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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

Cat People (1982), directed by Paul Schrader

Cat People -

Along with the clothes of its principal stars -- Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, and Annette O'Toole -- Paul Schrader's reimagining of the Lewton-Tourneur classic strips away the original's most celebrated achievement, its powerful use of suggestion. Schrader's approach, literal and overt, leaves very little to the imagination. Even its designation as an erotic horror film is strictly by the book. It's not that its peculiar idea of eroticism -- incest, voyeurism, prostitution, and bondage -- is unworkable, but that Schrader's sensibility acts on it only on its most superficial level. It may at times be sexually arousing, but this is in a literal, pornographic way rather than a more suggestively erotic one.

Kinski plays Irena Gallier, a young woman who comes to New Orleans to meet her brother, Paul (McDowell), whom she hasn't seen since they were separated as children after the death of their parents. Paul wastes no time signaling the sort of relationship he wants to have with his sister. Irena, repulsed, turns to Oliver (Heard), curator of the New Orleans Zoo, whose assistant, Alice (O'Toole), is in love with him.

Paul's interest in Irena is, for him, a natural one. He is one of the cat people, an incestuous race of werebeings who turn into leopards if they have sex with an outsider. The catch is, to become human again, they must kill. Irena, aware that she is different but not knowing why, initially rejects Paul's explanation, though later, of course, she is forced to accept it. The question is, how will she deal with it?

Cat People isn't a good movie, but it could have been, and not by removing the incest angle but by focusing on it. I get so tired of movies that introduce controversial elements strictly for their novelty value, ultimately dismissing them as unimportant. Like all those movies in the 80s with lesbian characters whose purpose was to titillate then die. Schrader, in fact, seems almost ashamed of this one. He and McDowell turn Paul into a perverted creep (or is that a creepy pervert?), beginning the moment he first sets eyes on Irena. Realistically, he shouldn't be; his desire is a natural one (for one of his kind). It's Irena who is, in a sense, perverse. Or should be. A movie that explored their relationship sensitively and logically might have been something special, a dark fantasy with some real world-building.

Logic, however, is treated with no less contempt than Paul. The movie comes to a grinding halt at one point, after Irena has run away and, in a dream, learns the true nature of her people. She knows now what will happen if she ever makes love to Oliver. The only sensible thing to do, then, is to stay away. Movie over, right? Not actually. Instead, her dream tells her, "You must return." I couldn't figure out why, until I realized her dream must have whispered something else in her ear: You haven't finished your nude scenes.