You might feel a bit…well, sleazy watching this 1982 “erotic remake” of the 1942 movie that bore the same title but, understandably, had way less sex and violence. I suppose that would qualify it as a guilty pleasure. But even though it wasn’t a box office smash, Cat People is a dandy horror flick that garnered mostly positive reviews, including a great one from the late Roger Ebert. It also offered an award-winning, pulsating Giorgio Moroder score and a title song, “Putting Out Fire,” by none other than David Bowie. (I still own the old LP.) Watching it again recently after a lengthy hiatus made me wonder why I waited so long.
The film opens with a surrealistic dream setting from way back in time, where a number of black panthers sit in a tree. A primitive-looking young woman is being offered to the cats. A close-up of her face suddenly morphs into the bemused expression of a young woman named Irena (Nastassia Kinski) as she arrives at the New Orleans airport. She is met by her weird brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell at his creepy best), whom she hardly knows. They were separated many years ago as kids when their circus-performer parents killed themselves.
Paul takes her home, where she meets his housekeeper, Female (Feh-MA-lee), played by Ruby Dee. As they relive some old memories we sense that Paul is lusting after Irena, who is a virgin. When it gets too much for him, Paul splits.
That same night a prostitute enters a room at a no-tell motel to meet her john—who happens to be a panther. She is mauled, but survives. Three zoologists, Oliver (John Heard), his girlfriend Alice (Annette O’Toole), and Joe (Ed Begley, Jr.) tranquilize the cat and put it in the local zoo.
The next day, with her brother AWOL, Irena tours the Big Easy and winds up at the zoo, where (of course) she becomes fascinated by the panther and sits there for hours sketching it. When Oliver sees her there after closing time and approaches, she runs away and—surprising herself—leaps way the heck up in a tree. Oliver talks her down, befriends her, and offers her a job in the zoo gift shop.
During Irena’s first day on the job the panther tears Joe’s arm off (really gross scene), and he dies from blood loss. The panther (Paul; but you knew that) escapes, and when Irena goes home that evening, Paul shows up and wants to have sex with her. Their parents, he tells her, were also brother and sister, both of them Cat People, or werecats, products of an ancient heritage. They can only mate incestuously with each other, otherwise dire consequences will result.
Thinking her brother whacko Irena jumps out the window, lands (cat-like) on all fours and runs up the street, where she flags down a cop car. Paul, naturally, is gone when they go back to the house, but a police dog sniffs out an animal cage in the basement, replete with gnawed human body parts. This is where Female tends to Paul on his “bad hair” days. She refuses to talk and is arrested.
Oliver, who is falling for Irena, invites her to stay with him. She does, but tells him that they can’t have sex just yet. She is worried about what Paul told her, and she also finds herself doing weird things, like chasing after a rabbit on all fours and devouring it after Oliver takes her out to his bayou cabin.
Back in Oliver’s house days later, Panther Paul shows up. He has killed another woman (seriously gross scene) and knows that, in order to stop, he must mate with Irena, so he wants to kill Oliver to get him out of the picture. But Oliver and Alice kill the big cat, and later, when Oliver does an autopsy, he finds human parts inside (major gross scene). What remains of Paul then disintegrates.
Though few scenes from the 1942 version are duplicated, there is one that stands out in both versions. Irena and Alice, of course, have been jealous of each other from the get-go. Alice is out jogging one night and swears that someone is stalking her. She finishes at a gym and decides to take a swim in the pool. Hearing a growl while undressing, she jumps in the water. The lights go out, and she hears more growling. She screams. The lights go back on, and there stands Irena, who says something snarky and leaves. Alice finds her robe torn to shreds.
The smitten Oliver, disregarding Alice’s warning, finally has sex with Irena, who changes into a panther but flees before she can hurt him. Panther Irena is subsequently trapped on a bridge, but she escapes. Oliver heads for his bayou cabin, figuring that’s where she’ll go. He’s right—but she is Irena again, having killed an old caretaker. She first begs Oliver to kill her, but he refuses. Then, having had a “glimpse” of her feline ancestors, she accepts her destiny as a werecat and tells him that she wants to “be with her own.” He ties her down and again has sex with her. (Does this guy have a problem? Ya think?)
In the final scene Oliver is again at the zoo and apparently back in the good graces of Alice. He takes some raw meat to a cage containing (can you guess?) a black panther, where he proceeds to hand feed it and stroke its neck. End of story.
Yes, the 1982 version of Cat People is strange, atmospheric at times, and definitely erotic. Aficionado of the genre or not, you’ll find it a fascinating two hours of viewing time.