Published Jan 21, 2014There's no earthly reason why Cat People should work at all considering how strange and ludicrous its premise sounds on paper, but the way it manages to walka fine line between sleek, sexy thriller and pulpy, fantastical family drama is one of its greatest achievements. By rooting itself in the realm of the mythological and allowing a skewed brand of magical realism to keep things from careering too far into the supernatural, it proceeds with such conviction that it becomes impossible not be carried along for the intoxicating ride.
We open on a gorgeous desert landscape not of this world, where the locals offer their young women to the wild black leopards of the area as some sort of sacrifice, before jumping forward to present-day New Orleans. Here we meet Irena (Nastassja Kinski), a mysterious and alluring woman arriving in town to reunite with her long-lost brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell). Things start to get really weird when Paul goes missing and some local animal authorities capture a leopard nearby that terrorized a hooker.
When Irena meets Oliver (John Heard), the curator of the zoo where the leopard is being held, there is an instant mutual attraction and she soon ends up with a job at the zoo's gift shop. Paul returns shortly after the imprisoned leopard attacks a zoo worker and escapes, explaining to Irena the true incestuous, feline origins of where they both come from and the implications now facing her. In short, the virginal Irena is doomed to transform into a leopard if she has sex with anyone other than Paul and will only revert back into human form should she then kill someone.
Kinski is in peak form here, radiating genuine heat as she slowly morphs from overwhelmed naïf to empowered temptress. The love story between Irena and Oliver accumulates weight as it becomes increasingly clear how doomed their union is by the impossibility of their circumstances. Director Paul Schrader (The Canyons, Auto Focus) shows a deft touch in navigating a potential minefield of shifts in mood through even the wildest beats of the story. He's also provided a powerful theme song by David Bowie for the end credits that Quentin Tarantino would later put to good use in Inglourious Basterds.
In revealing new interviews with the cast and crew recorded especially for this release, a few actually point to this song as their favorite moment in the film, and composer Giorgio Moroder discusses how Bowie differs from most musicians in that he likes to work in the morning. Other notable tidbits unearthed from these conversations include how the leopards were actually cougars that had been painted black and how much influence Schrader had in re-shaping the script. The director expresses surprise at how well the film has held up while only lamenting that he didn't change the film's title to separate it entirely from the 1942 B-movie that served as the initial inspiration.