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Universal Studios Home Video presents
"I didn't think you were ready, but you are. I saw it when you were with him. Your body burns. You tell yourself that it's love, but it isn't. It's blood. Death."
DVD ReviewPaul Schrader is experiencing a career resurgence with his Bob Crane biopic Auto Focus, so it seems as good a time as any to revisit one of the more obscure entries in his filmography, the remake of Jacques Tourneur's subtle shocker, 1942's Cat People (Universal clearly thought so too; hence their reissue of the film, replacing the out-of-print Image release). In the early 1980s, Universal got the idea to remake some of the classic horror pictures in their vault, and the resultant films (this one and John Carpenter's The Thing) were both box-office disappointments. Over the years, they've gained cult status. The Thing already had a fine special edition DVD, now the Cat People fans get theirs.
I can certainly see why this film would attract such a devoted fan base. Schrader retains the original's title for his remake and pumps everything up a notch, though the basic story remains the same. Irena (Nastassia Kinski) is one of the last surviving members of a race of half cat/ half humans. Her species, worshipped in ancient times as gods, will take on feline form only after sexual intercourse, and the virginal Irena is unaware of her heritage. She goes to see her long lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) in New Orleans and is disturbed by his obvious sexual attraction towards her. It seems that the change will not take place as long at the cat people mate with their own kind, and Paul isn't the best at controlling his desire. Meanwhile, Irena becomes involved with a zoo curator (John Heard), who is helping the police investigate a recent string of bizarre animal attacks in the area.
Tourneur's film was all about suggestion. We never saw Irena transform, and the Freudian sexual elements were allowed to bubble under the surface; nothing was made overt, likely owing as much to the censorship of the age as to the limited special effects available. Schrader was working under no such constraints, and he revels in all of the story's baser elements. Irena parades around nude for most of the film, and Paul indulges himself with prostitutes, only to transform and devour them afterwards. The deaths aren't shown onscreen, but the aftermath is, and the gore effects are so exaggerated as to become ridiculous
Explicit as it is, however, Cat People handles its violence and sex with a certain artistic, European flair. Blood splatters about artfully, and the odd color palette (full of salmon and lime hues) creates a sense of otherworldly unease. The influence of visual artists like Bertolucci (The Conformist in particular) is keenly felt, no doubt due to the efforts of production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, an eccentric Italian who had worked on that Bertolucci picture and with Schrader on American Gigolo. In fact, Scarfiotti had so much control on the set that Schrader lobbied for the studio to bill the film as "by Paul Schrader and Ferdinando Scarfiotti." When the suits balked, he was given the additional title of "visual consultant." I think Schrader was right in asking for the additional credit, though, because the only truly memorable thing about Cat People is the visual style (of particular note is a "cat vision" scene, which looks to have been more or less lifted from 1981's Wolfen).
Though the final film looks great, it's not all that entertaining to watch. It drags on, the pacing too slow to ever generate much suspense, and the finale gets sidetracked with special effects and additional gore. Still, that such a lurid script was ever even filmed is a minor miracle; I can't name another release from a major studio that is so immersed in the taboo. Schrader admits that much of the film is quite personal, a metaphor for his battles with his own libido. The overt incestual vibe, coupled with the near constant nudity and the oppressive, plodding pace, must have thrown the studio execs for a loop once they finally saw the film that they'd poured so much money into. It's no surprise to me that 1982 audiences stayed away—after watching Cat People, I felt like I'd spent the night in a muggy Louisiana bayou and desperately needed a shower.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: C+
Image Transfer Review: This anamorphic transfer replaces the original letterbox release from Image Entertainment. The new transfer does a fair job with the rather difficult source material (reds are difficult to reproduce, and there is plenty of red in this movie). Colors look aged, but saturated (faithfully following the intended look, from what Schrader says on the commentary), though occasionally fleshtones appear off and some color bleeding is noticeable. The print used is in fairly good condition, though it shows quite a bit of grain (whether this is also intended is questionable). I noticed some aliasing on a few shots, but few compression artifacts. Edge enhancement is more visible than I'd like, but it isn't too distracting. Finally, blacks are fairly solid, but shadow detail suffers a bit, to the point where, during several darker scenes, it is quite difficult to make out the actors.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in the original 2.0 English mix only, but I can't say a 5.1 remix was necessary—the original mix is very good for a 20-year-old film. Dialogue is clear and clean throughout. Giorgio Moroder's percussive score is spread nicely across the front soundstage, with good directional enhancement (check out chapter 16, "Stalked"). Though the surrounds are mostly silent throughout, they do kick in for a few of the more intense sequences. LFE is a bit lacking (it'd be nice if the leopard growls had a bit more kick), but otherwise, this is a pleasing track, proving that not every old film needs to be remixed to death.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English Captions, Spanish, French with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Paul Schrader
First up is an excellent audio commentary from director Paul Schrader. Schrader is remarkably candid in his comments, revealing as much about his state of mind as he made the picture as he does about the production proper. He's quick to heap praise on "visual consultant" Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and to point out his influences (Bertolucci). He offers a wealth of insight on the film's sexual and psychological undercurrents, and a few production stories to boot. He doesn't have the most compelling delivery, but what he's saying should be enough to keep you interested.
Cat People: An Intimate Portrait is a 25-minute interview with Schrader, intercut with film clips and occasional production footage. Again, Schrader's comments are quite interesting, but there is a lot of overlap with the commentary—he mentions that he recorded the track on the same day, and he even uses the exact same phrasing once or twice. Still, he's fascinating to listen to, and his insightful comments make the film seem more substantial than it really is. Make sure to watch this segment for a look at an interesting deleted scene, where a woman's head is grafted onto the body of a cheetah.
Special Makeup Effects by Tom Burman is another interesting featurette, this one running just over 11 minutes. Interviewed recently, Burman discusses the difficulties of creating in-camera latex special effects in the pre-CGI era. There's a lot of footage of extensive makeup intended for Kinski's transformation scene, none of which wound up in the film.
Robert Wise on Producer Val Lewton consists of a brief three-minute interview with the legendary director, who speaks highly of Val Lewton, producer of the original 1942 Cat People (the sequel to which was directed by Wise). It's over before Wise really gets to say anything substantive, and I'm really unclear as to why this was included. Save it for the DVD of that film.
On the Set is a 10-minute vintage PR interview with Schrader. He's being interviewed by someone off camera, and he's really out of it, speaking slowly and offering few insights that aren't better articulated in the newly produced bonus materials.
Matte Paintings and Production Photographs are both nicely edited animated still galleries. The former runs for three minutes, highlighting the extensive blue screen work necessary for the desert scenes. The latter runs for six minutes, and features a collection of promotional stills and behind-the-scenes images. Both segments are accompanied by Moroder's haunting score.
Finally, the theatrical trailer closes out the disc, along with some bland production notes and superfluous "film recommendations."
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsCat People has attained cult status over the years, more for its morose tone and unforgettable imagery than its storyline. The tagline sells it as "an erotic fantasy;" if nothing else, it's certainly a bizarre entry in the horror genre. Universal's re-release will please fans that were disappointed with the original, bare-bones Image disc.
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