Starring: Nastassja Kinski, John Heard, Annette O'Toole. Malcolm McDowell, Ruby Dee, Ed Begley Jr.
Rated R (probably for Creature Violence/Gore and for Pervasive Sexual Content including Aberrant Sexuality and Graphic Nudity)
When you think of sex, what animal comes to mind?
A totally weird question, I know, but it's at the heart of the movie "Cat People," a remake of a 1942 film. Believe it or not. So what's your answer? I bet it wasn't panthers.
Sure, sex kitten is a term used to describe a playfully sexy young woman, but panthers and sex don't really go together in my mind. Still, I'm open to just about anything when it comes to movie premises. I'll accept anything on its own level. But "Cat People" doesn't work. It starts out strong, but it devolves into an incoherent mess at the halfway mark and never finds its way back.
Irena Galler (Kinski) has just come to New Orleans to meet her long lost brother Paul (McDowell). The two of them were separated since the death of their parents. The first night of her stay it becomes clear to us that there's something strange about him when he jumps on her bedpost like a cat. The same night, a prostitute is attacked by a panther. It's captured and put in a zoo run by Oliver Yates (Heard). Irena visits the zoo and feels drawn to the panther. She meets Oliver, who gives her a job. But it turns out that the panther is actually Paul, and he has special designs for Irena.
There are two ways to deal with such an oddball premise. Either it becomes something the audience simply has to accept, or it's a metaphor illustrating some greater point. Director Paul Schrader, never a conventional writer or filmmaker, seems to be leaning in the latter direction, but what is it a metaphor for? Sexuality's animalistic impulses? I don't know, and I'm not sure Schrader does either.
The acting is fine, although none of the actors are well-served by the screenplay. Considering how unfinished it is, the actors should be commended for doing such a good job. Nastassja Kinski, daughter of the legendary Klaus Kinski, is terrific as the shy Irena. Kinski was known as a sex kitten at the time the film was made, and I believe it. She has a body to die for and there's nothing she doesn't show to the camera. But she's got the acting chops to prove that she's more than just a pretty face.
Able support is provided by John Heard, who is also attractive as Irena's love interest, Annette O'Toole, who radiates sweetness, and Malcolm McDowell, who is at his creepy best. Sadly, McDowell's screen time is limited. For such an important character, that's a problem.
"Cat People" is such a mess that I don't know what the point of it was. Hell, I'd be hard pressed to tell you what it's actually about. But the film has it's charms, and it's rarely boring. That's a compliment, I guess.