Judge Gordon Sullivan is more of an antelope person.
Our reviews of Cat People / Curse Of The Cat People (published October 24th, 2005), Cat People (HD DVD) (published January 17th, 2008), and The Val Lewton Horror Collection (published October 24th, 2005) are also available.
An erotic fantasy about the animal in us all.
Almost all the kerfuffle over The Canyons focused on the fact that star Lindsay Lohan was a hot mess during the production, with crying jags and refusing to come out of her dressing room for nude scenes. A bit of talk also spread about the fact that her co-star's day job is in the porn industry. Even Bret Easton Ellis' Twitter tirades garnered him a bit of attention. Though director Paul Schrader's name was often mentioned, few reviews saw fit to place The Canyons within his body of work (unless it was to marvel at how far the screenwriter of Taxi Driver had fallen). That's unfortunate because The Canyons might be the logical conclusion to a line that Schrader has been drawing for several decades, from American Gigolo to Hardcore, documenting the darker side of contemporary sexuality. This trend is most famously expressed in Cat People, the 1982 feature that stands today as one of the weirder works in Schrader's list. Cat People (Blu-ray) makes clear that the film is an interesting film, even if it is ultimately a failure.
Facts of the Case
Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinksi, Tess) has just returned to her family home in New Orleans, where she finds her brother (Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange). Also in New Orleans, a prostitute is mauled by a black leopard. This leopard is captured by the police, where it is put in the care of Oliver (John Heard, Big). Irena finds herself drawn to the leopard when she encounters it at the zoo, which also brings her to Oliver's attention. All this leads to some shocking revelations about her family, even as the killing seem to continue.
With very few exceptions, Paul Schrader has been a "yes, but" filmmaker. Like "yes, American Gigolo is stylish, but it lacks characterization." Cat People falls completely into that category. To get whatever pleasure is possible from the film, viewers have to be willing to acknowledge that the journey isn't always pleasant. To get the most out of Cat People, viewers are ask to put up with sometimes-shocking violence—though Schrader isn't often discussed in the same breath as people like David Cronenberg, John Landis, and John Carpenter, Cat People fits into that early eighties aesthetic that we see in films like Scanners, American Werewolf in London, and The Thing. It's not that the film is particularly gory overall, but that violence is used to punctuate the film, making those few instances all the more shocking. Then there's the sexuality; I don't want to delve into biography, but based on his films, Schrader is a dude with some issues. His approach to the erotic is not the soft-focus, backlit "erotica" that was purveyed on cable in the eighties. The sexuality in Cat People is raw, and in-your-face. This isn't always fun or arousing, despite Kinski's otherworldly beauty. Finally, you have to put up with a plot that meanders more than it moves, pushing for a poetic resonance rather than a satisfying "thriller."
The beauty of Paul Schrader films, and Cat People in particular, is that all of these weaknesses are also strengths. One doesn't go to Cat People to get turned on and titillated by a thriller filled with nudity and violence. Nope, prospective viewers should approach Cat People because they want something "erotic" that challenges some of our contemporary notions of what it means to be "erotic." Cat People is also a film that, however misguided the attempt, at least tries to come to grips with sexuality from a woman's perspective.
What do you get for putting up with Schrader's idiosyncrasies? Quite a bit, actually. First, the film has atmosphere to spare. Schrader is known for having a lot of style (sometimes, he is accused of having too much), and he conveys the swampy, damp heat of New Orleans like few directors have ever achieved. This was also Nastassja Kinski's first major introduction to the American market (though I'm sure some saw her turn in Polanski's Tess), and she's arresting in her presence. She's matched by Malcolm McDowell, not yet forty, and still full of the kind of magnetic sexuality that made his turns in If… and A Clockwork Orange so iconic. Finally, watching Cat People is something like being allowed to watch another person dream: there's logic to the story, but it's a unfamiliar logic, made all the more strange by the actors and the setting.
Schrader also knows how to collaborate, and for Cat People he got Giorgio Moroder to compose the score, and David Bowie to contribute a song to the soundtrack. Though neither are classics in their own right, they encapsulate perfectly the early-eighties vibe in a way that doesn't feel as dated as many soundtracks of the era.
Cat People was previously available in hi-def via HD-DVD, which looked pretty solid, but with a few mastering issues that kept it from being perfect. It seems like those problems have been corrected with this AVC-encoded 1.85:1/1080p transfer. The source is in pretty fine shape, and detail remains strong throughout. The overall look is pleasing filmlike, with solid saturation. Black levels are nice and deep, with no serious noise. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is equally impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear, while Moroder's score is reproduced with wonderful fidelity. A DTS-HD 2.0 stereo track is also available for those who want to go old-school.
Extras include a host of new interviews with the principles: Schrader, Kinski, McDowell, Heard, Annette O'Toole and Moroder all appear to discuss their participation in the film. It's an impressive set of talks that could perhaps only have been improved if they'd been edited into a comprehensive making-of documentary. We also get a stills gallery and the film's theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What was in the water in the early '80s? Cat People adds incest to the storyline of Jacques Tourneur's original film, and a year later Scarface would also add incestuous underpinnings to its remake. Needless to say, perhaps, but if you can't handle the idea of incest, or the violence done to the ideas of the original in this adaptation, then Cat People is not the film for you.
Cat People is a weird little film that has earned itself a cult audience, thanks to Paul Schrader's unique blend of violence, eroticism, and no-holds-barred visual steam. It's not the greatest genre movie, but it's so strange that it has its own compelling charm. After a handful of so-so home video releases, fans can buy this Collector's Edition with confidence—the presentation is solid, and the extras are informative.
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