Sunday, April 17, 2016

It's More A Story With Ghosts In It



Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing in CRIMSON PEAK (2015)


As much as I hate people, I love any excuse to talk with them about books, so I joined a book club. Well, technically it's my second because I got kicked out of the first one. It was a classic literature group but I thought it was pretty telling that they had left a modern masterpiece like VALLEY OF THE DOLLS off their reading list. But c'est la vie. Henry Campbell, criminal defense legal wizard and best buddy extraordinaire, was also banned for life from the group for showing up to meetings pleasantly sloshed with a Coke can full of gin so that just proves those people are sucking the class out of classic literature. So, in addition to being president of the local chapter of the WARREN OATES Fan Club, Henry took the initiative and formed a brand new book club for the true lovers of literature.

I, for one, appreciated his discussion points from last week's "SINCLAIR LEWIS Is A Wimp" lecture. He talked about how LEWIS is the equivalent of that obnoxious guy at the bar who thinks he's the smartest guy in the room and laughs at all his own jokes. Then when you don't think he's that funny, he tries to pick a fight but then he's all mouth and gets his nose knocked square down to his ass by some biker guy who's not gonna put up with that punk-ass nonsense. I'm looking forward to next week's lecture, "JIM THOMPSON eats other writers for lunch."
However, not everyone is a fan of Henry's boozy, folksy literary lectures. Butch Walker's half-brother (those parents have racked up a few ex-spouses over the years) is vying to unseat Henry as president of the book club. See, before those voices in his head told him to steal a Zamboni and go on rampage through the mall food court, he had earned an M.F.A. in Literature at UVA. He knows more about DREISER than anyone on the planet. While he was doing Rorshach fingerpaintings in a state mental institution, he even formed his own "literary appreciation circle" among his fellow inmates and tried to educate some of the staff about the finer points of THE BROTHERS KARAMOZOV. He even tried to mount a production of THE ICEMAN COMETH with his fellow inmates but there were some real divas in that crowd. Anyhow, he didn't find that SINCLAIR LEWIS lecture amusing.
He couldn't understand how someone could stand back and desecrate American literary masterpieces like BABBIT and IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE.
"Easy," Henry answered. "They're not very good."
Butch's half-brother was saying something about Henry didn't understand the satire of those books and Henry just answered, "How couldn't I understand 'em? They're about as subtle as a sack full of buttholes. Less profound, I might add."
I don't entirely know what that means, but he's got a point.
"Let me put it to ya this way," Henry said. "IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE and ROBERT PENN WARREN's ALL THE KINGS MEN were both inspired by the same real-life subject, right? But ALL THE KINGS MEN is writing, where IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE is whining. And ain't gonna read no damn whining."
Butch's half-brother gets madder than a wet nun and insists that literature is sacred and discussion of it should be conducted with a serious air.
Henry just responded with, "Is it just me, or is FLANNERY O' CONNOR pretty hot?"

Where do I stand on this proposed change to the book club's direction? I'm damn opposed. I refuse to take anything seriously and nothing gets on my nerves more than a bossy guy on Seroquel.
Dave Spencer is also angling to take over as president as it would provide him a captive audience for his one-man show about TRUMAN CAPOTE. He walks around spitting out bitchy putdowns in everyday life anyway so the one-man show really can't be much of a stretch.

And speaking of an appreciation for literature, today I'm talkin' about GUILLERMO DEL TORO's love letter to the Gothic romance, CRIMSON PEAK, co-written with MATTHEW ROBBINS, starring MIA WASIKOWSKA as the resourceful candelabra-wielding heroine, the lovable JIM BEAVER as her father, SONS OF ANARCHY's CHARLIE HUNNAM as her Sherlock Holmes-loving best friend who gets a chance to solve a real mystery and TOM HIDDLESTON and JESSICA CHASTAIN as the sinister Usher-like Sharpe siblings. But the real star is the decaying mansion of the title, resting on acres of blood-red clay.
Things are gonna get a little SPOILER-ific so be warned!


Allerdale Hall in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).


In turn-of-the-century Buffalo, NY, Edith Cushing is an outspoken aspiring writer. Her ambitions are met with derision by the high society folks around her, particularly since it is not customary for women to write ghost stories.
"It's not a ghost story," Edith corrects a condescending publisher. "It's more a story with ghosts in it."
Edith is not interested in being a typical, vacuous Victorian lady. When her best friend's social climbing mother patronizingly refers to her as "our own JANE AUSTEN" and remarks that Ms. Austen died a spinster, Edith retorts, "Actually, Mrs. MacMichael, I prefer to be MARY SHELLEY. She died a widow."
Perhaps Edith's upbringing granted her a different outlook. Her mother died when she was only ten and she was raised by her successful industrialist father. He's supportive of Edith's ambitions and her stubbornness. After all, those are the qualities that allowed him to rise from rags to riches. He even gives her a gift of a pen for her writing.
Edith's interest in the supernatural stems back from a childhood incident in which she was given a warning by her mother's ghost.
And of course, a warning that does not make sense to the recipient will go unheeded and figure into the plot. It would be helpful if ghosts would be a lot more specific.
Anyhow, Edith also does not suffer fools gladly and defiantly rejects the wealth and position that her peers embrace, dismissing an aristocrat as "a parasite with a title."
However, she revises her opinion when she meets a real baronet in person: the mysterious, handsome Thomas Sharpe is not only a misunderstood dreamer like herself (he's an inventor), he also praises her writing.
"Where I come from," he says. "Ghosts are serious business."
Edith is charmed by Thomas and the two fall in love, despite the consternation of Thomas's dour sister, Lucille and the disappointment of Edith's best friend, mystery-loving opthamologist , Alan MacMichael. Edith's father, however, is not so easily won over and takes an instinctive dislike to the Sharpe siblings. Perhaps it's that new money versus old money hostility or the fact that they look like living EDWARD GOREY drawings, but Mr. Cushing is mighty suspicious and hires a private investigator to see if there's any dirt on the duo.


Thomas and Lucille Sharpe in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).


There is, of course, but the audience will have to wait patiently to find out what it is. In the meantime, Mr. Cushing's attempt to break up this doomed romance ends in a violent head-splitting murder in a washroom that leaves Thomas free to whisk Edith away to a whirlwind marriage and life as a newlywed in his decaying mansion in Cumberland, England.

Married life is not quite as romantic as Edith anticipated. The house is, as Lucille puts it, "full of nothing but shadows, creaks and groans," falling apart and sinking into the red clay pits below. Thomas is curiously distant from his new bride and any moment the two are alone is interrupted by the domineering Lucille. And just what is in that bitter tea that Lucille serves that's making Edith awaken in the middle of the night with severe stomach pains? And just who are those howling, red ghosts appearing to Edith to deliver cryptic messages on her nightly wanderings around the mansion?




With its enthusiasm for Gothic tropes, MARIO BAVA worship (just look at those colors!) and liberal sprinklings of THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and NOTORIOUS, CRIMSON PEAK is similar to the characters of Edith and Thomas in that it's a little out of its time and a little out of its step with its peers. Coming from me, that is definitely not a criticism, though. The film even wears its old-fashionedness on its sleeve with the use of silent cinema techniques like irises and wipes.
Audiences expecting more oogie-boogie haunted housenanigans were disappointed; after all, in CRIMSON PEAK, horror is not derived from the supernatural.
True horror comes from the living.
While ghosts in the film are something of a bridge between the past, present and future, the living are the dangerous ones.

In the park, Edith and Lucille discuss butterflies and moths. The butterflies are beautiful but cannot survive the winter.
"That's sad," Edith remarks.
"It's not sad," Lucille retorts. "It's nature. It's a savage world."
Not only do the fragile butterflies perish without the sun, they are cannibalized by moths, creatures that, Lucille explains, "thrive on the dark and cold."
The Sharpe siblings make recurring mentions of the weak being consumed by the strong in nature and living things turning savage in order to survive.
When Edith remarks about the bitterness of the tea at Allerdale Hall, Thomas laments, "Nothing gentle ever grows in this land" and that things need to develop bitterness if they don't want to be eaten.


Edith (Mia Wasikowska) and Lucille (Jessica Chastain) marvel at the butterflies in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).


Their grim outlook on life begins to make sense as, unlike Edith, the Sharpe siblings did not grow up in a nurturing household.
"Father was a brute," Lucille reveals.
Seems the patriarch of the Sharpe clan broke their mother's leg before abandoning the family and squandering much of their fortune on what Blanche DuBois would refer to as "epic fornications."
When Edith remarks about imagining Lucille and Thomas as small children, Lucille tellingly remarks, "We were confined to the nursery. In the attic."
The siblings were subjected to brutal beatings and emotional abuse by their mother. Lucille, the eldest, became a sort of surrogate spouse and punching bag.
Isolated both physically and by their social class, Lucille and Thomas had no one else to turn to. Attempting to fulfill a series of emotional and physical needs that are normally met by several different people, the Sharpe siblings began an incestuous relationship.
The inbred aristocratic family is a trope of Gothic literature but in the emotional core of the story it rings true as well. Thomas and Lucille had no one to rely upon or trust except for each other; as a result, their relationship became perverted.
Lucille, unlike Edith, has known only trauma and suffering. Lucille sees herself as a moth -- a predatory creature destroying more delicate, pretty things, one that "thrives on the dark and cold" as she lives separated from the rest of the world in a disintegrating old mansion she despises.
She has come to believe one needs to be vicious in order to survive.
It may also indicate feelings of self-loathing as she sees herself as a creature without beauty but that cannibalizes the pretty butterflies.


Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).


Her relationship with Thomas, the only person she remotely cares for, is characterized by dominance more than affection. She has transformed him into her willing prisoner and ultimately she would prefer to destroy him rather than have him leave the family home.
Lucille, like many abused children, has adopted the role of the victimizer rather than continue being victimized herself, venting her rage on others weaker than her.
Also, like many children of dysfunctional families, she refuses to break the cycle: it's just too familiar and any other way of living seems suspicious. Thomas, at one point, proposes they simply take what is left of the family fortune and leave the house.
Lucille will not hear of it. As much as she loathes the deteriorating Allerdale Hall, it is comfortable for her.
After all, murder has proven to be a successful method of venting her pent-up rage and she has come to relish her role as a predator. When the Sharpe skeletons all come dancing out of the closet, Lucille literally has her hair down and her long, billowing nightgown flows freely around her (like moth wings?).
"This is who I am," she proclaims.
She has proudly taken on the role of the domineering, abusive matriarch and even wears her red ring.


Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).


Lucille, however, has imprisoned herself as well as Thomas. Unable to let go of her rage, she cannot move forward and it consumes her (as well as everyone that crosses her path). At the end of the film, she remains a ghost eternally playing her piano in the decaying house.
She's stuck forever.
The performances in CRIMSON PEAK are all excellent, but I think Ms. Chastain's may be the one that really lingers with audiences. It's like if JOAN CRAWFORD played Lady MacBeth and it doesn't get any better than that.

While Lucille identifies with the moths, the film aligns Edith with the butterfly. Contrasted with the severe blacks and blues of Allerdale Hall and the Sharpe siblings' wardrobe, Edith sports brightly colored dresses. The one she wears most often is even a yellow one, the same color as the butterfly wings seen earlier in the park. The designs on several of Edith's blouses even resemble butterfly wings.
However, the film does not agree with the views espoused by the Sharpe siblings about things in nature becoming cruel and preying upon the weak to survive.
Edith, unlike the butterflies in the park, does not perish in the snowstorm besieging Allerdale Hall. She survives her ordeal through her intelligence and inner-strength.


Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).


I was talkin' about CAT PEOPLE here the other day, which is another film that never quite got the respect it deserved. I don't think this is a coincidence as both are dark fairytales for adults centering on a female character's coming-of-age.
Unlike Irena Gallier, who was on a quest for identity, Edith Cushing has a good idea of who she is. However, she still struggles to define her place in the adult world -- namely as a writer. No writer worth their salt has had an easy, happy life. And while Edith is not pampered by any means, her life experience does not extend far from her father's house. She is fascinated by the mysterious, dark and hidden aspects of life but she has not had to face much of them herself.
Having discovered the dark secrets of the Sharpe siblings, Edith's father commands Thomas to break Edith's heart and leave or else.
Thomas obeys, hitting Edith where it really hurts: her writing. He tells her she only knows what other writers tell her; that she knows nothing of real love or heart-ache; and -- the real ouch -- that she's nothing but a spoiled child.
Some reviewers have complained that Edith does not have a character arc: she is the same strong-willed young woman in the beginning that she is at the end. I'd disagree: at Allerdale Hall she is forced to confront the darkness she has long been fascinated with and survives her traumatic ordeal.
She now has her own insights into the human heart -- and the monstrousness that can dwell within. By surviving trauma, Edith defines herself as an artist and becomes a published writer.
It's not a coincidence that she defends herself against Lucille with the tool of her trade, a pen.


Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).


And what about Thomas? Where does he fit into all of this?
Though he's got the melancholy part down, Thomas is not the Gothic hero we've grown accustomed to.
In many ways, his character is more tragic than Lucille. He is stuck in the past -- his aristocratic social standing, the decaying house, the trauma from years of abuse -- but he can also see the future. After all, he is an inventor.
Unlike Lucille, who fancies herself a moth, Thomas has a distaste for violence. While Lucille is incapable of loving, Thomas falls in love with Edith for her kindness and creativity. He senses there is a better way and longs something different, but is unable to break free from his sister's grip and the trauma that haunts him.
"You're always looking to the past," Edith tells him.
Thomas does not possess the strength that both Lucille and Edith demonstrate. Had he been born into a different family, he would have been a genuinely beautiful soul, but instead he is ultimately too passive, too fragile to survive and transform himself.
While the dominant roles in the film's narrative are played by Lucille and Edith, Thomas takes on the role of the doomed heroine. He's the Madeline Usher while Lucille is Roderick.
The character is deftly played by TOM HIDDLESTON who is able to be simultaneously sinister and gentle.


Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) looks at Edith (Mia Wasikowska) with love in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).


As it is in all Gothic fiction, the house becomes an Expressionistic space, a metaphor for the psychological state of the characters inhabiting it. Allerdale Hall is decaying, literally sinking into the blood-like red clay that resides beneath it, much in the way that the old aristocracy is sinking in the face of the future and much in the way the Sharpe family has turned inward and destructed. While they have survived living an isolated existence from the modern world, the many shots of snow falling through the holes in the roof into the entrance hall remind us that the reality of the outside world they have tried to barricade themselves against is increasingly intruding.

And speaking of which, there is much ado in CRIMSON PEAK about social class and the past versus the modern. The European aristocracy, one in which you are born into money and social standing, is contrasted with the new money of the industrial age. Edith's father even states to Thomas Sharpe that he knows he has never worked a day in his life; after all, Thomas has the smoothest hands he has ever seen. Unlike Thomas, his hands are rough. He has earned his money not through birth-right but through hard work. 
The casting of the actors illustrates this as well with the fine-featured, distinctively English TOM HIDDLESTON contrasting with the more weathered, gruff-voiced, bearded JIM BEAVER.
While the old aristocracy is collapsing in on itself, the new (new money, new technology and the new frontier, America) is thriving.
Neither is maligned; the aristocracy as represented by the Sharpes is ultimately tragic in that it cannot adapt to the new age so it simply implodes upon itself.
Ghosts, unlike both, are ultimately timeless. On the one hand they are remanants of the past; ghosts in Gothic fiction are metaphors for the inability to let go of the past for, as WILLIAM FAULKNER would remind us, "the past is never really dead." However, in CRIMSON PEAK, ghosts are also aware of the future, offering oracles of what is to come.


Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) finish the waltz in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).


As a lover of the Gothic and snowy ghost stories, I was instantaneously seduced by CRIMSON PEAK's many charms. I don't think there's been a more beautiful looking film in the past five years; the photography, production design and wardrobe are all gorgeous. And while some critics will balk at the familiarity of the story, I think that just makes it the cinematic equivalent of an oversized sweater and a nice cup of chamomile tea on a rainy day. There's even a waltz sequence - who can argue with that? It's just too damn classy!
Something about it also spoke to me when I saw it on the whim in theaters many a month ago and I think that has to do with both the female characters both being close to my heart. I can identify with Edith; she resembles the face I present to the world, a composite of the qualities I really like about myself -- the horror writer, the defiant outsider, the outspoken well-educated woman and the survivor who turns her trauma into art. On the other hand, I think my dark side looks a lot like Lucille; the side that's all wounds and bitchiness, the side that wants to remain isolated and thrive on insanity, the side that leaves a bear trap on the front lawn so those jerk neighborhood kids will stay off my turf. It's the side that wants to lay down a lot of whoopass while wearing an elegant updo.


The moth and the butterfly: Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) and Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).


A Gothic love story with just the right amount of stomach-churning violence, ghosts, feminism and a touch of class all guided by the hand of a masterful auteur -- what more can a culture vulture ask for?




Saturday, April 2, 2016

Putting Out Fire With Gasoline



Tree of panthers in CAT PEOPLE (1982)


Maybe I'm missing some essential component of femaleness, but I never got into SEX AND THE CITY.  Don't worry, you will never hear me say a negative word about SJP: anyone who played a Sanderson sister in HOCUS POCUS is immune from criticism in my book. And hey, I did even make some attempts to watch it and see what all the fuss was about, but I have to admit, I was far more interested in the presence of KYLE MACLACHLAN and JAMES REMAR (I mean, c'mon, nothing can top JAMES frickin' "I'm gonna shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle" REMAR) than any of the sexnanigans, relationship melodrama and designer label dropping. I just couldn't make the same connection with it that other young women did: while the ladies in my peer group were identifying themselves as a "Charlotte" or a"Miranda" or a "Samantha" in their own clique of friends, I identified with JESSICA LANGE in FRANCES.
My friends that gushed about the show found the women's sexual attitudes and behavior "liberating" because they behaved "like men do" and they were successful enough in their careers to afford a glamorous lifestyle.
"What's liberating about sleeping with a multitude of underwritten losers and using your education and hard career work to obsess over overpriced shoes?" I asked.
"It's things like that that make people think you're an angry lesbian," they would sniff.
"If only," I always said. "I would be eligible for a lot more writing grants."
I don't know. If I wanted to watch a show where a group of female friends act like drag queens, THE GOLDEN GIRLS were a lot more relatable.
Carrie's highly toxic on-again-off-again relationship with noxious narcissist extraordinaire Mr. Big (really, writers?) was especially disgusting. Wouldn't a successful, intelligent woman with any self-respect have set him on fire after the first season?
And then after she finally breaks up with him after an entire series and a spin-off movie, her friends console her by taking her on an expensive luxury vacation where they drink more pink drinks and buy more shoes or something.
That's just not realistic at all. When Marie Janisse finally ended her on-again-off-again relationship with Lyle Calhoun, we went to Chipotle. Nachos were on me.
Then we got some of those daiquiris in a bag from the Winn-Dixie and went to hang out in the cemetery.
Then again, I realized I'm trying to mold my adult life into a psychotic version of the RHODA show, so perhaps it's just different strokes for different folks.

And while we're on the subject of female neurosis, my brief hiatus was not due to incarceration or institutionalization, I swear! Those winter doldrums I was going through reduced me to seeking refuge in a trance-like state induced by binge-watching multiple seasons of DALLAS. When the hypnosis finally wore off and I emerged from underneath the pile of empty pizza boxes, burrito wrappers, Cadbury mini-eggs and Mountain Dew cans, I realized that my Travis Bickle-like existence had caused me to miss not only the Superbowl, Mardi Gras and Valentine's Day, but pretty much the entire months of January and February. But today I'm back with a vengeance and while we're on the subject of female neurosis and rampaging sexuality, it's time for me to talk about one of my favorite movies, the remake of CAT PEOPLE (1982) starring Nasty NASTASSJA KINSKI, lovely daughter of veteran movie psycho KLAUS as the heroine; MALCOLM MCDOWELL, who since A CLOCKWORK ORANGE has been making many a movie psychopath so damn charming, as her brother; JOHN HEARD of C.H.U.D. fame as the romantic hero; and fellow Houstonian ANNETTE O' TOOLE as his former girlfriend-turned-best-friend. It's written by ALAN ORMSBY, the twisted imagination who brought us the seriously icky sick flick CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS and underrated zombie-combat-shock-masterpiece DEATHDREAM, and directed by auteur of the disturbed male psyche PAUL SCHRADER, who penned the screenplay for one of my top five favorite films of all-time TAXI DRIVER.

The film is a very loose remake of the original film produced by VAL LEWTON. They both feature the same premise about a young woman descended from a shape-shifting race that will transform into a voracious panther after sex and tear their lover to pieces. While the original film was about a tormented woman finally driven to destruction by her (real or imagined) demons and her intense jealousy, the remake is about a young woman (just like many protagonists in Southern Gothic fiction) in search of her identity through her ancestral history and family.


Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) is drawn to the panther at the New Orleans zoo in CAT PEOPLE (1982)


Irena Gallier knows little of her family history. Her parents were performers in a traveling circus but she was orphaned at age four and sent to live with a series of foster parents. As the film begins, Irena travels to New Orleans to reunite with her long-lost older brother, Paul.
"I used to dream about you...that you would come and rescue me," Irena confides.
Paul admits he used to have the same dream too, but one gets the sense from those sidelong glances he shares with his Creole housekeeper and caretaker, Female (pronounced like Tamale and played by the fabulous RUBY DEE), that his had a more nefarious undercurrent.
When the film introduces Irena she is shy, soft-spoken and even a little afraid to take up space. Her rigid posture and slight, nervous movements betray the fact that she is not only apprehensive about meeting an estranged brother but that she has been a stranger in strange homes for most of her life without ever really finding a place for herself.
Paul shows Irena a cabinet filled with memorabilia from their family's days in the traveling circus and gives her a picture of their parents. He gets her to perform a juggling act they used to do as children with him, which she completes on her own.  This first connection with her past and family is the first time the viewer sees Irena come out of her shell and really light up emotionally.


Paul Gallier (Malcolm McDowell) teaches Irena about their family's circus days in CAT PEOPLE (1982)


Now that she's been able to reconnect with her only living family, Irena plans to make a life for herself in New Orleans. 
Transfixed by the newly captured black leopard at the New Orleans Zoo, Irena meets introspective zoo curator, Oliver Yates and a mutual attraction develops between the two. The Oliver in this version of the film is completely different than the Oliver in the 1942 version; in the original version, Oliver was a boring dunce who was attracted to Irena because she was mysterious and challenging, then when her baggage proved too difficult to handle, rejected her in favor of a less complicated (and more sexually available) woman.
Oliver in the 1982 version of the story is thoughtful, well-read (his house is filled with books and he knows Dante by heart) a
willing loner, has a wry sense of humor, shares Irena's affinity for animals and is a bit of a misanthrope.
"I prefer animals to people," he tells her.
I think I just fell in love with him.


John Heard as Oliver Yates in CAT PEOPLE (1982)


He too, is attracted to Irena for her mysteriousness and sense that she is not a typical young woman but in many ways they are also kindred souls. Both are sensitive and observant (evidenced by their hobbies: Irena sketches and Oliver is an amateur photographer) and though Oliver's past is not revealed (the only personal photo in his home is one of him standing with an elderly woman: raised alone by a grandmother, perhaps?), one gets the sense that like Irena he has spent a majority of his life, feeling different and isolated from others, on the outside looking in.
They are also both romantics; they are the kind of people who do not form attachments lightly and are truly devoted to those few that they have let in.
Alice, Oliver's spunky former girlfriend-turned-best-friend, who briefly befriends Irena is dismayed to learn that Irena is still a virgin.
"I never met anyone I liked enough," Irena explains.
Alice does not fully understand, but it's reasonable that someone with Irena's extensive history of loss, abandonment and trauma (she also reveals to Alice that one of her foster fathers repeatedly made sexual advances towards her) would have difficulty with the trust and vulnerability required of a sexual relationship.


Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) and Alice Perrin (Annette O' Toole) at Cliff's Bar in CAT PEOPLE (1982).


For Irena (and Oliver), sex is more than just entertainment and too emotionally powerful to have indiscriminately. However, a revelation about their family history from Paul shows that sex may be physically as well as emotionally transformative for Irena.  Other than selectiveness and romanticism, he explains there may have been an unconscious barrier keeping her from becoming sexually active. They are descended from an extinct race of shape-shifters who after sex will transform into a black leopard that will tear apart their partner. He has been tormented his entire adult life by this curse, but proposes a solution: it seems they can still mate with their own kind without transforming. After all, he explains with a smile, their parents were brother and sister, but eventually killed themselves anyway to put an end to their cursed existence. He has lured Irena to New Orleans not to re-establish a connection with her, but to coerce her into an incestuous relationship so that he will be free to indulge in his sexual desires without fear of transforming.


Paul (Malcolm McDowell) reveals their family's secret to Irena (Nastassja Kinski) in CAT PEOPLE.


It's a night-time soap opera league love triangle and dilemma for our heroine, folks. Does she submit to an illicit, incestuous relationship with her brother to maintain a fa├žade of normalcy or does she follow her heart and consummate her relationship with Oliver even though it may let loose the beast inside?

Whereas the Irena in the original version self-destructs, the Irena in this version completes her journey into adulthood and embraces her identity. Were-cat curse or no, the thing that really prohibits Irena from engaging in a sexual relationship, is that she is still uncertain of who she is and where she wants to go in life. She has not had the anchor of a supportive family that most young women have. It is when she begins to shape her own identity that she begins to exude confidence and is finally secure enough to consummate her relationship with Oliver.
"I am not like you," Irena hisses to her brother, more than once in the film.
And it's true, her desires are not selfish or destructive like Paul's.
Unlike Paul, Irena does not simply accept her family's history as her destiny. She becomes the curse-breaker in her family, by ending the cycle of violence and dysfunction. She will not hurt others just to gratify her own physical desires and she won't continue the line of perverted relationships either.
Irena may have monstrous tendencies but she refuses to become a monster herself.
In an ending devised by PAUL SCHRADER's pervy genius, Irena has Oliver tie her arms and legs to the bedposts so she won't be able to attack him when she transforms.
"Make love to me," she says. "I want to be with my own."
The act is both one of self-sacrifice for the one she loves and self-acceptance; she embraces the monster within and claims her place in the world.


Nastassja Kinski as Irena Gallier in CAT PEOPLE (1982).


In addition to Irena's quest for identity (of which sexuality is a part), the film explores the duality in Western culture of puritanism and permissiveness. Paul epitomizes this as he is a minister by day but literally devours prostitutes and one-night stands with his voracious sexual appetite.
Throughout the film there are icons of sexuality such as the painting of MARILYN MONROE Irena looks it while walking through Jackson Square or the Greek statues looming in the corners of several frames featuring nude Dionysian women munching on grapes.
Sexuality is something that is ever-present but rarely talked about openly.
The equation of sexuality with becoming a ravenous animal is a Freudian one that betrays cultural anxiety about sex and a reflection of the Judaeo-Christian notion that non-reproductive sex is evil. The film is rife with other Freudian images as well particularly the none-to-subtle symbols of blood from a leopard attack on ED BEGLEY JR.'s zookeeper gushing onto Irena's white shoes or Irena standing dripping wet in her nightgown in a rainstorm (an image that graced many posters for the film).


Irena (Nastassja Kinski) dripping wet in a rain storm in CAT PEOPLE (1982).


With its steamy climate, reputation for good-natured debauchery, unique architecture and polyglot of cultures, New Orleans is the perfect setting for this story and it is beautifully captured on film here. New Orleans (my favorite city) was really in its prime in the 1980s and I don't know if it ever looked lovelier. Just take a look at these screencaps!


St. Louis Cemetery in CAT PEOPLE (1982).
Paul Gallier's house (591 Esplanade Ave) in CAT PEOPLE (1982)
Irena (Nastassja Kinski) walks through Jackson Square in CAT PEOPLE (1982).


GIORGIO MORODER's moody synth score (and the DAVID BOWIE sung theme "Putting Out Fire With Gasoline") is a big contributor to the film's success, the low droning tones (particularly the motif that accompanies Paul and underscores the stalking of Alice as she jogs through Audubon Park) perfectly evoking both sensuality and menace.

Actors in horror movies rarely get praise but I think the cast of CAT PEOPLE deserves a pretty big hand. NASTASSJA KINSKI is the perfect combination of ingenuous and simmeringly sensual; she conveys so much of Irena's transformation through her body language, accomplishing much without the aid of special effects. VINCENT PRICE once said the horror movie actors were the true method actors because they made the ridiculous seem believable and KINSKI does just that with her performance.
JOHN HEARD gives Oliver an understated charm and deftly underplays the character's obsession. Rather than moving him into John Hinckley Training Camp territory, he instead conveys that Oliver is not one who falls in love easily -- and when he does it's with complete devotion.
ANNETTE O' TOOLE (who I always love no matter what she's in) adds a lot of spark to a character that could have been a boring throwaway. She and HEARD display a comfortable camaraderie that its easy to envision that they were once close enough to be a couple but appreciated one another's humor enough to stay friends.
RUBY DEE lends a gravitas to Female that really packs the most punch into the short amount of screen time for the character.
And no one does sinister sex appeal better than MALCOLM MCDOWELL. No one, I say!


Paul Gallier (Malcolm McDowell) and Female (Ruby Dee) in CAT PEOPLE (1982).


And no, I did not forget LYNN LOWRY. She leaves quite an impression in her brief scene as Ruthie, a wise-cracking prostitute and I don't think anyone else could have sold being attacked by a ravenous black leopard with quite as much dedication as Ms. LOWRY does here.
With her roles in SHIVERS, THE CRAZIES and this, she is something of a Twisted Man's Sex Symbol. On a sidenote, she is also one of those rare people who is as awesome in real life as she is in the movies.

CAT PEOPLE is just one of those films that's close to my heart. Irena's journey, the New Orleans setting - it all just speaks to me. Hey, my parents, at one point in time, were even looking at buying the house on Esplanade Avenue where Paul lives in the film!
And it does what a good remake is supposed to do and employs the concept of the original to mine new territory.  SCHRADER, using ORMSBY's emotionally layered script as a blueprint, explores his favorite themes (obsession, conflict between repression and desire and creating one's own morality in an immoral world) with horror imagery and as a result delivers a more complex and subversive film than the original. Hey, I had to say it, my day isn't complete until I've made some film purists explode into a violent baby tantrum. But why destroy the monster when you can make love to the monster, hmm?