The storyline is basically hackneyed: an unknown tribe of fanatical animal worshipers—large cats in this case—becomes extinct, except for one brother and sister separated at birth who finally meet some time in their mid-20s. Brother thinks the only way to save their dead race is by an incestuous relationship, and when his sister refuses, he goes on a rampage. Having numerous one-night-stands, he mauls his victims after transforming into a black leopard.

The plot does not twist very much and it is easy to keep one step ahead. But the director, Paul Schrader (author of "Taxi Driver" and "Blue Collar"), cares more about style than function and lets the film meander. In order to let the film fully develop, Schrader shapes it around the basic principles of a cat and lets it adapt accordingly. The scenes naturally creep by, the score glides across the action effortlessly and the chase scenes flex and retract with a grasping rhythm. With the synthesizer work of Giorgio Moroder ("Midnight Express"), an almost fluid feeling of anticipated fear is laced through each scene and very comfortably compliments the real stars of the film: the camera and the visual effects. Black and red are the two colors the camera is fond of, which intensify as soon as they are noticed. When Annette O’Toole goes for an after-hours swim at the Y and the lights mysteriously go out, the cat seems to pace alongside the pool even though it is pitch black. And when the blood flows onto the floor of the zoo, the cat claws its way around Kinski’s legs. Kinski, though , is treated royally by the cinematographer. In the scenes where she removes her clothes, the outside light does not just shine off her nude body, it glistens.

Her large eyes are the key to her character, letting her slip from a look of innocence to a savage scowl in minutes. McDowell’s make-up does emphasize his catlike facial structure, but in doing so reveals his age (near 40), which begs quite a bit of credibility for a supposed 26-year-old. The success of McDowell has always relied on his ability to be both charming and sinister, which is kept intact, though he comes across looking tired.

The large, black leopard winds up stealing most of the scenes and makes the cat that Snoopy antagonizes seem like Garfield. As in any horror film, the animal is as frightening a creature as one ever wants to meet, with a subterranean growl that is positively horrid. And as a horror film staple, the film is filled with the obligatory graphic violence as well as the time-lapse transformation from human to beast.

The final frame, where the head of a black leopard fills the screen, conveys what all horror films about animals hope to do: leave one feeling about that particular animal in an entirely different manner. In "Cat People," however, it does not quite know how it wants to leave you feeling.