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Hello readers. Though my name, ‘Gabe,’ is at the bottom of this page, I did not write the ‘feature’ part of this review. I’m not really a fan of Cat People, nor do I dislike it enough to have anything interesting to say about it. While prepping this review, I remembered that my buddy Phil Nobile, Jr. had spoken enthusiastically about the film in the past and decided to give him a forum to explain his fascination (my word, not his).

Feature


1982 is widely heralded as a golden year for genre films. E.T., The Thing, Wrath Of Khan. That didn’t just happen; it was the culmination of a decade of genre groundwork being laid. Star Wars, Jaws, slasher films. These and other ‘70s seeds took root and bore the fruit of the ‘80s. But the fertile climate that gave us The Road Warrior, Blade Runner, Conan The Barbarian and all the other gems from that year also birthed some runts – films containing all the same DNA, but which, for one reason or another, didn’t connect with the public – then or now – the same way their cinematic siblings did.

 Cat People (1982)
Which brings us to Cat People. Cat People should have been huge; by 1982, cinematic erotica and effects-heavy horror were both banging on the doors of respectability. Perhaps a studio response to the indie slashers making bank at the drive-ins, Universal decided monsters were coming back. They released American Werewolf in London in 1981 and, looking into their vaults, greenlit remakes of a pair of RKO titles: The Thing From Another World, and 1943’s Cat People, a moody, psychosexual exercise in restraint from producer Val Lewton. The unusual producer/director pairing of Jerry Bruckheimer and Paul Schrader got the gig, working from a script by Alan Ormsby ( Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, Deranged). What was likely once a more straightforward horror yarn was worked over by Schrader’s red pen into a steamy, languid tale of psychosexual obsession and the all-destroying power of male possessiveness.

Schrader uses the original film’s plot (concerning a woman who may or may not be afflicted by an ancient curse that transforms her into a deadly feline when she’s aroused) as a springboard for a new mythology, weaving pagan religion and human sacrifice with Freudian/Jungian sexuality. After a visually lush prologue hinting at our protagonist's origins, and the human/animal communion to come, we’re introduced to Irena (Nastassia Kinski), who’s on her way to New Orleans to be reunited with her long-lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell), a quirky, predatory minister who looks at his sister as if he’s going to devour her. Paul’s nighttime proclivities introduce a parallel plot featuring zoo curator Oliver (John Heard) and his team, who are called upon to investigate a leopard attack in the French Quarter. Soon, the leopard is in Oliver’s zoo, Irena is in his gift shop, and he’s struggling (as is the viewer, at times) to figure out the connection. As Oliver grows closer to Irena, the death toll rises, until he discovers her secret and reacts in a finale that’s maybe surprising in terms of narrative conventions, but perhaps not surprising when the film is viewed subtext-first.

 Cat People (1982)
The actors are beautiful, the sets are amazing, and the effects are in that ‘80s sweet-spot. But the film feels off-balance. Some 90 minutes in, we’re finally told (by a dead character in a dream sequence, no less) the “rules” of the cat people - they transform into felines whenever they make love; the only thing that can turn them back into humans is a kill. More or less simple, but after letting the audience piece this together, or fail to, for 75% of the film’s running time, it seems a little late to be setting up the world. This is perhaps a side effect of the film being less concerned with its plot than it is with its themes. Schrader is digging into his own issues with obsession, possibly with Kinski herself, and that can make for fascinating content, as long as you’re not looking for a conventional horror film. But by the time we’re cross-cutting Paul pointing his camera at a potential victim, with Oliver pointing HIS camera at Irena before trying to bed her, there’s little doubt Schrader is fixing his male gaze straight into a funhouse mirror, trying to sort out his own Beatrice issues on film.

Why isn’t Cat People more fondly remembered today? Does Schrader get in his own way, as he tends to do? Is it because the film is simply not that good? No; if that were the issue, then Tron wouldn't have the following it does. Is there just too much going on here for the impressionable demographic that would have otherwise exalted it? Maybe. The world it sets up is a little harder for kids to digest than, say, a werewolf movie. And being aimed at adults, rather than pretending to be aimed at adults, it gives its audience more credit than its lycanthropic peers might have. I also suspect the sex and nudity (there is exactly ONE female character who doesn’t disrobe and she’s 60 year-old Ruby Dee) might have kept Cat People from the eyeballs of the crowd that would have fetishized and idolized it the way they did their Goonies and their Rocky IV. Either way, in 1982, to exclude the juvenile blood-and-guts crowd was to court disaster. Tom Burman’s effects are imaginative and exciting, but they’re fighting for screen time with Schrader’s themes of sexual repression and obsession. So Cat People, like its protagonist, is trying to live in two worlds and, as a result, the experience doesn't resonate as much as it should, and the film’s legacy maybe didn’t gel.

 Cat People (1982)

Video


Phil: In the way that we can often watch a film just to enjoy, say, Dean Cundey's cinematography, or Ennio Morricone's score, so too does Cat People provide a wealth of aesthetic pleasures, whether you’re on board with Schrader’s psychodrama or not. From the beautiful desert sequences punctuated by Albert Whitlock’s matte work, to the crisp photography showcasing both New Orleans and Edward Richardson’s art direction, it’s a beautiful film. For a certain faction of the audience, 1982-era film stock alone is a welcome sight – deep and lush, and not color-graded to the point of duotone monotony.

Gabe’s two cents: Cat People’s cult following has ensured a decent home video release history. Following its initial bare-bones, non-anamorphic DVD from Image Entertainment, it enjoyed an anamorphic special edition release from Universal, followed by an HD DVD before that format died. Like Universal’s Tremors and Spartacus 1080p transfers, the HD DVD was reportedly rife with waxy DNR effects. The film’s first Blu-ray release, from German company Koch Media, reportedly used the same icky HD transfer, leaving fans clamoring for a decent-looking disc. Shout/Scream Factory is always happy to lease a pre-existing transfer whenever possible (their Vincent Price collection was a fine sample of older material), so there were fears that this latest 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer would be once again rife with DNR tinkering.

I wish I owned a copy of those older discs for direct comparison, because I’m pretty sure this is an improvement, but it is still a problematic image. The noise reduction is obvious, creating unnatural blending and smoothing effects throughout the film. At worst, wet objects, like oysters and rain-soaked streets, appear to be wrapped in clear plastic. The problem isn’t quite comparable to the reigning king of all DNR disasters – Fox’s waxy, ugly Predator re-release – and the natural grain hasn’t been entirely eradicated from every shot (Kinski’s airport entry looks about right), but it is still disappointing. Perhaps the bigger issue is edge enhancement, which saturates every frame of the film. Details are certainly impressive, but the sharpness has been pushed too far, perhaps in an effort to undo the other ‘enhancements.’ Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey’s use of neon and acrylic colours are consistent (thanks in part to the DNR) and more vivid than a SD transfer could manage. The harsher reds do bleed a bit, but this is largely a side effect of the edge enhancement, not a separate issue. The crushed black qualities work pretty well with Bailey’s moody shadows, even if shots of black panthers against dark backgrounds do appear a bit blobby. Otherwise, contrast levels seem accurate for a 35mm film.


 Cat People (1982)

Audio


Phil: For my money, Giorgio Moroder is the big winner of this period of Schrader’s output; the director has a tendency to beat his plot points into the ground with soundtracks containing on-the-nose lyrics (and he sneaks that in under the wire here!), but, much like he did in the director’s American Gigolo, Moroder keeps it from going overboard. I can listen to this soundtrack on Spotify all day. And I have.

Gabe’s two cents: The world may have forgotten Cat People, but its theme song, ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ lives on, thanks to Quentin Tarantino, who entirely changed its context when he used it in Inglourious Basterds. The film was originally released in 2.0 stereo surround and was remixed into 5.1 for the European versions of Universal’s special edition DVD. Scream Factory has included both tracks here. The 5.1 track was made in keeping with the original track’s intentions, featuring generally the same stereo cues (the pool scene is definitely more impressive with the assistance of the two rear channels). The centered dialogue/incidental effects are an advantage, as is the LFE bump, especially when it comes to the booming panther roars. That said, the 2.0 track is noticeably louder with fewer signs of compression. The effects and dialogue are slightly tinnier, but not enough for cracks or hisses to take over. Giorgio Moroder’s syntheziser music (including the aforementioned theme song, which he wrote with Bowie) is, unsurprisingly, the most prevalent aural element on both tracks. The 5.1 version certainly benefits from the LFE enhancement when things get bassy, but, again, I think I prefer the 2.0 track’s stronger overall volume and find that the more stringent stereo spread is slightly more impressive than the multi-channel redistribution. Both tracks are just fine – this merely comes down to a matter of taste.

Fans should note that this is the original theatrical release of the film, so Ed Begley Jr. sings ‘What’s New, Pussycat?’ before he’s killed, not ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight.’


 Cat People (1982)

Extras


Phil: Scream Factory is not Criterion. We shouldn't expect them to be. It’s great when they put together a nice package of bonus features, but, at this price point, I’m just grateful for a great-looking HD transfer ( so says Phil). That said, there are some seriously perfunctory interviews here, with the entire principal cast, as well as Moroder and Schrader. They’re about as deep as your basic EPK package, unfortunately, skimming the surface of what must have been a tremendously interesting production. The big find on these bonus features is over 100 stills and production sketches. Alas, none of Universal’s special features from a 2002 DVD release are carried over.

In his interview, Paul Schrader today seems rightly proud of the film as a pre-CGI artifact, a handmade thing. It exists in that practical golden age, managing to avoid dating by effects, wardrobe or myriad other aesthetics. Unwieldy plot or no, Cat People is a joy for the senses. For my senses, at any rate.

 Cat People (1982)
The extra specifics are as follows:
  • Unleashing the Beast with actress Nastassja Kinski (6:00, HD)
  • Making Memories with actress Annette O’Toole (8:30, HD)
  • ] Caging the Animal with actor John Heard (6:10, HD)
  • Reconnecting with Cat People with actor Malcolm McDowell (7:40, HD)
  • Cat Fight with actress Lynn Lowry (5:50, HD)
  • Composing a Cult Classic with composer Giorgio Moroder (5:30, HD)
  • More than a Remake with director Paul Schrader (9:10, HD)
  • Trailer
  • TV spot
  • Photo gallery
  • Production art/poster gallery

Phil Nobile, Jr. is a self-described ‘movie enthusiast’ and writer, director, and producer for television projects, including Halloween: The Inside Story and Fatal Attraction: The Inside Story, both of which aired on the Biography channel. Occasionally, he writes for Badass Digest and even supplied us with a guest column on Dark Shadows.

 Cat People (1982)

 Cat People (1982)

 Cat People (1982)

 Cat People (1982)

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and have been resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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