1982 gave us a wealth of iconic, influential genre cinema: TRON, BLADE RUNNER, POLTERGEIST, FIRST BLOOD, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, CREEPSHOW and CAT PEOPLE. So, maybe that last one isn’t typically mentioned in the same breath as the others, but it should be. After all, what other film mentioned above involved the work of Paul Schrader, Alan Ormsby, Jerry Bruckheimer, Malcom McDowell, Natassja Kinksi, Giorgio Moroder and David Bowie? On paper, it reads like a film that shouldn’t be and on screen it looks and sounds like something that absolutely is, and is as deserving of a mention in the 1982 cannon as it seems defiantly opposed to such a notion.
Schrader’s film is an in-name-only remake of Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 classic horror noir, this time trading shadows for skin. Where Tourneur’s film focused on the horror of bodily transformation – and the paranoia inherent in such a thing – Schrader’s eroticizes it, keeping the action almost exclusively sexual. The result is something that feels a lot more in tradition with European art-horror from the likes of Jean Rollin or Walerian Borowczyk, with an equal emphasis put on atmosphere as well as sex.
The sex in CAT PEOPLE is decidedly aberrant, yet framed so delicately in fantasy that it is seldom appreciated for being as transgressive as it actually is. Kinski and McDowell’s characters play siblings parented by siblings due to an incestuous werecat heritage which keeps them from mating with those outside of their family, doing so results in a transformation that can only be reversed by human death. And this was all well before True Blood made shape-shifting sex fashionable. But what makes CAT PEOPLE so different from its contemporaries is that the sex has consequences both personal and non, and they are consequences that go beyond those of the slashed co-eds in series like FRIDAY THE 13TH. For all of its talk about perversity – the revelation of Kinski’s virginity is explicitly referred to as sounding “perverse” – Schrader’s film never judges its characters or their lust, it just allows them/it to be. In an extended post-human-coitus section in the later part of the film, Kinski walks around sans clothing, yet Schrader never lets the camera traverse her body or linger, he cuts from shots of her naked body and spends more time on her face, letting the character (as well as the viewer) understand the consequences of her sexual abandon.
At this point in his career, Schrader was not exactly known as an erotic filmmaker but it seemed natural for this film to follow HARDCORE and AMERICAN GIGOLO. Both films deal with sexuality in a particularly masculinized manner, with HARDCORE chronicling a father’s journey through the porn industry in search of his daughter and AMERICAN GIGOLO being about, well, a gigolo. Though CAT PEOPLE’s narrative does involve men, particularly McDowell’s character, its focus is on Kinski and her character’s sexual awakening, understanding and transgressions. Where Schrader’s prior two films were fairly traditional, Hollywood narratives, CAT PEOPLE is decidedly non-conformist in its structure, appearance and portrayal of female sexuality. Schrader wouldn’t dabble in the erotic too much after this – though AUTO FOCUS would explicitly deal with sex, it was far from erotic – outside of the fiasco that was/is THE CANYONS, but CAT PEOPLE maintains as important an erotic work of the 1980s as 9 ½ WEEKS or CRUISING and, as a result, is one of the more important genre films of the decade too. It’s time to start mentioning it with the best of them.