Paul (Joseph) Schrader Lawrence O'Toole - Essay

Lawrence O'Toole

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paul Schrader's remake of the 1942 [Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur] classic, Cat People, is no pussycat. Where the original wove a subtle spell, the new version goes for the throat. The difference between the two may well be an indication of how esthetic responses by film-makers to suspense and horror have become knee jerk and jejune. That is certainly not to say Cat People isn't effective—it's astonishingly and crudely so—but some may resent being pounced upon by such schlock. (p. 62)

Obviously, Schrader wanted to eroticize the original story, which he does on the most superficial level. There is probably no better example of the anthropomorphically erotic than the panther—the lean, taut, muscular body and the soft, padded feet and tail—but Schrader doesn't pursue the possibilities, opting for a fade-out just when our interest is pricked. Instead, he goes for the gore: a trainer's arm being ripped from its socket; a gruesome autopsy on a big cat; and a hotel-room seduction ending in a blood bath. Such shocks are random and furious; they don't seem earned, merely exploited.

The violence of the original Cat People lay in its powers of suggestion, mostly through the interplay of light and shadow caught by the tracking camera. Schrader's Cat people is a Fiesta-ware movie—a lot of lime green and rich, peachy tones—and the New Orleans locations (which are curiously underpopulated) aren't used for their exotic, ripe and suggestive powers…. Cat People is a terrific movie subject, having the potential to arrest visually and psychologically. But Schrader never once lets his movie stalk—or purr. (pp. 62-3)

Lawrence O'Toole, "Going for the Throat," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1982 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 95, No. 15, April 12, 1982, pp. 62-3.