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CAT PEOPLE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Nastassia Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O'Toole
Director:  Paul Schrader
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  119 Minutes
Release Date:  August 27, 2002

“I'm not like you!”

“Yes, you are.  You've always known it…”

Film **

Cat People is definitely a film that proves that updating isn't always improving.  The original was a low-budget picture that didn't have the resources to visualize its terror, so it created terror in our minds instead.  This 1982 remake shows us what we didn't see before, and only goes to show that we didn't need to see it in the first place.

Director Paul Schrader is probably best known for his landmark screenplays for Martin Scorsese.  He penned the likes of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ.  Cat People was his fourth directorial effort, following on the heels of the successful American Gigolo.

For inspiration, he turned to the 1946 B picture directed by Jacques Tourneur…it seemed like a good idea at the time, but he would later admit that it was a mistake, because he hadn't counted on how sacred some fans considered the original.  Schrader discarded everything that made the first film effective, from the expressionistic photography to the relatively simple tricks that made the unreal seem real.

He focused instead on eroticism, and only partly succeeded.  Casting two good looking leads was a jump-off point:  Nastassia Kinski was an exotic beauty with a rising star, and Malcolm McDowell was firmly established at playing the literally devilishly handsome leading man in offbeat productions.  Both brought sincerity to their roles, but couldn't make up for a rather haphazard attempt at storytelling.  Cat People tries to be both sexy and scary, and never quite succeeds in being either one.

Irena (Kinski) arrives in New Orleans to meet her long lost brother, Paul (McDowell).  They had been separated since early childhood, under circumstances that Irena couldn't fully remember.  Their reunion should have been a happy one, but alas, Paul carries a dark family secret, and before long, Irena's simple world will be turned upside down.

I won't say too much more about the plot, in case you're a newcomer to either version of the film, but one look at the cover art and the title should just about tell you all.  You'll figure it all out quite early, then you'll likely be bored as the film still stretches it out like it's going to be a surprise.

The movie has a great look to it, and New Orleans is an appropriate setting for such a strange, supernatural tale.  But it never manages to inspire more than a startle; there's no genuine sense of horror at play here.  The climactic scene has some flair, but it's nothing we haven't seen before or done better.  The sexual scenes are stiff and uncomfortable…nobody, including the audience, seems to take any real pleasure from them.

Some things are simply better left to the imagination.  The original movie kept us wondering as our minds filled in the blanks with terrible images.  All the remake of Cat People offers us is a chance to see what we've been missing, and it only serves to make us realize we never really missed it in the first place.  Did the cat people eat human or cat food?  Did they shop for Blue Buffalo pet food at the store? If they ate Blue Buffalo they at least would have a healthy pet food for their diet.  Learning the eating habits of the cat people might have made a better movie than this one. 

Video ***1/2

This is an attractive offering from Universal that defies the normal video problems for 80s movies on DVD and preserves Schrader's visual flair with accuracy and gusto.  The colors are gorgeous from start to finish, as well as plentiful.  The palate is wide, and detail level from close range to deep focus is remarkably strong.  A few darker scenes exhibit some grain and are a little murkier, but these are few, and considerably minor compared to most films from the period on disc.  A notable effort all the way.

Audio ***

Though the box says stereo and not stereo surround, I could have sworn I heard some rear stage usage during the playback…maybe my mind was playing tricks on me, but in any case, I have to say this is a better than average two-channel mix.  The audio is ambient and dynamic, with plenty of scenes to give it punch and range.  Dialogue and music are well recorded and presented, and panning effects up front are noticeably smooth…nicely done.

Features ****

No complaints about the extras, which starts with a moderately interesting, if occasionally sparse, commentary track by Paul Schrader.  For a more condensed version of his thoughts, the “Intimate Portrait” documentary is a serviceable look at both him and the film, along with his thoughts and ideas on same.  Two additional featurettes include an original “On the Set” piece and one on the makeup effects with artist Tom Burman.  There is also a closer look at the matte paintings in the film, which are incredible, production notes and photos, an original trailer, and even a short interview with the legendary Robert Wise discussing Val Lewton, producer of the original Cat People.  A very good package!

Summary:

Cat People simply didn't need re-imagining.  Despite a talented cast and director, the fleshed-out modern version falls flat, failing to terrify or titillate.  For those curious to try it, however, you can't ask for a much better way than with this DVD offering from Universal, which is top notch even if the movie isn't.