Perfectly poised, Judge Dennis Prince convinced us he could certainly stare for a thousand years. We easily disrupted his focus, when we tossed him a ball of yarn. Silly kitty.
See these eyes so green,
Filmgoers and film critics, past and present, have typically had difficulty interpreting Paul Schrader's particular vision of Cat People. As they have tended to obsess over the generous nudity and graphic violence within the picture, those who have spoken out against the film seem to have missed the point of this adult-oriented fable on film; that or they simply come off as prudish. Granted, a fully nude Nastassja Kinski is something of a distraction—albeit a pleasant one—and the on-screen violence and transformation sequences are somewhat discomforting at times, yet when taken into the context of the overall tale presented in a compelling visual style, it all works. For admirers of this bold revisiting of the 1942 feature of the same name, Universal has dug into their catalog to re-master this for the HD DVD crowd, delivering a disc that slightly nudges out the previous 2002 special edition DVD.
Facts of the Case
Irena (Nastassja Kinski, Tess) has just arrived in New Orleans to reunite with her brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange), after a long separation. Paul's eagerness to be rejoined with his sister seems to go beyond mere familial bonds as he clearly desires and requires a more sensual intimacy with her. He eventually explains to Irena that they're borne of an unusual race of cat people who can only mate with another of their own kind or else be transformed into predatory black leopards that must kill in order to revert to human form. Rejecting this outright, Irena gets a job at a local zoo after meeting Oliver (John Heard, After Hours) who, though he's casually betrothed to co-worker Alice (Annette O'Toole, Smallville), is smitten by Irena. But when a black leopard is discovered in the city and is responsible for the death of a local prostitute, Paul and his team capture the animal while Irena ponders the significance of the animal's arrival in conjunction with brother Paul's sudden disappearance. She is now distraught with the fear that Paul's assertion of their duality is true and fears the outcome of an ever-developing physical relationship with Oliver.
While many shallowly dismissed Cat People as just another in the line
of sex-is-deadly horror yarns of the day (that would have been the early 1980s),
the truth is the picture is more an artful erotic fantasy than it is a
sex-and-gore exploitation flick. Director Schrader immediately establishes the
mythical existence of a race of cat people in the film's stylish prologue and
then explores the cause-and-effect results of what happens when you take these
cats out of their jungle (never able to truly take the jungle out of these
cats). Though the film does confront its sexual themes quite
candidly—especially the typically discomforting topic of incest—it
does so with style and grace that suits the story well, fits the architecture of
the myth at hand and, therefore, never really succumbs to becoming a
sex-for-sex-sake peep show as some have charged. Yes, there's plenty of sexual
content (with Schrader rightly commenting there's more skin than blood in this
picture), but its presence simply makes sense and adds to the very organic,
sensual, and even lyrical flow of the narrative. Of course, if you merely want
to ogle the nude Kinski, that's fine, too, and you won't be disappointed, but to
sum up this latter-day fable:
Kinski does well enough as Irena, showing just enough acting chops to suit the need. Naturally, it has been the full nude scenes that have garnered her attention—good and bad. Watching the film again, there is definite skill in her handling of these sequences, the actress appearing remarkably comfortable and even casual while gracefully striding along au naturel. Juxtaposed to the surgically altered Hollywood bombshells of today, Kinski's appearance reminds us just how beautiful the nude female can be in her natural state of physicality. Of course, Kinski's pouting lips and searching eyes absolutely seal the deal and, with the innocence she conveys as Irena, she easily emerges as a physical and emotional temptation that most men and many women could hardly resist (and is it just me or was there some honest-to-goodness bi-curiosity brewing within Annette O'Toole's eyes during her scene with Kinski?). Malcolm McDowell is genuinely creepy as the incestuously lusting Paul, a man-creature so desperate for "safe sex" yet unable to control his urges, even at the cost of another painful transformation. He, too, sheds his clothing in front of the camera but nothing to the order of his prior stint in Caligula. Ruby Dee's performance as Female (feh-MAH-lee) injects the proper amount of New Orleans mumbo jumbo that gives the story additional fabric of credibility. John Heard's performance reminds us of his erstwhile leading man potential and ability to confidently manage some nude scenes of his own while Annette O'Toole also goes semi-nude in the story's signature pool scene. Pretty much, everyone gets naked here, including panther fodder Tessa Richarde (The Last American Virgin), but it all suits the story well. Ed Begley, Jr. is serviceable in his role as a fellow zoo wrangler, giving us the film's most graphic moment (thankfully, not nude).
As for this new HD DVD release from Universal, the fact this one has been ported to the high-definition medium is great news for enthusiasts although the results are somewhat mixed. The image itself, presented in the original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, is an improvement over the 2002 DVD yet this one fails to achieve a consistent "pop" at the hands of the original production design, one that utilizes softer focus somewhat frequently. Even so, the detail is definitely improved over the DVD. While others have noted troubles with graininess and some compression artifacts, this screening revealed none of that when viewing on a properly adjusted HD display. The audio, unfortunately, doesn't fare so well on a proper decoding of the onboard Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track (or the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 alternative, for that matter). The largely front-anchored mix is imbalanced, some effects overwhelming the soundstage and usually to the detriment of the centered dialog that struggles to be easily heard. Rear effects are occasional yet not well incorporated in a way that ever provides a consistent imaging of audio information. The LFE channel rumbles loudly when the panthers roar but, again, this overwhelms the rest of the action. Sadly, Giorgio Moroder's excellent synth score is all but lost for the duration.
The extra features on this disc are the same as were made available on the 2002 DVD, Universal showing competence in delivering the full complement of goods for this HD DVD offering. These begin with the feature-length commentary provided by director Paul Schrader who is almost painfully candid about the production, his state of being at the time of the production, and his marriage-ending infatuation with Kinski. Although his emotions are somewhat raw here, he nevertheless provides a consistently informative track that's definitely worth a listen. Next up is a 2002 featurette, "Cat People: An Intimate Portrait," in which Schrader continues his open and honest recollections about the making of the picture. "On the Set with Director Paul Schrader" was an interview conducted at the time the film was being made and in which the younger and more evasive Schrader dodged and weaved the pointed questions being asked him by an off-camera female interviewer. Then there's "Special Makeup Effects with Tom Burman" in which the effects artist (whose other work includes "Sloth" from The Goonies as well as current work in Nip/Tuck and Grey's Anatomy) reveals the approach and execution of the film's many graphic sequences. Lastly, "Robert Wise on Val Lewton" is a discussion with the celebrated director who recounts his experiences with the director of the original 1942 production of Cat People. While these many featurettes might seem enough extra material, there is a composite gallery of the great Albert Whitlock's matte paintings as featured in the film, set to a musical score. Wrapping is all up is another gallery of production photographs (a slide show set to David Bowie's title song, "Putting Out Fire") and the film's original theatrical trailer. While there's nothing new being offered in the HD disc, it's good to see the full set of extras that graced the earlier DVD release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The other shortsighted response to Universal's remake of the moody and ever-relevant 1942 original was that which Schrader himself bemoans: the two films were destined for direct comparison, and unfairly so (to which Schrader laments he wished his film could have been re-titled). Schrader's vision (penned by screenwriter Alan Ormsby) is just as sensual and controversial as its predecessor, the chief exception being its stark visuals—nothing being relegated into the shadows as in the 1942 incarnation—yet was aptly tailored to the 1980s indulgent sensibility. At a time when sex was everywhere on screen and "splatter" dominated mainstream horror, Cat People simply acknowledged moviegoers' tastes of the time and enlisted use of both elements to efficiently and unabashedly establish its intent. Therefore, to vilify the picture as being an abomination of its namesake simply because it was more direct in exploring its erotic and violent themes merely lends credit to Schrader's exasperation that the two films should never have been subjected to side-by-side analysis. Nevertheless, as remakes go, this is certainly unavoidable.
So, as controversial pictures go (especially remakes), Paul Schrader's Cat People has clearly divided its viewers. Though it's true the film is explicit in both sexual and violent content, the accusations of some who have branded it an outright assault to the senses and sensibilities simply don't hold enough merit, neither then nor now, to warrant avoidance. If you buy into its mythical premise and are prepared to witness a fable told with the forthright manner of, say, a Grimm fairytale, this film offers a seductive, sensual, and shocking journey into the lair of animal passion.
Not guilty. Case dismissed.
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