“Irena Gallier, a beautiful young woman, is on the brink of sexuality. She discovers love for the first time only to find that the explosive experience brings with it tragic consequences. However, the tremendous passion of this girl’s first romantic love is so strong, it bypasses the terror around her – including her brother’s extraordinary demands – as it pushes her on to her own bizarre destiny. Desire, passion, blood, her lust transforms her into one of the Cat People.” (courtesy IMDB)
By the late seventies, most vampires had become so lethargically world-weary – as if they knew that the late 20th century was not really for them – that it was a relief when Hollywood decided to turn to the beast-people, who always seemed to be more at home in the modern world. Wolfen (1981), based on the novel by Whitley Strieber, was an ambitious effort starring Albert Finney in which a new building project threatens the lair of the Wolfen, intelligent telepathic (possibly supernatural) wolves who prey on society’s outcasts. Joe Dante, who had already made a very promising debut with Piranha (1978), was responsible for an enjoyable little werewolf film entitled The Howling (1981), whose witty script is packed with references to earlier werewolf films.
Also thoroughly amusing and in many ways comparable, was the excellent John Landis film An American Werewolf In London (1981) which confidently walks the tightrope between parody and genuine horror throughout. Cat People (1982), Paul Schrader‘s ambitious remake of the 1942 classic, looks more like an art-house film alongside the two confident comedies just mentioned, in fact it has absolutely no sense of humour whatsoever. What starts out as a reasonably well-produced remake quickly becomes an abomination. Everything is supercharged with a lithe but languid sexuality in this steamy romance, this time set in New Orleans. What the original Cat People (1942) had been content to hint at, could now be shown full-frontally.
Schrader, whose previous films specialised in Calvinist themes (faith in predestination), has here not one but two repressed puritans meeting their destinies: Nastassia Kinski is luminously feline as Irena Gallier, the virgin who will become a giant cat should she ever have sex with anyone but her equally feral brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) who incestuously desires her, and zookeeper Oliver (John Heard), a misogynist who prefers animals to people. Everything, then, is set-up for the unusually perverse finale in which, with a bit of bestiality thrown in and Irena roped to the bed, the two both get what they want. Only a stern protestant like Schrader is capable of perversity quite as feverish as this. The trouble is, aside from a few famous set-pieces, this is a totally different story with virtually nothing in common with the original 1942 film.
Most horror fans hated the film, and it certainly is a rather torrid muddle, with its ochre-tinted prologue evoking strange fertility rites in Africa, its solitary descent into visceral horror (a panther in a cage rips a man’s arm off), its rite-of-passage dream sequence (back to the red African dust again) and its symbolic final shot (Oliver reaches out to his lover, now a panther in a cage, and she growls enigmatically). But it has a febrile intensity that is sometimes interesting. Despite a more conventional love story thrown in – Oliver’s more healthy relationship with co-worker Alice (Annette O’Toole) – the subtext seems to be in two parts. Firstly, sex is what animals do, so if you do it, you’re an animal and, secondly, it might be better to be an animal, because animals don’t suffer guilt or angst.
Nastassia Kinski is well-cast, Annette O’Toole is likable as Oliver’s workmate, and some of the early scenes are quite eerie and erotic, but Alan Ormsby‘s script becomes incoherent, the visuals by Ferdinando Scarfiotti become too surrealistic and Schrader completely forgets the subtlety, sensuality and taste that distinguished Val Lewton‘s original film. Like a mischievous little boy, he fills the screen with nudity and violence, subjects totally alien to the Lewton aesthetic. You can virtually feel Schrader losing his grip on the film and, when Irena and Oliver have their kinky sexual encounter, instead of getting aroused you’ll probably just laugh out loud.
In his own defense, Schrader states on the DVD commentary that the film contains more skin than blood, and described it as being more about the mythical than the realistic, likening the relationship between Oliver and Irena to the tale of Dante and Beatrice, and the problems with putting women on pedestals: “Previously I’ve made films about daydreams. This is my first film about nightmares. It’s about what goes on when the lights go out, the unconscious world inhabited by erotic fantasies and what Jean Cocteau calls the ‘sacred monsters’. When you’re dealing with the fantastic, you need a place where people would accept it. New Orleans is one of those towns where you think almost anything can happen – and probably has!”
Malcolm McDowell was reluctant to appear in the film at first because he recalled the original movie as ‘not being very good’ but was convinced by Schrader’s take on the material with its focus on erotic horror. John Heard almost turned down the role because he thought it was going to be a p*rno film, feeling particularly awkward during the nude scenes, and Annette O’Toole informs us that they used cougars that were dyed black because panthers are supposedly impossible to train. The soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder is effective enough, and features the film’s chart-topping title song Putting Out Fire With Gasoline performed by David Bowie. Bowie wanted to use the original film version of the song on his 1983 album Let’s Dance, but MCA refused to allow him to use it because Moroder was contracted to them at the time. Unwilling to allow a competing label (EMI) to use a song by one of their artists, Bowie was forced to re-record the entire song for his album.
Paul Schrader has written and/or directed a couple of dozen films since then, but a particular favourite is Cast A Deadly Spell II: Witch Hunt (1994), a made-for-HBO movie starring Dennis Hopper as fifties detective Phil Lovecraft. As established in the first film Cast A Deadly Spell (1991), it takes place in a parallel universe where magic is real. Monsters and mythical beasts stalk the streets, zombies are used as cheap labour, and everyone (except Lovecraft) uses magic every day, along with more conventional conveniences such as cars and telephones. Not actually based on a story by Lovecraft, it nevertheless features many Lovecraftian tropes, and definitely deserves to be considered part of the overall Cthulhu Mythos. But that’s another story for another time. Right now I’ll politely invite you to join me again next week when I have another opportunity to scoop out your brain and drop it in a bucket with another spine-tingling journey to the dark side of…Horror News! Toodles!