The year 1981 brought us some classic werewolf movies with An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, and Wolfen. The following year, director Paul Schrader presented this new spin on the subject of manimals with this tale of siblings who turn into panthers after they mate with regular people. The only way for them to return to human form is to kill. There is a lot to like about this flick including the New Orleans locations, a moody score by Giorgio Moroder, gorgeous cinematography, and a fair bit of nudity. This is a loose remake of a 1942 movie from RKO Pictures and retains the original's main premise as well as some other elements (such as the swimming pool scene) but is overall a very different movie. Schrader has never been one to shy away from controversial subject matter and there are heavy incest overtones, implied panther rape, a particularly unhinged and overtly sexual performance from Malcolm McDowell, and some unexpected gore among other things.
Nastassja Kinski stars as Irena, a young woman who arrives in New Orleans to meet her long lost brother Paul (McDowell). It is quickly established that Paul has more on his mind than catching up on old times and this sets an uncomfortable tone early on. After visiting a prostitute to calm down, Paul turns into a panther and is captured by a zookeeper named Oliver (John Heard) who is unaware that the large cat he has obtained is much more that it appears to be. Irena is also unaware of the turn of events but is drawn to the zoo and its latest acquisition. She begins a relationship with Oliver but learns the truth about who she is after Paul returns to human form after ripping the arm off a zoo assistant. Irena needs to make a decision as to whether she wants to risk a relationship with Oliver and turn into a panther after having sex or rely her brother Paul for carnal pleasure. I suppose she could also become a nun but this is never presented.
If you couldn't tell by reading the above plot summary, this is a strange flick that makes me miss the days when a movie like this could get a wide release. Kinski is no stranger to outlaw cinema seeing as though her father Klaus was known to be a loose cannon and she had previously appeared nude in To the Devil a Daughter and worked with Roman Polanski on Tess in a role for which she won a Golden Globe. She embraces the character and is able to play off of McDowell's ickiness as she goes through a sexual awakening. The best performance here is from Heard who is able to convey the struggle his character is going though by being in love with a woman that he cannot be intimate with. The Louisiana locations lend themselves well to the story and there are some memorable shots in this movie that have stayed with me including a flood of blood splashing against Kinski's shoes and a night scene of Kinski walking naked in the bayou while getting in touch with her feline side. I can't imagine this coming out today especially with major actors but Schrader is still at it with controversial material after recently casting trainwreck Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen in The Canyons which is written by "American Psycho" author Bret Easton Ellis.
The sexual tone of the movie will make it uncomfortable for the prudish as the unconventionally beautiful Kinski oozes sensuality as the plot progresses. I felt like I was falling under the same spell that Oliver was entranced with. Fans of Superman III (I know you're out there) will also be pleased to know that Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole) does some naked swimming. Genre fans can also spot Lynn Lowry (I Drink Your Blood, The Crazies) in a brief scene as the hooker with a bra that magically pops open. The screenplay was written by Alan Ormsby who had previously penned horror cult classics Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, Deranged, and Deathdream. (Josh Pasnak, 7/30/14)
Directed By: Paul Schrader.
Written By: Alan Ormsby.
Starring: Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O'Toole.