Cat People (1982 Paul Schrader version)
Fair Value Rating of this Film: $6.00. It’s a high production, well-acted and artsy skin flick with strong acting but languid pacing.
Team Ruthless has been providing you with the definitive guide to 1980s action movies. We’re starting a companion guide: The Ruthless Guide to 80s Horror. From the lowliest straight-to-video gorefest to the top flight Hollywood budget blow-outs, we’re going to cover the entire range of slashers and scream queens.
TL, DR: A good softcore movie for the True Blood set, inferior to The Hunger but nevertheless a slinky, sexy, gory Southern Gothic.
Release Date and Context of Release:
April 1982. Cat People came out in the wake of the successes of The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. A Jerry Bruckheimer production, Cat People was cashing in with a more erotic version of the then popular fad of early body-horror movies- this was the period that also featured Cronenberg’s The Brood and Carpenter’s The Thing.
Tagline: They are something more than lovers who are about to become something less than human.
Entire Movie in One Sentence:
Girl discovers that she’s a were-leopard, and related to Malcolm McDowell.
Four on screen deaths. Comparatively light on the slaughter, but graphic in the violence. Arms get ripped off, tendons get slashed, and there are no clean deaths in this film.
This film is more abundant with the eros than the thanos. Three women topless, one woman full frontal (Nastassia Kinski). Two men nude, (Malcolm McDowell and John Heard). Natassia Kinski, stalking around the bayou in the buff. Three softcore scenes, one including bondage.
The cat people. People who transform into big leopards, and also McDowell’s house servant, who (it is implied) is the last of a cult that worships the cat people. Kinski and McDowell are cursed to transform into leopards after having sex, and they must kill a person in order to return to human form. That raises a question of whether the reverse is true- if they have sex as a panther, are they then forced into human form until they kill a predatory cat?
Historical note: The Leopard Society was a murder cult that existed in Sierra Leone until the early 20th century. Partially a mafia, partially a warrior society, these men would dress in leopard skins and would ambush and devour their victims, attacking with iron ‘claws’. The Cat People partially refers to this cult, but takes the premise further with the idea that (1) they actually have the magic power to turn into leopards and (2) they’d recruit white colonial elites for membership.
Malcolm McDowell mugs it up as a Paul Gallier, a Baptist preacher/incestuous serial killer, but he brings an intensity and a litheness to the role- his body language and movement is really entrancing. SPOILER: this film wastes a perfectly good villain too early. If it had ended with a Cape Fear-like showdown on the bayou, this film could have been far more of a classic.
How Terrible is it, after all?
Cat People is more a movie for Charlaine Harris fans than for Fangoria enthusiasts. The film has the slow, looping structure of a Machen or Stoker story, where the murders and the weirdness are spaced far apart, and the characters develop months of relationships in the interluding montages. And yes, Charlaine Harris shamelessly stole from this film with her ‘white trash were-panthers’ plot.
Moralizing Schadenfreude/ Strafelust
Here’s an explanation of this section:
Schadenfreude is the German term for taking pleasure from the misfortune of others. It’s a voyeuristic sadism. Strafelust (strah-fe-loos-te; literally, punishment-lust) is the fundamentalist Christian cousin of Schadenfreude. Strafelust is the experience of receiving joys from watching other people getting punished for doing that which you secretly desire to do yourself. It’s the closest that your super-ego gets to the experience of orgasm, the gratification received from getting a graphic justification for the repression of your desires. To provide some examples: when we cheer as the millionaire is made to do the perp walk in handcuffs, that is strafelust. When we laugh about the latest celebrity drug melt-down, we partake of strafelust. When the homophobes of Westboro Baptist Church chortle over a gay man dying of AIDS, that is absolutely strafelust.
Strafelust can be distinguished from Schadenfreude in that it is rejoicing in a perceived moral agency working through the chaos of the universe. When somebody is punished for transgression, a part of our brain feels joy from the Super-Ego justifying the self-denial. It’s a moment of our conscience saying to our Id: “see! That’s what happens! That’s why we don’t do that, even though we want to.”.
Strafelust is a central part of the catharsis and enjoyment of most, though not all horror films. Horror films require a steady supply of douchebags and idiots, who are to be ground into corpses, either for their stupidity or the asininity. Once, the urge for strafelust was indulged through pillories and public executions. As these rituals abated from society, the literary genre of the penny dreadful developed, along with the Grand Guignol tradition of theatre in France. Entertainment provided an ersatz gratification with stories of gory vengeance and comeuppance. Horror movies then expanded those themes. 1980s horror movies, in particular, focused on conservative tropes of social decay and youthful intransigence.
Cat People indulges Strafelust amply, though it’s a light amount compared to Friday the 13th or the Death Wish series. A blonde tourist gets seduced and killed by Paul- if she didn’t want to get ripped apart, she shouldn’t have gone to hotel rooms with men who look like young Malcolm McDowells. The zoo-keeper, however, is mean to animals- and thus, he gets the worst death. Beyond those two instances, there’s not much moralizing.
“I’m not like you”
“That is the lie that will kill your lover.”.
Shrill Political Message:
Sex will make you into a cougar, but not the kind found at most suburban bars.
Best Novelty Death:
Hick zoo-keeper tries to tase the leopard, and gets his arm ripped off. And not in a quick, clean swipe- no, his death is a prolonged, vicious struggle. That arm gets gnawed off. If the rest of the film had been as violent as this scene, the menace of the cat people would be better established.
Lessons On How Not to Die:
Do not ignore large furry tails under the bed. Bolt immediately.
If you are a prostitute, meet your john face-to-face in a well lit area.
Do not ignore bad smells coming from the basement.
If your brother is a preacher who looks like Malcolm McDowell, he will inevitably prove to be a serial killer.
Do not attempt autopsies on supernatural beings. The results will not be pleasant, or informative.
Over-estimate the arm reach of any creature that’s in a cage.