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?


  1. It mines new territory, that's for sure! One of the best remakes. Really more of a re-imagining. I miss Kinski. Obviously Nastassja, not her bizarre father.

  2. She was a one of a kind leading lady, for sure. It's easy to forget that she's only onscreen for a short amount of time in PARIS, TEXAS because she leaves such a strong impression.

    It's too bad no one ever cast her and Zoe Tamerlis as sisters. Would've made an interesting movie, I think!