TAXI DRIVER screenwriter Paul Schrader is at the helm of Universal's gory, sexed-up remake of the suggestive classic CAT PEOPLE, finally out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.
Orphaned Irina Gallier (Nastassja Kinski, TESS) arrives in New Orleans to reunite with her long-lost preacher brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell, CALIGULA) and his superstitious housekeeper Female (Ruby Dee, A RAISIN IN THE SUN), pronounced like "tamale". When he suddenly disappears for several days, Irina has to see the sights and look for work on her own. At the local zoo, she meets zookeeper Oliver (John Heard, CHUD) who is attracted to her and hires her to work in the gift shop. She finds herself repeatedly drawn to the zoo's black leopard – newly acquired after having inexplicably turned up in a by-the-hour motel where it mauled a prostitute (Lynn Lowry, SCORE) – and witnesses it savagely kill one the attendants (Ed Begley, Jr., SHE DEVIL) before vanishing. The leopard's disappearance coincides with the reappearance of Paul, whose violently incestuous advances towards Irina give way to something even more unnatural that sends her into the arms of Oliver. While Oliver and the police suspect Paul of being a serial killer ritually feeding victims to the leopard once kept in his basement, Irina become suspect that her own growing sexual urges are more than just figuratively animalistic.
Although visually stunning, explicitly gory, and sexy in true eighties studio style, Paul Schrader's CAT PEOPLE – one of several memorable eighties Universal horror entries – is otherwise a mess; having been mounted initially by Schrader following AMERICAN GIGOLO as a way to recharge his batteries working from someone else's screenplay. Alan Ormsby's original script was apparently more of a traditional old dark house horror focusing on the relationship between Irina and her psychologist (presumably not unlike the Dr. Judd character of the original film), but the script was soon reshaped by Scharder to suit his obsessions: namely Freud, Jung, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Nastassja Kinski (THE HOWLING's Gary Brandner was hired to novelize the script). Schrader's heaviest influence has always been Bernardo Bertolucci's THE CONFORMIST, and for his previous film for Paramount AMERICAN GIGOLO he had been able to secure the services of that film's production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti (Scarfiotti would also work on SCARFACE and THIEF OF HEARTS before returning to Italy where he designed Bertolucci's epics THE LAST EMPEROR and THE SHELTERING SKY). Scrarfiotti's production design – his credited as "visual consultant" – includes less flashy single multi-story sets of Paul's house and the zoo buildings, as well the soundstage desert (dreamland?) of the cat people (including a scrapped attempt to recreate Fernand Khnopf's surrealist painting "The Sphinx" which also figured into Stephen King's later CAT PEOPLE-ish SLEEPWALKERS), but the most striking component of the film is the cinematography of John Bailey (who also shot Schrader's AMERICAN GIGOLO). Albert Whitlock (THE THING) contributes a number of seamless matte paintings (Irina's "cat vision" point-of-view shots were the work of Robert Blalack who had just lent his optical talents to POVs of Michael Wadleigh's titular WOLFEN), and the special effects make-up work of Tom Burman (MY BLOODY VALENTINE) includes probably the goriest and most disturbing limb-ripping in an R-rated horror film at the time, as well as a human-to-leopard animatronic transformation that is striking in itself but pales in comparison to similar set-pieces in the film's werewolf contemporaries THE HOWLING, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and THE COMPANY OF WOLVES. The score of Giorgio Moroder (FLASHDANCE) is stirring and sensual in its original form (not so much the remixed, disco-fied soundtrack album cues), and David Bowie's theme song lets the film close on a rollicking note but otherwise goes against the grain of the rest of the film. John Laroquette (TV's NIGHT COURT) has an early appearance here as the zoo's harried lawyer, and TWIN PEAKS's Ray Wise appears on a TV screen as a soap actor.
Although memorably accompanied by taglines like "They are something more than lovers who are about to become something less than human" and "An erotic fantasy for the animal in us all!", CAT PEOPLE can't really live up to them, and its sexuality seems adult only in explicitness but certainly not erotic however much Schrader and cinematographer Bailey attempt to seduce us by swirling around Kinski's nude body. Heard is an affable presence, but he doesn't come across as obsessive enough to pull the kinkier aspects of the scenario off, with the film's dangerously repressed sexuality grafted onto Kinski's Irina (but the Paul character not only spoils for us the mystery of Irina's inner nature but also is given more dimension than the focal character). The script's focus should have been more on Oliver's obsession with Irina (mirroring Schrader's obvious infatuation with Kinski at the time) – fusing the original film's character of Oliver and Dr. Judd into one – which would have made the climactic ritualistic pseudo-bestiality and enshrinement seem like an act of worship (earlier in the film, Oliver tries to memorize Dante Alighieri's "courtly love" poem "La Vita Nuova" and a statue of Beatrice is briefly on view). Annette O'Toole (48 HRS.) plays Oliver's safer alternative love interest, but is given little to do compared to her 1942 counterpart Jane Randolph (THE FALCON STRIKES BACK) other than a topless version of the swimming pool stalking. The other major stalking setpiece from the original following the rival love interest down dark streets is turned into a disco-scored Steadicam jog through a park, and the film's only other nod to the original is the scene in which a strange woman approaches Irina and calls her "my sister", but there's nothing really mysterious about the scene as it is here (and the woman may indeed be drunk as O'Toole's character suggests rather than another cat person). However much a pleasure it is to give this film a spin every once in a while, it loses quite a bit of its magic when the plot is given too much scrutiny; but it's still enjoyable as a love letter to Bernardo Bertolucci and Nastassja Kinski.
Schrader's CAT PEOPLE has been available pretty much continuously on home video from the beginning including VHS, Beta, CED, and panned-and-scanned laserdisc. In 1994, Image released the film on letterboxed laserdisc and as a barebones, non-anamorphic letterboxed DVD with a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround in 2000. That transfer was pretty good for the most part, although the salmons and limes leopard tree dream scenes were more red and yellow. This was also the home video version with two instances of rescoring. In the original version, the dinner scene between Paul and Irena is scored with Perry Como's "Far Away Places" but it is scored here with Ella Fitzgerald's "Sunday Kind of Love" (and the end credits have been amended to reflect this change). The other instance had Ed Begley Jr. singing "What's New Pussycat?" in the theatrical version of the scene preceding his death, while he instead sings "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" here. The theatrical soundtrack was reinstated when Universal released their own DVD which featured not only an anamorphic transfer – slightly darker and revealing a bit more of the source's dirt and grit but not much sharper – but also featured a host of extras including an audio commentary by director Paul Schrader, and vintage on-the-set featurette with Schrader as well as a newer interview (in all of which, he's a bit hazy about his intentions), a featurette with effects artist with Tom Burman, before and after comparison footage of the scenes augmented with Albert Whitlock matte paintings, a short piece on Val Lewton with director Robert Wise (co-director of CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE).
Shout! Factory's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 transfer looks far cleaner and less murky than Universal DVD transfer, but it also doesn't look grainy (and it really should considering past transfers and Bailey's lighting, particularly in the desert flashback/dream scenes). While not as plastic-looking as caps of the HD-DVD edition suggest, it does appear to have been sharpened (if it's the same master as the HD-DVD, then Universal must have applied a lot of additional digital filtering during the VC-1 encode). It's not a perfect transfer, but for those of us who have experienced the film on home video and DVD before, it still does feel like seeing the film anew with details and textures not readily apparent before (the sharpening is more apparent in the daytime exterior shots of New Orleans, but you can also see where the studio sets join with Whitlock's matte paintings). Presumably it is the same master that appears on the German region free Blu-ray from Koch Media. CAT PEOPLE's Dolby Stereo soundtrack was already detailed, directional, and LOUD, so the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track is fine enough. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track doesn't seem to have been remixed, but the music and cat roars stray into the surrounds (the soundtrack is also that of the original theatrical version). Optional English SDH subtitles are also included, and they contain an error that was also in the Universal subtitles so they may not be a new transcription.
It seems inexplicable that Scream Factory has not carried over the DVD extras, but that seems to be the case with their Universal acquisitions (unlike the MGM ones) with the company either producing new extras and/or acquiring ones from releases in other territories where Universal does not hold rights (i.e. the commentaries for PHANTASM II and PRINCE OF DARKNESS); as such, Scream Factory's first collector's edition of 2014 is not as special as it could have been. Scream Factory have produced a handful of new interviews with an admittedly impressive roster of participants. Nastassja Kinski (5:55) vaguely comments on the characters, the cast, the film's themes, and working with live animals, make-up effects, and the desert dream sequence. Annette O'Toole (8:24) reveals that Debbie Allen was initially cast in her role, her chemistry with Heard, working with the cats (cougars painted black), the swimming pool scene, and injuring herself during the jogging scene (causing it to be moved back in the schedule). John Heard (6:11) confesses to the film's eroticism being lost on him, the challenge of playing the character's growing obsession, and discusses Schrader's auteurism. Malcolm McDowell (7:34) recalls being approached by Schrader and Bruckheimer while doing "Look Back in Anger" on stage, and that his main acting challenge in the film was learning to act backwards for the reverse-motion effects. Lynn Lowry (5:52) describes auditioning for the role, being intimidated working with Schrader, and describes the film as a love story with horror elements.
Composer Giorgio Moroder (5:31) discusses working with David Bowie as well as the computer techniques he used to produce the sounds of the score. Paul Schrader (9:12) recalls responding to the Jungian elements of the film's scenario, the major change he made to the original script (which originally ended in a conventional conflagration that killed the beast), collaborating with Scarfiotti, hiring Kinski after ONE FROM THE HEART, as well as seeing the film again recently thinking it would be better with CGI only to appreciate the practical effects. The interviews are not particularly substantive, and it is too bad Scream Factory could not have also sought the participation of cinematographer John Bailey who probably had as substantial an influence on the look of the film despite the emphasis on the collaboration between Schrader and Scarfiotti (Bailey provided a commentary track on the Scorpion disc of Karen Arthur's THE MAFU CAGE and an interview on their disc of LEGACY). The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (2:17) in as poor condition as it had been on the Universal DVD, a TV Spot (0:30), an extensive photo gallery (9:31), and another gallery of production art and international posters (2:40). While Scream Factory was able to include the opening of the TV version of PRINCE OF DARKNESS and the TV version of HALLOWEEN II in its entirety on previous releases, they were apparently not able to source at least one scene not included in the final cut that was apparently included in the TV broadcasts featuring Irena and a caged bird (a scene lifted directly from the Tourneur film). Scream Factory's animated menu screen for the disc is gorgeous, as is their new artwork (except perhaps for the likeness of Heard's character), and the original "Kinski in rain" artwork is on the reverse. (Eric Cotenas)
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