Cat People is a 1982 erotic horror movie directed by Paul Schrader and starring Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell and John Heard.
The film focuses on Irena Gallier (Kinski) who has arrived in New Orleans to reconnect with her brother Paul (McDowell). They’ve been separated all their lives as their parents died when they were young.
The reunion is a happy one and the siblings get along really well. Quickly though it’s made clear to the viewer that Paul might have more on his mind then just getting to know his long-lost sister.
That same night we see a black leopard attack and kill a prostitute as she arrives to meet her client. The leopard unable to escape the room is captured the next day and taken to local zoo run by zoologist, Oliver (Heard).
Irena finds out that Paul has left for a while from the housekeeper so sets out to explore the city. She ends up at the zoo and is fascinated by the leopard staying past closing time to draw it. When Oliver approaches she runs off climbing a tree with uncanny ‘cat-like’ speed. Feeling foolish she comes back down and bonds with Oliver, the pair going out for dinner.
The leopard is not taking to the zoo though and during a routine clean-up rips the arm off one of the zoologists’ arms. Oliver has no choice but to euthanise the cat but finds that it has somehow escaped.
That night, Paul returns and reveals all to Irene. He was the leopard (hardly a surprise) and they come from a family of ‘werecats’. He also reveals that they stay human until they mate with another human. That then causes them to turn into leopards and only by killing can they become human again.
An odd setup but one based in the erotica part of the film, that is until Paul’s next reveal. He tells Irene that their parents were brother and sister as their kind are ancestrally incestuous and only sex with another werecat prevents the transformation. He now wants Irene to be his lover.
Naturally Irene isn’t quite on board with is plan fleeing and hiding out with Oliver. Will she be able to fight off the urge to sleep with him though or will she give into his advances?
Somehow, ignoring how un-erotic incest is, Cat People is a decent film with a good story, good pacing, great acting and some really well-done visuals. The incest part does derail the tone of the film somewhat though. It’s not that the film is exciting or fun, it’s just a really well told story. It’s got a layer of grime over it as the reality of Irene’s life comes into focus.
Not much feels pointless and even minor characters serve a purpose in the grand scheme of the film.
The film also boasts some impressive effects when we get to the transformation scene. While the big reveal isn’t so much a reveal as confirmation of what you already know, Malcolm McDowell delivers it in such a way that is near-mesmerising. He is really good in this but so is Nastassja Kinski and John Heard. In fact, acting is not an issue with Cat People.
What is though is the unsatisfying climax, especially after such a serious toned build. It leaves you wondering was it worth it?