Forty years previous, Val Lewton made the original Cat People, which is a classic of horror. It relies on the principle, which I totally endorse, that what you don’t see is a lot scarier then what you do see. The two prime examples of this, to me, are Jaws and Alien. The tension builds incredibly before you see the shark or the alien, but when you do, the scary part stops and simple excitement takes over. Now you know what horror looks like, now you can at least deal with it. While it was still in shadow, or deep in the water, it could be anything your imagination can conjure, which I think is always worse than reality. In the 1942 Cat People, things were always happening just out of your sight, like the famous scene of the woman in the swimming pool lit from below. The weird shadows and the sounds she hears and her helplessness are very frightening.
I’d like to see that version again, though I don’t really need to compare the two. This remake by Paul Schrader is in color, bloodier, and departs far away from the original story line. It’s pretty good for its genre, but could never measure up to the original. Malcom McDowell plays a man who turns into a black panther and kills people, and wants Nastassja Kinski to embrace her unacknowledged feline side. The thing that distinguishes this film, to me, is the extensive use of full-frontal nudity. It is billed as an erotic thriller, and certainly succeeds on that level.
Much of the film takes place, ostensibly, at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. I’ve been there, and I didn’t recall seeing such a horrible, old-fashioned cat house (not the kind that you used to find across the river in Algiers), with tiny little concrete cages. I’m happy to report that the movie was not actually shot at the zoo, but a large indoor-outdoor set in California with rented animals in the cages. After the shoot, they were returned to the wildlife refuges they came from.