BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: animal instincts.

PAUL SCHRADER’s career took a nose-dive with Cat People. The genius writer behind Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and director of Blue Collar attempted to burn as many bridges as possible during the making of this film (including copious drug usage, and threats to put compromising shots of lead actor Nastassja Kinski into the film after she broke off a relationship with Schrader). Furthermore he was re-making an iconic (if slightly dated) B-Movie and Schrader’s version bombed upon release. It also features the truly awful David Bowie theme song. And to top it all off, the film print shown at the screening wasn’t in the best quality. Having said all that, the film is actually quite good.

The original 1942 film was heavy on atmosphere and tension, more a film noir than a standard horror film. The remake benefits from the more permissive social environment, and places the major focus on sexuality and obsession (two well-known Schrader concerns). In Schrader’s film, Kinski plays Irena Gallier, who returns to live with her long-lost brother (Malcolm McDowell) in New Orleans. His interest in her is more than brotherly, and is revealed to stem from ancient sacrifice – and bestiality. They turn into panthers upon sex... Irena however finds herself falling in love with zoo curator Oliver Yates (John Heard). A love triangle is built up on contrasting degrees of lust, caring, obsession, raw sexuality, animalism, and death. Schrader’s also not unafraid to link them all together too.

It’s a silly premise and the film is more than a touch unbelievable. At times Schrader ratchets up the tension like the original – slow, steady and menacing (best displayed in the pool scene homage). However, Schrader was also willing to throw in graphic violence and liberal quantities of nudity, almost startlingly into the mix. Consequently it’s a crazy mix of gore and psychological horror – and a bizarre if jarring blend. The minor sub-plot involving the original legend is beautifully filmed, almost as if Schrader had wandered onto leftover sets from Star Wars. Kinski is brilliant too – naïve and wide-eyed, yet also sinister at the same time. This film is a real curiousity, a perfect candidate for cult, schlocky status, yet clever enough at times to warrant closer analysis.