In ancient times, there was an African tribe who worshipped the panthers of the plains, and young women were offered up as sacrifices to them - yet they were not to be eaten, as the panthers had other things in mind. Surely now, in modern days, such legends have no parallel? Maybe, maybe not, but when Irena (Nastassja Kinski) arrives in New Orleans from abroad she is about to find that the ghosts of the past can hold great sway over the present. She doesn't realise when her long, lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) meets her at the airport, but they have more in common than blood ties, and Paul plans to capitalise on that...
Paul Schrader was pretty much suffering under the yoke of drug addiction when he made his remake of Cat People, which may explain why it was ludicrously overemphatic in comparison with the moody and restrained original. In fact, this version was so over the top in its literal-mindedness that it became in its second half a veritable orgy of bad taste; this was good for cheap laughs and cheaper thrills, but overall the production was extremely difficult to take seriously. The thinking was like, virgin Irena will turn into a panther if she has sex! So how about giving her a brother who does the same? And then offer an unwholesome solution to their problem?
And so it was that the immoral Paul, essayed by McDowell with a twinkle in his eye that suggests he's supposed to be in a saucy comedy, went about his business with normal women, turning into a panther when he shags them and then having to kill someone to transform back, usually the woman he has bedded. But no sooner has he invited Irena to his place so she can stay there until she's settled in this new city, than he accidentally fails to kill the prostitute (cult actress Lynn Lowry) he has gone to a hotel room with and ends up at the local zoo in big cat form. Whoops! Irena wonders where he is, naturally, and finds herself strangely drawn to... the zoo.
There she meets Oliver (John Heard), who has a girlfriend in the person of fellow keeper Alice (Annette O'Toole), but nevertheless is more attracted to Irena. He gives her a job at the gift shop and then goes for a fishing holiday with her, but not before Ed Begley Jr has his arm torn off and dies by the feline Paul's, er, hand. This means Paul returns to normal and all ready to put his incestuous proposition to Irena - in between murdering young ladies - but Irena is not interested. There's a love triangle of a perverse sort between the three leads, and if you know that Schrader, the uncredited co-writer with Alan Ormsby, was at the time of filming obsessed with Kinski, you can understand why her character's attentions are so highly prized.
Yet where the subtle original was at least partly on the side of Irena, here it's clear that Schrader and his movie's point of view is on the side of the men. Kinski's Irena is to be coveted and owned by them and that's her curse as much as the whole cat thing goes as well. Schrader uses a heavy hand in recreating odd scenes from the forties version, so that Alice has to be topless when menaced in the swimming pool - there's a lot of nudity, as if he thought this was prime erotic material in spite of the unsavoury aspect of most of the newfangled story's sexuality. Even the bus makes an appearance, for no other reason than it worked before, but they would have been better off without moves towards tributes here. So thick is Irena's catlike personality laid on that you half expect her to play with balls of wool and tuck into tins of Whiskas; the whole enterprise is a risible example of how one director's unhealthy obsession with one actress can lead to his cinematic downfall. Though she is well cast, to be fair. Music by Giorgio Moroder.