Made right after "American Gigolo," director Paul Schrader was offered Alan Ormsby's script which reworked DeWitt Bodeen's classic horror tale (previously filmed in 1942 by legendary director Jacques Tourneur, for RKO Pictures). Though chastised by critics and poorly received by lukewarm North American audiences, Ormsby's new spin - ultimately rewritten by Schrader, with a more appropriately perverse ending - is one of the better Universal remakes, produced in between John Badham's "Dracula," and John Carpenter's "The Thing."
Schrader enjoyed directing what remains (as of this writing) his last true studio picture, and Universal's budget allowed the director - classified by critics at the time as a 'true American auteur' - to expand his visual language. As he admits in the film's largely informative commentary track, Schrader delighted in not having to worry about the screenplay (once the rewrite process was done), and embraced the studio finances and immense creative team, particularly "American Gigolo'" production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti (billed as "Visual Consultant," because he was non-union at the time). Scarfiotti, a long-time colleague of Bernardo Bertolucci (he would win an Oscar for "The Last Emperor" in 1987) wielded tremendous power over the crew, including ace cinematographer John Bailey, and every set piece, lighting scheme and costume went through his microscope before final approval from Schrader.
Lime and orange form the basic colours of the film, though red, blue and white figure just as strongly. Universal's DVD is a decent transfer of the film - the soft focus cinematography yields a less-than sharp transfer, and some of the night shots are slightly grainy, in spite of Schrader's deliberate use of in-camera opticals to preserve image quality. However, many low-light scenes - like Irina's early dinner with brother Paul and housekeeper Female [like 'tamale'] - still hold up well, with a good balance between orange/amber lighting, and the brown/black décor and backgrounds. Universal's budget permitted some beautiful sets and matte paintings by the great Albert Whitlock - all of which are fluidly combined in scenes at the New Orleans Zoo, and Irina's dream sequences
The basic Dolby 2.0 soundtrack contains a few shock sound cuts and effective ambient effects, but for the most part is pretty tame, and Giorgio Moroder's thumping score shines during key montage sequences.
The discs' extras form a fairly cohesive examination of the film's production, starting with "An Intimate Portrait by Paul Schrader." Recorded November 2nd in 2000, much of what Schrader recalls is already detailed in the feature-length commentary track - perhaps a sign that the track was recorded much later - but unique to the featurette is aborted footage of Nastassia Kinski in a dream sequence, where she sees her half-human mother (played by her real-life mother) nuzzling Irina's brother (played by a glowering Malcolm McDowall).
In the commentary track, Schrader mentions Ormsby's original ending and the ultimate changes; working with Kinski in her third American film; and McDowall, who was selected partly because Hollywood directors have found that the silliest dialogue becomes more convincing when delivered by English thespians. Schrader also addresses the film's generous nudity that side-stepped the horror and turned the film into a more "erotic fantasy." An affable filmmaker, Schrader's quite honest about what he acquired from the commercial project, but his concentration is often side-tracked by the next scene; though he mentions composer Giorgio Moroder several times, he never makes his point (although the featurette ultimately details the composer's working methods).
"On the Set" is a vintage and largely static Q&A session between an unseen interviewer and then-muscular Schrader, who gives lengthy views on casting, Kinski, characters, the incest theme, and the auteur theory, while the camera occasionally zooms in and out. Shot on the zoo set, the footage is classic, grainy 16mm, suffering from soft focus and hissy sound, but it's fun to watch Schrader play the Articulate Director when he's pretty much disinterested with the whole publicity angle, and the reporter's attempts to focus on Kinski (who was briefly involved with the director during shooting).
The make-up featurette covers the used and abandoned concepts and designs, including stills of an animatronic leopard, and Kinski's full-body transformation make-up - both of which were scaled back for the "less is more" approach (though you do see clips of Ed Begley's gross arm-tear a heck of a lot!).
The Matte Paintings is a short segment regarding Whitlock's work in the dream sequences, and shows the various layers that make up the final vision set to music from the soundtrack album, and Moroder's score is also used during the lengthy still galley (with 'claw slashing' dissolves), combining publicity and behind-the-scenes material.
The last gem is a short set of recollections from veteran director Robert Wise, who worked with Val Lewton, the producer of the original "Cat People," when Wise was engaged to direct the film's sequel in 1944 at RKO. Universal's nicely produced DVD is rounded off with a full screen (and shopworn) trailer, and brief production notes. It's nice to see so much attention in the special features department, no doubt thanks to the generous involvement of the director.
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan