Putting Out the Fire: Paul Schrader’s “Cat People” and 1980s Studio Erotica

Exactly four decades after Jacques Tourneur terrified audiences with his quick and moody werecat horror film Cat People in 1942, Paul Schrader – following the success of American Gigolo – released a nearly in-name-only remake. The cultural climate in 1982 was vastly different than when Tourneur was making his film. Schrader’s remake, after all, came in the same year as the gleefully excessive epic Conan the Barbarian, the ultra-gory remake of The Thing, and slasher films like The Slumber Party Massacre and Friday the 13th: Part III testing the limits of on screen carnage. But where was the sex?

The early 80s saw a smattering of sexually explicit studio films that earned their fair share of controversy, including Schrader’s aforementioned American Gigolo, Brian De Palma’s daring thriller Dressed to Kill, Lawrence Kasdan’s steamy neo-noir Body Heat and Just Jaeckin’s adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. But in 1982 things seemed to turn in favor of bloodier thrills, with the major exception of Schrader’s remake of Cat People. This incestuous, werecat-sex-fueled piece of erotica that was, almost inexplicably, funded by a major studio, is a far cry from the film that inspired it.

Schrader’s Cat People is credited as being based on DeWitt Bodeen’s original 1942 screenplay but the similarities are slim. Some character names remain the same, as do their relationships, but the focus is flipped. Rather than following a female lead like its predecessor (though Nastassja Kinski is certainly on screen plenty and front and center in the marketing), Schrader’s version is primarily concerned with Paul, Irena’s brother, played by Malcolm McDowell. The peripheral characters of Alice and Oliver (played by Annette O’Toole and John Heard, respectively, in the remake versus Jane Randolph and Kent Smith in the original) remain. In Schrader’s remake, Kinski’s Irena takes over as the source of sexual attraction (rather than mere romance), shifting the character dynamic from the original, where Alice is far more the typical glamorous Hollywood woman. And thus Schrader’s film becomes a piece of erotica in the process.

Tourneur’s film dealt with intimacy and attraction, but within the constraints of the Production Code (and a lean 73 minute runtime). Schrader has a much more relaxed R-rating to work with. The sexual relationships are much more robustly explored and go even beyond the drastically increased amount of flesh on display. There’s an element of kink added with the bestial displays of eroticism and the taboo nature of the incestuous relationship of Irena and Paul. The result here is a much hotter film than Tourneur’s, and not just in regards to on screen sex. The change to color amplifies things aesthetically, especially the bathed in red images that make up the “home” of the werecats, and the New Orleans location allows for much of the bare flesh to be dripping in sweat.

The 80s would see a slew of studio financed erotic films following the box office success of Schrader’s Cat People, with titles like 9 ½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, The Hunger, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Wild Orchid and even Bolero all being released throughout the decade. Though often classified as a horror film, likely due to its title and suggested source, Schrader’s remake of Cat People has far more in common with the erotic thrillers of the 1980s and could be argued to be responsible for much of what came after. It, as Roger Ebert states in his review, manages to combine “…the perverse, the glorious and the ridiculous” deftly. Even if Tourneur’s film is regarded as being better (should that even be quantifiable), there’s something bold and unique about Schrader’s vision. An uncompromising, and very 80s, cocktail of sex, violence, and mythology set to a Giorgio Moroder score.

Justin LaLiberty holds degrees in film preservation from the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and film studies from Keene State College. He is a regular contributor to Paracinema Magazine, writes the Geek Weird column for Geek New Wave and is currently writing a book on XXX parody films. He is a Creative Associate at Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers and regularly haunts NYC movie houses showing any type of genre/trash cinema.


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