Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #18
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: 2 April, 1982
Sub-Genre: Cult Film/Erotica/Horror
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $21,000,000
Running Time: 118 minutes
Director: Paul Schrader
Producers: Charles Fries
Screenplay: DeWitt Bodeen, Alan Ormsby
Special Effects: Karl Miller, Tom Del Genio, Pat Domenico
Cinematography: John Bailey
Score: Georgio Moroder
Theme Song: David Bowie
Editing: Jacqueline Cambas, Jere Huggins, Ned Humphreys
Studio: RKO Pictures, Universal Pictures
Distributor: MCA/Universal Home Video
Stars: Nastassja Kinski, John Heard, Malcolm McDowell, Annette O’Toole, Ed Begley Jr, Ruby Dee, Scott Paulin, Frankie Faison, Ron Diamond, Lynn Lowry, John Larroquette, Tessa Richarde
Suggested Audio Candy
 Georgio Moroder “Irene’s Theme”
 David Bowie “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”
I am a self-confessed cat enthusiast or some would say a lover of pussy. These majestic beasts fascinate me; their movement, their temperament, their fierce independence, and of course their sinister eyes. Over the years our elegant feline friends have been been given regular outings within horror, a genre which, since Edgar Allen Poe first touched the parchment paper with his own quill, has been fixated with their mysterious presence.
Of course, anyone familiar with Dario Argento and George A. Romero’s 1990 collaboration Two Evil Eyes will be aware that Poe’s nightmarish tale The Black Cat received its own modern retelling. The cat in another famed literary behemoth’s well crafted anthology, Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye, suffered a torrid time throughout the duration although all worked out for the miffed moggy come the end, albeit with somewhat crispier paws, and the masterful Hammer and Amicus studios incorporated cats on numerous occasions during their masterful run.
So what of the cats here then? Well they are a little bit larger than your average domestic pussy that’s for sure. The most notable distinction here is that one of the life-sized cats is played by none other than the daughter of the late Klaus Kinski, an actor known as much for his petulance and fiery temper as the 135 films he appeared in before his death. I’ve been an admirer of mesmerizing German sex-kitten Nastassja Kinski ever since first viewing Wim Wenders’ magnificent Paris Texas but, while Nastassja remains active to this day, her fleeting popularity in the eighties is now sadly a distant memory. As Irene Gallier she ghosts across the screen with suitably feline grace and poise, effortlessly inhabiting the soul of the fine creature she portrays.
Orphaned Irene travels to New Orleans to reunite up with estranged older brother Paul, fellow descendant of the cat people, a breed who turn into panthers directly after mating and must then kill in order to return to their human form again. Her incestuous sibling is played by Malcolm McDowell, in a role for which he is well suited after engaging in similar interbreeding pursuits three years prior for Caligula. He is in turn both charming and sinister, adding just the right level of kitsch to his portrayal of Irene’s randy and ravenous kin.
John Heard (After Hours, C.H.U.D.) is an actor who has never received the credit he richly deserves and here he excels as curator Oliver, falling for Irena’s inescapable charms and becoming aroused by her stark beauty and increasingly evident inner beast. His assistant Alice is played by overlooked eighties sweetheart, Annette O’Toole (Superman III, 48 Hrs), who has a tangible girl next door quality about her, one which I find alluring in a far more earthy manner than Kinski. Ever since first watching her fumbling awkwardly beneath the sheets with Martin Short in Armyan Bernstein’s Cross My Heart, I wanted to see more of her, without the bumbling buffoon in tow of course. Her character here is somewhat tragic as her unrequited love for Oliver is painfully evident but she can do nothing to dissuade his obsession.
There are other notable supporting turns also. The late Ruby Dee (Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever) is perfectly cast as Paul’s housekeeper Female (pronounced Fee-mal-ee), while Ed Begley Jr (This is Spinal Tap, Transylvania 6-500) has a small role as Oliver’s jovial assistant Joe Criegh. Alas he proves as skilled a cat handler as he was Son of the Invisible Man in Amazon Women on The Moon. As adept as all of the players are I still find my mind wandering back to the animalistic Kinski who is nigh-on impossible to take your eyes off for a single second, cutting such a delicate figure against some beautifully abstract backdrops.
The ambiance is aided in no small part by David Bowie who, with Cat People (Putting Out Fire), provides a theme song to rival any other in eighties cinema. His haunted melancholic croonings effortlessly complement the emotionally stirring synthesized score by Giorgio Moroder and it is an almost telepathic marriage. Meanwhile the dazzling cinematography of John Bailey is off-the-chain, infusing the screen with orange and lime tones which maximize the visual impact throughout.
The work of Argento taught me a lot about art, he educated me that beauty and terror can be a most alluring combination when fused efficiently. Cat People is one of those rare pictures which simply oozes sensuality from every pore. Kinski displays an erotic yearning which bleeds authenticity and it would be hard to imagine any other actress from the time playing the role to such perfection. Interestingly she did request that the copious nudity be toned down a little which, given the fact that she spends much of the final act sans clothes, begs the question “what the hell was left on the cutting room floor?” However, it never feels gratuitous and serves a purpose of sorts. Case in point, the cunning placement of a window frame during one particular full frontal shot represents Irene’s caged sexuality.
Paul Schrader has made over twenty movies during his career but will always be regarded as a better screenwriter than a director having penned such indisputable classics as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Mosquito Coast amongst countless others. His remake of Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 classic by the same name is as loose as they come, with very little common ground linking the two films together. This offbeat bestial gem emits eighties chic from its every pore, has a wonderfully dreamlike quality about it, and is positively overflowing with sexual energy. Cat People may never quite be regarded as a masterpiece. What it is though is a startling moody piece of forgotten cinema the likes of which just doesn’t get made any more.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For The Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Despite Kinski taking exception to a number of additional full frontal shots, there’s still plenty of flesh on exhibit. In addition, there are some particularly gruesome moments but they never take precedence to storytelling and the film benefits from this restraint. One scene in particular serves as a stark reminder of why not to get too close to a vexed caged panther during feeding time if you plan to ever again play patticakes.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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