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Sex, Violence, and an Emerging Cult Favorite
on February 28, 2002
In general terms, the basic premise of both original 1942 CAT PEOPLE and the 1982 Paul Schrader remake are the same: an exotic European beauty is given to transforming into a black panther when sexually aroused. But Schrader unravels this fantasy concept in some very Freudian directions, setting his version in against the decadent charm of New Orleans, introducing a theme of incest, and ramping up the original with a lot of nudity, a lot of sex, and some of the most graphic violence around. The result is an American blood-and-gore horror film with a hypnotic European sensibility that equates both sexual frustration and orgasm with violent death. The story line concerns two orphaned siblings (Natasha Kinski and Malcom McDowell) who are reunited in New Orleans as adults-but they are, unbeknownst to the sister, the descendents of a mutant race who can only mate with their own kind without transforming into ravening beasts who must then kill to regain their human form. When sister Natasha rejects her brother's advances and then falls in love with a hunky zoo director all hell breaks loose.
In some respects the film is extremely, extremely frustrating, often sliding over the edge from a sexually provocative shocker into moments of annoying silliness-but on the whole it works extremely well as a both a sexual fantasy and the penultimate statement in gratuitous sex and violence. Kinski is ideally cast as the sexy but virginal Irena; you can literally see the "cat" side of her nature emerge more and more as the film progresses. McDowell is equally interesting as her mad brother, and John Heard, Annette O'Toole, and particularly Ruby Dee offer excellent performances in the supporting cast. The New Orleans backdrop is extremely effective, and (speaking as one who has been there) the darker side of the city is perfectly captured; the Moroder score-which includes some sultry vocals by David Bowie-is also extremely good.
A great many people will loathe CAT PEOPLE, and the reasons will be diverse. The film is extremely bloody, often to a can-you-stand-to-look-at-the-screen degree; there is tremendous nudity and considerably sexual activity; and the combination of sex and violence into a sadomasochistic eroticism is quite disturbing. Beyond this, more critically inclined viewers may find themselves annoyed by the script's occasional silliness and the fact that it does not always go as far over the top as it leads you to expect, and the film's very literal depiction of fantasy elements will certainly not to be every taste. But if you have a hunger to walk on the wild side, CAT PEOPLE (which is rapidly gaining status as a cult film) will suit your need as guilty pleasure. A personal favorite.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer