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Cat People

REMAKES are nothing new. A spate of them popped up in the 1980s when Universal Studios gave us redos of The Thing, Scarface and Cat People, the latter Paul Schrader's perverse 1982 re-imagining of Jacques Tourneur's 1942 classic, about a woman who turns into a cat when sexually aroused.

On the Blu-ray extras of Shout Factory's handsomely pristine edition of the film, Schrader himself dismisses the notion that his film was ever intended to be a faithful remake. Indeed, after writing Taxi Driver and directing American Gigolo, Schrader felt sufficiently secure in leaving his own paw print on the cat tale. Specifically, he exploited the freedom to render explicit the subtle sexual underpinnings of the original. Instead of being set in New York City, Schrader sets his story in kinky old New Orleans, where the lovely, virginal Irina (Nastassja Kinski) arrives to meet her long-lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell), only to discover he has incestuous designs on her, springing from their shared curse: they turn into black leopards after (not during) sexual encounters. Only killing can return them to their human form.

This bodes unhappily for Irina's blooming relationship with a zookeeper (John Heard), who is subliminally turned on by Irina's feline nature.

As a director, Schrader can be uneven and inconsistent, but there is more good than bad here.

Kinski is marvellous as she transforms from prey to predator. One of the film's few faithful shout-outs to the original is a restaging of the scene where Irina stalks Oliver's ex-girlfriend (the lovely Annette O'Toole) in a swimming pool.

For the rest, Schrader's Cat People is a beast unto itself, sometime sleek and sure-footed, sometimes clumsy, but dependably fascinating. ***


Die Monster Die

AN American International release from 1965, Die Monster Die is a sadly pedestrian adaptation of the H. P. Lovecraft story The Color Out of Space.

Alas, it lacks Lovecraft's something-is-behind-you sense of pervasive dread. While not a Corman production, the movie hews close to the Roger Corman-era formula: two young stars are terrorized by an older, established horror icon, in this case, Boris Karloff as wheelchair-bound mad aristo Nahum Witley.

When no-nonsense Yank Dr. Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams) comes to visit his fiancée Susan (Suzan Farmer) in the English town of Arkham, the townsfolk react violently to his stated destination of Witley Manor. (Scenes such as this were later parodied in An American Werewolf in London, when a couple of hitchhikers encounter hostile townies in the pub The Slaughtered Lamb.)

There is good reason for the townsfolk to be fearful. The Witleys have a history, shall we say, uncovered in an unintentionally funny scene in which Suzan shows Stephen some scary family portraits.

"This is my grandfather Corbin Witley."

"What did he do?"

"He went insane."

The acorn didn't fall far from the tree where Nahum is concerned. He hides dark secrets in the basement ("It looks like a zoo in hell," Stephen observes), a mutated wife in the bedroom and man-eating plants in the conservatory.

This has unusually strong production values for a B-movie, but conventional Hollywood-style storytelling isn't the best approach to Lovecraft, who has been more successfully adapted by more stylish, go-for-baroque filmmakers, especially Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, Dagon). ** 1/2


The Fifth Estate

AT its best, The Fifth Estate manages to establish a concise narrative through-line to the creation of whistleblower website WikiLeaks and its embattled, white-haired founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

It's not an easy story to tell, given the schismatic nature of the story and its attendant technological details. The heavy lifting falls to Assange's former collaborator and former friend Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl). Berg acts as a kind of tour guide to both the formation of WikiLeaks and to the psyche of Assange, which goes from journalistic idealist to messianic paranoid.

Benedict Cumberbatch is ideally cast in this regard, by the way: Julian Assange isn't so far removed from the actor's excellent portrayal of Sherlock Holmes as a bipolar seeker of truth with lax social skills.

Director Richard Condon (The Twilight Saga), working from an adaptation of Berg's memoir, first delivers a success story. Assange is a self-described citizen journalist who circumvents the agendas and compromises of mainstream media by simply offering a safe haven to whistleblowers: an online publication where their identities will be protected by walls of impenetrable data.

But with the growth of WikiLeaks comes an uptick in Assange's arrogance, to the extent that this movie starts to resemble David Fincher's The Social Network, another story of a techno-geek afflicted by an infinitely expanding hubris.

One wishes Condon could have told this story as elegantly as Fincher did. The human story behind WikiLeaks is crowded out by frantic, flashy visuals depicting data flow to a techno beat. After toiling for so long on the Twilight series, one fears Condon may have gotten into the bad habit of playing to the kids. ** 1/2

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2014 C4

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