CINE-WEEN: The Erotic Tragedy of CAT PEOPLE

When thinking of remakes as an idea, maybe with a little distance — not getting “into the weeds,” so to speak — I tend to respond with disdain. Why must things be remade in the first place? Are we so devoid of original ideas and content that we must plunder our past to simply retell a classic story with more gloss and a larger budget? What can we add to these narratives that could not be better spent on something brand new? When I feel this way, above and beyond the remake as an idea, it gives me a special sense of superiority and righteousness. It just feels right. It also connects to so much I also feel: deep frustrations with capitalism and how capitalism warps creativity, as well as a strong sense that the entire world needs to break new ground and take chances. We are beholden to the past in unhealthy and awful ways, and nostalgia is a kind of mental sickness. It feels so right and so fucking SATISFYING to say these things, often in a tone that somehow combines my sassiest and most didactic tendencies.

It is all bullshit of course. Not the ideas themselves, because there is a lot there which is true. This combination of some real important ideas that deserve their time in the sun and my own inflated sense of righteousness sharing those ideas with you is not only a heady and deadly combination, but a sure sign that what I am saying is dumb. Sure, I can back myself up with some seriously awful examples. The RoboCop remake? Terrible. A remake of Point Break? For real, get fucked. To be honest, I sincerely hated the Dawn of Dead remake, so you know I mean business, right? Yet, there are plenty of remakes I simply ADORE. The Thing is just the most obvious example, but let us not forget The Night of The Living Dead remake, or The Blob, and I am sure that when I finally get over myself I will love the Magnificent 7 remake as well. When I actually stop and consider remakes, I realize that there is no universal fact to be found other than this: sometimes they work, and sometimes they do not. The best, from what I can tell, are those which take the original idea and go someplace completely new, try something different. In this way, perhaps they are not so much remakes as they are new films, which are simply inspired by these classic counter parts.

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As I was doing research on Cat People one of the first things folks want you to know is how different this film is from the original. In fact, when Paul Schrader’s film came out it divided audience along these very lines; that is, those for whom it’s differences were too much and those who appreciated how it stood out. 1982’s Cat People is a dark, hypnotic, and erotic work. It plays with your perceptions of reality, and hints at a world that is fantastically monstrous. It takes the kernel of the original film and grows something entirely different. It doesn’t just add contemporary delights, though it does have violence and nudity in a way the classic film could never. It also, at a fundamental level, tells a different stor and this is what makes it work as a remake. It has one sequence, in a pool locker room, which pays homage in a direct way to the original to a very lackluster result. As a whole, though, Schrader allows the original film to be the flavor, even more than the foundation, of his own movie. Cat People is dripping with sexual tension, concerns about family, guilt, and fidelity, and a feeling that no one is quite all there. One is seeing a dream, or in fact a nightmare, and this narrative can turn on a dime from pleasant to awful.

Cat People is a difficult film to synopsize, and not because it is complicated but because on paper the plot seems quite honestly ludicrous. The film begins with a strange, dream-like sequence suggesting a mystical ceremony between ancient people and leopards. From there, the film flashes to 1980s New Orleans, where Irina, played enchantingly by Natassja Kinski, is reunited with her strange minister brother Paul, played to creeper perfection by Malcolm McDowell. Their parents died when they were young, and Irina bounced around from foster home to foster home. Paul’s house keeper and sort-of caretaker is a Creole woman name Female, played by Ruby Dee. Ok, that was a lot and we haven’t even gotten into the fact that they are were-cats. Look, if you for some reason haven’t seen this film, go watch it, and if you have and have forgotten the plot, go read the wikipedia. I am definitely going to spoil this film, though, so be careful going forward. Those who have seen Cat People know that somehow this film involves were-cats, incest, ancient cults, and the horrible conceit that someone would be attracted to John Heard (which is hard to swallow), but, here we are. In fact, not only is the nubile and disturbingly young Natasha Kinski so moved by Heard that she risks and even sacrifices her very life, but he also has Annette O’Toole in the wings, waiting for him to come back to her. Despite this horrifying flaw, John Heard as somehow both charismatic and physically attractive, the movie is still amazing. I mean, Ed Begley Jr. has his arm ripped off so you know, you take the good with the bad.

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I joke, but Cat People was a very satisfying watch for me. It has a gritty aesthetic, some intensely effective visuals, and Malcom McDowell is sufficiently awesome.. It is strange and a bit loose around the edges. I am all for atmosphere and affect, but this particular film feels a little light in content for its near-2 hour runtime. That may sound harsh but I don’t mean it to be. I simply want to acknowledge that for those who wish there was more HERE, so to speak, I see your point and I feel your pain.

I say that because I, now, plan to gush about this wacko film. Cat People is unafraid of it’s strange logic. Irene and Paul cannot have sex with humans because, when they do, they transform. Paul really shows us the agony of this, though he is disturbingly prepared for his incestual love affair with his sister, it does not take long to see this willingness to accept such a strange arrangement comes from deep pain. Paul has loved before, and he has thus killed before, even if in his animal form. His certainty, tenacity, and even his brutality comes from this pain, from the tragedy of his love. Apparently, having your love making culminate in a painful transformation and then brutal attack of your lover is not conducive for a positive self-image. Who knew?

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Irena is the focus, here, as she comes to terms with not just her sexual identity, but her identity as someone or something other. There is a kind of horror around her sexuality: this danger insider of her, that her desire could become something monstrous. Yes literally, but even in her desire for John Heard (itself a monstrous idea) there is a fear, a feeling that something out of control is lurking under the surface. She doesn’t know herself and this is not just about her literal identity. The uncertainty about the nature of herself works as a metaphor for all becoming, for the fear that at the end of our journey we will be something truly awful. Yet, the film is intensely sexual and this dynamic is an interesting one to decipher. There is a deep anxiety about sexuality and intimacy, even as it features a great deal of nudity and sexual tension. I have to confess, I am not what you would think of as a Schrader expert. I am familiar, as any film fan is, with his writing work. However, I have not yet caught many of the films he has directed. Thus, I cannot make any sort of auteur-based claim on Schrader’s relationship to catholicism in his films. This film, though, feels like it has some underlying moral conflict when it comes to sexuality; and not just sex but relationships in general. There is something confusing and ethereal about Heard’s relationship to both women and even his tortured relation to his character. It is one of the confusing aspects of human sexuality, that something needn’t be sex positive to be erotic. That too often, or for some not often enough, deep questions about meaning and morality are tied not only into our thoughts ABOUT sex but into our sex. Doubt and fear can at times themselves be erotic.

The real confusion of the film, for me, is the ending. Logically, it connects: Irena finally accepts who she is, and must make a decision to seek destruction or to simply be her identity. She won’t deny what she feels —  the obscene sexual attraction to John Heard — so she submits to this desire, and it makes her a monster, or at least a large and uncontrollable cat. After fleeing, Heard finds her transformed because she has murdered a dear friend of his, though perhaps to claim a jungle cat “murders” is a bit anthropomorphic. She begs him to murder her, and, when he predictably refuses, she asks him to make love to her so that she can escape and live with her own kind. She has chosen to be this other self, this cat identity. So, he does, but he binds her. One might assume this is a safety precaution as well as being a sexually compelling image. He has other plans though. The film ends with Irena, in her leapord form, living as his prisoner at the zoo where he works. One reading of this ending might be romantic, Heard moves on in some way, while holding unto his lost love. The curse of Irena’s existence means they cannot be together, so he keeps her with him, like the haunting of a memory of past love. It is actually disgusting. I know I should see his melancholy as charming, sure he still has the gorgeous and apparently long suffering Annete O’Toole to love him, but look at the way he feeds the wild beast who can never love him the way he loves her/it. That is a reading that assumes Schrader is, himself, some kind of monster. No, he knows what we are seeing is an injustice. Irena, strange were-cat or not, has every right to determine her fate, either through death or through a wild existence out among the animals. Instead, Oliver traps her, and thus gets BOTH his domestic bliss with his tame woman and to hold the impossible longing of that which could not be. His melancholy is not a pain, but a choice. A choice he has made and one that costs another person their freedom and agency. It ends therefore in tragedy, and, in this tragedy, a different dignity is given to the Cat People. Yes, their existence is strange and perhaps disgusting but they deserve their own existence.

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Cat People is a fascinating film, not just to discuss but the experience of watching it. Despite some pacing issues, the film is endlessly entertaining. New Orleans works as a magical setting, allowing for a world both familiar and completely alien. There is something always old and decaying, but also something enchanting and enticing. I am still frustrated by John Heard in this film, but much like his turn in C.H.U.D. he is sufficient for the film to work at a basic level. Above all, though, Cat People touched something tragic in myself. Yes, it is, at its basic level, an erotic horror (or perhaps dark fantasy film), yet nothing really touched me either erotically or made me afraid. Instead, I was fascinated by the world the film built and by the deep sadness of the story. There is, at some level, no reason for this. The week, every time I tried to describe the film to anyone who wasn’t already familiar, it felt like what I was describing must be a joke. There is a space for humor here, but the film, as I watched it, took all that away; all my sense that a movie about a literal “sex kitten” was perhaps a bridge too far. Instead, I felt this deep sense that in the story of the film is a metaphor for the many ways we are not allowed to be. That some folks are made in a way that we are told is wrong, deficient, or just disgusting. Surely things are improving but how many folks still feel they must make the decision Irena does: to wander alone or simply to die, rather than be who they are, no matter how awful that may seem. I am projecting a level of depth onto a movie that does not quite ask for it, but there is something there that invites you to take Cat People fully seriously. And I did.

Liam O'Donnell
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Liam O'Donnell

Liam O'Donnell is co-creator and co-host of the Cinepunx podcast and Editor in Chief of the Cinepunx website. Liam has written about film, music, politics and faith for a variety of publications in real life and online. Despite his advanced age he can be seen moshing in the greater Philadelphia area, usually to a cover song. He can be seen sitting in the audience at the newest comic book film, the retro drive-in screening of a Fulci film, or catching a series of Jodorowsky films. Liam has worked in social services, events planning, arts curation, education, community organizing, faith communities, and scooping ice cream. He has worked with festivals like This Is Hardcore Fest and The Awesome Fest. Despite all these things, Cinepunx is definitely the coolest thing he has ever done.
Liam O'Donnell
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