Cat People (1942)/Cat People (1982)

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Cat People (1942) – A much admired horror classic that still weaves a magical spell upon the viewer, Cat People is a twist on the standard lycanthrope tale and brings us into contact with Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a young woman who fears that the first time she falls in love with someone and gives in to her passion she will become a man-eating cat. Oliver Reed (played by Kent Smith) doesn’t believe any of this and from the first moment he meets Irena he wants to keep her in his life. The life of any couple never runs smoothly but with Irena getting jealous of Oliver’s female friend, Alice (Jane Randolph), struggling to make any progress in her sessions with Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) and worrying every day about that moment she is sure will occur at some point in her life the strain begins to get too much and things wind towards a conclusion that may see Irena get her claws out.

Directed by Jacques Tourneur, and produced by the great Val Lewton, this movie has a whole host of plus points that help it stand up today as a bona fide classic. The source material, by DeWitt Bodeen, is interesting and intelligent. A (possible) shape-shifting tale, the movie is also all about guilt and repression, something that would be exploited to magnificent effect by Paul Schrader’s fantastic remake.

Simone Simon is not the world’s greatest actress but she does well in showing Irena’s worry and vulnerability while, later on, also showing the resolve and “inner animal” that so worries her. Kent Smith is a likeable enough leading man and Jane Randolph manages to be a love rival without being too irritating, as those characters sometimes can be.

The script is lean and, after a bit of a clumsy start, keeps you involved with, and concerned for, all of the characters onscreen. Part of you wants Irena to be worried over nothing and yet part of you also wants to see just what could happen.

No review of Cat People (certainly no review that I’ve read, anyway) is complete without mentioning two key scenes. Both feature Jane Randolph being stalked by something unseen and both are masterclasses in how to ratchet up the suspense without actually showing anything or lining up a big jump scare. Yes, one sequence ends with a nice fake-out as a punchline but both moments (one where Randolph is walking on her own and the other where she is having a late swim) use sound and shadow to raise the hairs on the back of your neck in a way rarely seen today, and sorely missed. These moments, and the atmosphere created throughout the latter half of the movie, have become synonymous with the style of Lewton and there’s no arguing with the admiration and respect that his name still receives from horror fans today. A classic.

Film Rating: ★★★★½

Cat People (1982 – pictured) – What’s the best way to approach a remake of a classic 1940s horror movie? If you’re director Paul Schrader, and writer Alan Ormsby, you take the very basic concepts at the core of the original and ramp everything up to 11 with ladles of guilt, repressed passion and twisted desires.

Natassja Kinski plays Irene Gallier, a young woman who arrives in New Orleans to live with the brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell), who has been eagerly awaiting her arrival for some time. Things between brother and sister seem quite strange and when Irene meets Oliver Yates(John Heard), a zoo curator, things get even stranger. Irene and Paul were both orphans and have been apart for many, many years but Paul claims to be aware of things that Irene can’t grasp. He also seems to want more than just sisterly affection from Irene and tries to justify his actions with mad talk about them only being safe from the world if they make love together. Irene soon finds herself dragged into a dark and dangerous place, as does everyone around her, and starts to worry that what her brother is telling her is somehow true.

It’s really no surprise that Schrader, who also wrote the classics Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, should be drawn to the more disturbing elements in this screenplay (still with DeWitt Bodeen’s original story at its dark heart) and should bravely put them front and centre amidst a potent mix of sex and death. Ormsby’s screenplay is shocking and often tilts into insanity while Schrader’s direction completely supports every line of dialogue and every impressive visual cue.

The presence of a big, black cat here, so hidden in shadows in the original, is brought directly into the foreground and makes for a couple of impressive set-pieces that feel genuinely dangerous and tense. That’s not to say that shadows aren’t once again used effectively. They certainly are, most noticeably in a scene that directly homages “that swimming pool moment” from the original.

Kinski is a great mix of innocence and sexiness and, much like Simon in the original, starts to show greater resolve and strength in the latter half of the movie. McDowell is quite crazy for a lot of the time but also has a desperation and sadness in his performance, a feeling of being so close and yet so far when he finally gets his sister back by his side and then can’t get her to believe his story. John Heard is solid, proving that his name should really be much better known than it is. Ruby Dee is great as a female named Female and Annette O’Toole is very good in a role similar to that played by Jane Randolph in the original although as her character is less of a threat this time around it feels as if she’s a bit less deserving of the moments where she’s scared by some unseen prowler. There are also decent performances from Ed Begley Jr, Frankie Faison and a small cameo from Lynn Lowry.

The nudity throughout, and the blood and gore when it occurs, is totally in line with the movies of the time but also totally in line with the subject matter so Cat People wins itself a free pass in this regard. With some great style and impressive visuals, not to mention a soundtrack that includes a theme song by David “King Of Cool” Bowie, this remains an impressive remake that acknowledges the original but then transforms itself into a very different beast, ironically enough.

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

DIRECTOR: JACQUES TOURNEUR/PAUL SCHRADER
CAST: SIMONE SIMON, KENT SMITH, JANE RANDOLPH/NATASSJA KINSKI, MALCOLM McDOWELL, JOHN HEARD, ANNETTE O’TOOLE
RUNTIME: 73 MINS APPROX/118 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: USA

3 Comments
  1. Olly Buxton says

    Nice idea reviewing them back to back.

    I loved Shrader’s Cat People – helped no doubt by Putting Out the Fire With Gasoline, which was one of Bowie’s best post 1980 efforts, and you’re spurring me on to having another look – haven’t watched it in years.

  2. Kevin Matthews says

    Thanks Olly. I had seen the original a few years ago and as I had to review it for my ongoing IMDb Classic Horror quest I felt that checking out the remake at the same time would be worthwhile and it certainly was.

  3. Kevin Matthews says

    Also, I may be 5 years late, but one day I will always remember to spell her name as Nastassja Kinski.

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