No director quite captured the spirit of the 80s like Paul Schrader. While the decade is often associated with excess, extravagance and high camp, underneath it all was a drive for aesthetic perfection and a belief in convergence culture: an assurance that, at some point in the near future, we’d experience some sublime fusion of all known media that would allow us to transcend ourselves and enter a properly post-human state. As a convergence poet, Schrader was also one of the great technicians of the future operating in American cinema at the beginning of the decade: in his hands, cinema constantly felt like a portal onto post-cinematic ways of experiencing the world, as well as a kind of pressure point at which other media were able to rub shoulders, converse with each other and, finally, converge.
Nowhere is that clearer than in his superb adaptation of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, released in 1942. Although the films have a passing resemblance to each other in terms of plot, both occupy a similar position in the history of horror cinema. Released just as the Universal horror cycle was starting to lose some of its hegemony, Cat People spearheaded a new kind of simpler, more implicit horror, guided in part by the vision of producer Val Lewton. While the films that came to be known as the Lewton cycle – such as I Walked With A Zombie and The Seventh Victim – were driven first and foremost by budgetary concerns, they responded to those restrictions as ingeniously as the screwball comedies of the 1930s responded to the limitations of the Hays Code, crafting a new horizon for atmospheric and suggestive horror in the process. Filming at the beginning of the 80s, Schrader also found himself in a situation in which the prosthetic horror typical of the Universal period had gained hegemony, although in this case it was enhanced by the animatronic and robotic technologies on display in the works of prosthetic technicians like Rick Baker.
Like the original version of Cat People, then, Schrader’s version largely eschews props, prosthetics and plasticity – or, rather, redistributes them across the entire mise-en-scene, creating an extraordinarily evocative sense of physical space in the process. While the film is in large part driven by its spaces, it’s perhaps useful here to provide a brief overview of the plot, which takes place in its entirety in New Orleans. Opening with Irena Gallier (Natassja Kinski) arriving to reconnect with her long-lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell), the film oscillates between their boarding house, run by the mysterious Ruthie (Lynn Lowrie), and the New Orleans Zoo, where Irena meets zoologist Oliver Yates (John Heard) after developing an inexplicable connection to a prized black leopard housed in its mammal collection. Simultaneously, a black leopard starts ravaging the city, and preying on prostitutes in particular, and it’s only a matter of time before Irena realises it has something to with her and her brother. It’s only in the third act, however, that Paul reveals to Irena that they’re the sole descendents of an ancient tribe that practised incest and worshipped leopards, and that they’re both doomed to transform into leopards whenever they have non-incestual sex, as well as doomed to remain leopards until they kill the person that they chose to have sex with.
This climactic revelation is delivered in an extended dream sequence that feels a bit like a music video, culminating an MTV-inspired aesthetic that pervades the entire film, starting with the opening credit sequence, a bright red desert montage that wouldn’t look out of place in the backdrop of an early Duran Duran video. As the film proceeds, that kind of extravagant exoticism takes more of a back seat, but Schrader nevertheless structures his scenes around what might be described as MTV spaces, many of which revolve around the New Orleans Zoo. Full of zones that don’t seem to distinguish much between humans animals, the Zoo is suffused with endless windows, doors and other interfaces, all of which give the impression of an endless deferred secret, recalling the Hitchcockian overtones of Obsession. Indeed, in his extravagant coordinates, symmetrical compositions, grandiloquent vistas and sweeping sightlines, Schrader shoots the French Quarter in much the same way as the Florentine Renaissance structures of Obsession, giving the impression that his camera is participating in the architecture as much as depicting it.
In that sense, the film feels like an attempt to come to terms with the kinds of spaces that were being explored on MTV at this time – spaces that were often precisely about replacing classical spatial coordinates with a series of nested interfaces, especially interfaces between humans and post-human or non-human experiences and sensibilities. Indeed, MTV videos often depicting music stars witnessing their own transformations, gazing upon remediated versions of themselves, which is exactly what occurs when Irene stares at the leopard, communing with an imminent – and immanent – version of herself that is both utterly unrecognisable but also somehow familiar as well, even if its familiarity seems to exceed her perceptual threshold. In many ways, the New Orleans Zoo – or the Audubon Zoo, as it is formally known – is an ideal venue for this process, since its bare-bones cages were considered increasingly outdated by the late 70s and early 80s. At the time Schrader was shooting Cat People, there was a movement to remove these clunky chunks of mathematical space and replace them with a more fluid and dispersed venue, while staying true to the foundational Art Nouveau flourishes of the structures and environment as a whole. In its elaborate spatial ambitions, Schrader’s film provides just that refurbishment, renovating the New Orleans Zoo into an environment where the distinctions between human and animal space ramify less and less, complicating the distinctions between cinematic and MTV aesthetics in the process.
Of course, the film doesn’t entirely take place in the New Orleans Zoo. If the Zoo is presented as an ideal space within which to stage the specific processes that drive MTV aesthetics, then New Orleans as a whole is presented as something of an objective correlativee to the spirit of MTV itself, since there is no city that has such a hold on the American imagination as a site of transformation, transfiguration and metamorphosis. Suffusing his mise-en-scene with lurid reds, greens and pinks, Schrader condenses New Orleans to its most unusual and liminal spaces, culminating with an extraordinary sequence on a train over Lake Pontchartrain that turns out to be the moment at which Irene discovers her heritage and the entire film accordingly quivers on the verge of full-blown music video. As we move from one limit-space to the next, one threshold to the next, all the expected voodoo, creole and ceremony is invoked – and paves the way for the elaborately crafted tableaux of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters – as New Orleans becomes the ideal site from which Schrader can envisage a film that is as spatially inventive as MTV, a film to rival MTV in its sheer spatial imagination.
In that sense, the film often plays as something of an attempt to rival or even outdo the very MTV cues that it invokes. Suffused with inventive angles, tracking shots and elaborate camera movements that traverse several planes or paradigms of space in a single swoop, Schrader’s vulgar colour schemes and expressionist stop-motion fuse feline and incestuous perception into the kind of total experience so typical of MTV, as the film gradually jettisons space altogether in favour of a series of boundaries that only exist to be transgressed and traversed. Like many music clips, then, the film often seems to have no interest in “remembering” what has gone before, which would perhaps make it feel like a series of disconnected – if extraordinary – tableaux if it weren’t so beautifully integrated by Giorgio Moroder’s score, which is uncharacteristically understated and subservient to the film as a whole. At his most accomplished, Moroder’s scores often went the other way, claiming to exceed the film in their conviction, or at least turn the film into a kind of visual accompaniment to their auteurist spectacle – it’s questionable, for example, whether it is Midnight Express or “Procession” that has become most cemented in the popular consciousness. In Cat People, however, Moroder seems prescient that the film is granting his music more agency and centrality than that of a mere soundtrack, and accordingly he has less to prove, building his synth score slowly over two entire hours until it feels like a single piece of music, coterminous with the film itself, which is how Moroder always really envisaged his scores and albums being experienced in the first place.
Of course, Moroder’s score doesn’t just have to serve the film but to act as a kind of connective tissue between the film and David Bowie’s hit single “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”, which is always hanging around the fringes of the action and lurking at the edge of Moroder’s chord progressions and musical arrangements. Indeed, Bowie hums and moans fragments of “Putting Out Fire” from the very opening credits, but it is not until the closing credits that he sings the song in its entirety. While “Putting Out Fire” was released with a music clip, it feels fitting that when it is sung here it is accompanied by the only truly static moment in the film – a freeze-frame of the black leopard that ushers in the closing credits. As a result, while Cat People is continually on the verge of transforming into a MTV music video – and almost does at key moments – that transformation never actually coincides with the musical single driving it, with the result that music video always hangs around the edge of the film as a condition of possibility rather than occurring or any direct or explicit manner. In some ways, that’s an even stronger way to capture the omniscience and potentiality of music video at this point in time than by actually including or internalising a music video as occurs, say, with Brian de Palma’s Body Double, in which Frankie Goes To Hollywood perform a version of “Relax” that doubled as the music video for the single. Where de Palma transitions from film into music video, Schrader suggests that things aren’t quite that simple, linear or convenient. Here, MTV aesthetics are almost too mystical and too dreamy to be directly represented in anything resembling a classical cinematic format: instead the film can only converge towards music video, gathering up the entire future along the way.