[box cover]

Cat People (1982)

Universal Studios Home Video

Starring Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, and John Heard

Written by Alan Ormsby
from a story by DeWitt Bodeen

Directed by Paul Schrader

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                   

While the idea of Paul Schrader making a genre horror film might seem a provocative enterprise to fans of the fierce and demon-riddled screenwriter of Taxi Driver and director of Hardcore, 1982's Cat People is, mysteriously, one of his least bracing works.

With little more than the title in common with Val Lewton's 1942 classic, Cat People stars Nastassja Kinski as Irena, a young woman arriving in New Orleans to meet her long-lost older brother after years of separation in foster homes since their parents' deaths. Her intense brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) welcomes her with great expectations and then mysteriously disappears, leaving Irena to discover the city on her own.

Irena, naturally, gravitates toward the zoo, where she becomes fascinated by a recently captured black panther, and where zoo curator Oliver Yates (John Heard) becomes equally rapt with Irena. Complicating this burgeoning love affair, however, is that Irena has, well — more in common with the zoo's animals than with their keeper, and as she is forced to come to terms with her supernatural nature she must also make some difficult choices involving her love life and future.

Schrader, ironically, when charged with making a horror film, has instead fashioned a lush romance far less frightening than his previous realist works. Although Cat People's supposed themes about the animal nature of sex and love come off as half-cocked, as a simple tale of forbidden romance the film has a brooding appeal — although a taste for early-'80s pastel-toned art direction and Giorgio Moroder's pulsing synthesizer may be required to enjoy it. Kinski is luminous at times, and McDowell plays his arch role with his usual camp villainry. Heard, too, is good as Irena's solid suitor, as is Annette O'Toole as Irena's unexotic rival for Oliver's affection.

And any movie in which Ed Begley Jr.'s arm is graphically ripped from his torso has its heart in the right place.

*          *          *

Universal's DVD release of Cat People offers a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Accompanying the feature is a commentary by Schrader, who gruffly ponders this unusual film from his canon, as well as a few featurettes that look inside Schrader's process.

Cat People: An Intimate Portrait by Paul Schrader (25:21) is a fairly shallow series of snippets from a November 2000 interview with the tight-lipped director during which he never delves into its topics in any depth and essentially reiterates his comments heard on the commentary track.

On the Set with Director Paul Schrader (10:20) is an 1981 interview with a very shify, uncomfortable Schrader (who looks like a hit-man for the Gay Mafia) during which he, reluctantly it seems, gives very honest, intricate answers to his interlocutor's inquiries.

Special Makeup Effects by Tom Burman (11:14) A quiet discussion of the film's fairly unspectacular makeup effects by their artist.

Cat People Matte Paintings (3:09) Before-and-after montage.

Interview with Robert Wise (3:32) Veteran director Wise discusses the influence of Val Lewton, producer of the original 1942 The Cat People.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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