The trouble with remakes is how many of them struggle with the need to update a narrative for contemporary audiences. While certain themes may endure across the decades, others cannot thrive in a drastically different era. In 1942, RKO Pictures released Cat People, a horror-thriller that explored a mysterious young woman who believes that she is destined to turn into a violent animal whenever she is aroused. The sexual mores of the ‘40s simply don’t work in the post-disco, pre-AIDS era of the early 1980s, a time where debauchery went truly mainstream, including in the cinema of the time. Tourneur’s Cat People slinks subtly between the shadows of the Hays Code’s restrictions, playing in the context of an era where even saying the word “sex” on-screen could risk the wrath of the Catholic League. So much of horror cinema (and indeed cinematic eroticism) is built on the notion that what you don’t see is far more potent than what you do see. That’s not an approach that interested Paul Schrader.
In 1982, Schrader, the filmmaker best known for writing Taxi Driver, released his remake of Cat People. The scrappy noir of Tourneur’s low-budget original, all shadows and implications, was tossed aside in favor of unbridled, sweat-drenched bluntness. You see it all, from full-frontal nudity to the feline transformations (complete with close-ups of shrinking breasts) to sex workers having their legs mauled by panthers. Tourneur toes the line of ambiguity, having the audience question whether the heroine really will turn into a cat. Schrader has no time for subtext: she’s definitely a killer cat woman, and sex is definitely to blame.
Schrader is arguably the great purveyor of sleaze in American cinema. The best of his work descends into the underbelly of a society on the brink of utter disintegration. Sex isn’t always present amid this moral degradation of his work, but the best examples directly tackle the contradictory nature of America’s cultural default mode towards it: one that is simultaneously obsessed with and almost violently opposed to it. American Gigolo tapped into the near-mythic allure of sex work while exposing its mundanities and isolation. The Comfort of Strangers may have been set in Venice, but its dissection of a sadomasochistic quartet steeped in the corruptive forces of opulence and dread wouldn’t have felt out of place in Travis Bickle’s New York. Even the much-maligned Lindsay Lohan vehicle The Canyons displays a keen understanding of the hyper-materialist hell of Hollywood’s endlessly marketed sensual fantasy. It’s hard to claim, however, that Schrader’s eroticism is an especially positive one. 1979’s Hardcore, a neo-noir drama about a man who discovers his missing daughter has entered the world of underground pornography, is near-Calvinist in its disdain for sex and the industry that has sprung from it.
It’s no different in Cat People, an erotic thriller that heightens America’s love affair with sleaze to near-earth shaking levels. Our protagonist Irena (played by Nastassja Kinski) finds herself embroiled in a smothering world of sexual obsession. Her long-lost brother, a charismatic preacher named Paul (Malcolm McDowell), needs her to satisfy his sordid desires, as does zoologist Oliver (John Heard), the perennial movie Nice Guy who is nonetheless instantly infatuated by this strange woman. The New Orleans she moves to, one defined at the time by the oil bust and resulting recession, is one where every building seems to be crumbling apart. The zoo where Oliver works is a depressing prison of damp walls and prowling animals in too-small cages. The flophouses are concrete boxes that offer no fantastical illusion of sex. It is here that she discovers her dormant sexual mores, and quickly finds herself battling against a seemingly inevitable fate.
McDowell’s performance calls to mind Joan Didion’s description of The Doors as “missionaries of apocalyptic sex”, a band whose music “insisted that love is sex and sex is death and therein lay salvation.” As one of the great deviants of ‘70s and ‘80s cinema – the man who walked so that James Spader could run – McDowell taps into that corrupt desperation. Sex is literally salvation for his character, but only when with a blood relative. The only woman he can have sex with, without turning him into a killer, is his sister; through incest lies deliverance. At times, we see the torture this brings him, but then there are moments where he’s clearly enjoying himself too much to be truly ashamed of this taboo. In one scene, he lays on a bed, taps the empty space next to him, and tells Kinski to “come on”, like she’s a puppy in need of training.
The choices for Irena are corruption or death, a deliciously blunt reduction of America’s frequently binary approach to sex. Sleep with your brother or risk becoming a murderous creature. Eventually, she chooses the latter, allowing Oliver to tie her to the bed and f**k her to her animalistic fate. She may be free of her brother, but she remains beholden to male obsession. In the end, she remains a panther caged in Oliver’s zoo, where he feeds her and pets her and remains his prize preoccupation. Schrader described this ending in a Hollywood Reporter roundtable as Oliver building “a shrine” to his monster. It’s somehow even sleazier than the original movie’s decision to play by the Code’s demands and simply kill off Irena.
Subtlety may never have been Schrader’s strongest suit – but it’s never needed to be, not when America continues to fetishize purity while demanding wholesale sexualization of girls and women. As sex has become more sinister in the public eye, evermore embroiled in conspiratorial notions that tie the most mundane details to outlandish evils, the struggle of Irena’s desire doesn’t seem all that fantastical. If love is sex and sex is death, sleaze will endure, the true American way of life. In Cat People, the best we can hope for is a sliver of peace, even if the sacrifices made to get it are life-altering.
“Cat People” is available for digital rental or purchase.