"Cat People" (1942) is a classic of its genre, made on a modest budget with minimal special effects, yet managing to evoke a spine-chilling atmosphere of sheer terror. Paul Schrader's expensive reworking of the material 40 years later is so different from the original that it can scarcely be counted as a remake. Although the superior production values, with Ferdinando Scarfiotti as production designer, the clever special effects under the direction of Albert Whitlock, and the Giorgio Moroder score give the film a gloss way beyond its predecessor, overall it remains less effective.
Malcolm McDowell and Nastassja Kinski are brother and sister who become reunited in New Orleans after a long parting. She, the younger of the pair, spends so much time in front of the panther cage at the zoo that she attracts the fancy of the handsome curator (John Heard) who is unaware of the dark and lethal secret shared by the siblings. It is that when they make love, they transform into leopards - a hazard that should give any suitor second thoughts. As they are the last of their kind left in the world, incest is seemingly the only way in which they can fulfill their sexual needs.
Silly? Of course, but it is the style that matters. Schrader is a considerable craftsman, and tells the story on two parallel levels of fantasy and reality. The result has a certain cinematic beauty, and Kinski, in particular, plays her role with an appropriate cat-like presence. Yet alongside the 1942 version (produced by Val Lewton, directed by Jaques Tourneur) it is clear which one is the winner.
"Cat People" is on BBC2 at 10.25pm, Saturday 3rd February 2001.