Irene Gallier comes to New Orleans to live with her strange preacher brother Paul, who tells her that they are the last of the cat people and can only have sex with each other if they want to avoid turning into panthers.
In 1982, Paul Schrader seemed a very odd choice to remake Val Lewton's classic 1943 horror movie. The original was a model of restraint and subtlety and the remake, frankly, isn't.
In an overheated New Orleans, sister and brother Nastassja Kinksi and Malcolm McDowell are the last survivors of a race of humans who transform into leopards when sexually aroused. While McDowell rips the legs off hookers, Kinski more delicately becomes obsessed with gentle zoo-keeper John Heard, who is marked out as the man for her because of his sensitive handling of a caged leopard in his care.
The script redoes all the set-pieces of the original, including a cameo from another cat lady that scuppers the whole 'last of the cat people' premise, but Schrader seems to throw most of them away -- the menacing of Annette O'Toole in a swimming pool is especially ordinary -- in favour of an understandable, obsessive lingering on the pouting face and frequently naked form of the lissom Kinski, who is involved in the weirdest bondage scene in the movies.
It has the sort of slimy transformation scenes that were de rigeur in early 1980s werewolf movies, with the big cat faces erupting from beneath the smooth human ones, and stretches of dreamlike wandering that become either fascinating or sleep-inducing depending on your mood. It's not exactly good, and it has some very bad scenes indeed, but the performances sometimes sparkle and the unusual happy ending -- scored with David Bowie's 'Putting Out the Fire With Gasoline' -- is surprisingly moving.