Cat People is based on a 1942 horror film, but it is distinguished by substance and subtlety, not shock value. This very sophisticated and macabre story hovers between the world of dreams and the danger zones of human passion.

Irena, a beautiful young woman, arrives in New Orleans for a reunion with her brother, Paul, from whom she has been separated since childhood. He is an evangelist for a religious cult and has a strange manner about him as he welcomes her. Later she is unnerved by his erotic overtures and then by his sudden disappearance.

While sightseeing, she visits the local zoo and meets the curator, Oliver. They make a perfect couple; he's been waiting all his life for a singular woman like her; she is still virginal and hopes to give herself to a sensitive man like him. When Irena learns that she and Paul are "cat people" — who are transformed into killer panthers after making love to humans — her dual nature becomes an oppressive burden.

Natassia Kinski brings a childlike wonder, feline grace, and trembling vulnerability to her role as Irena. Malcolm McDowell is appropriately sinister and obsessed as Paul. John Heard gives substance to the catalytic character of Oliver, and Annette O'Toole is especially good as his ex-girlfriend.

Cat People opens with a dreamlike sequence showing black panthers in a wonderfully gnarled tree and ends with a very magical scene between Irena and Oliver. John Bailiey's opulent cinematography and Giorgio Moroder's seductive synthesizer music are very appropriate to Alan Ormsby's ornate screenplay.

In Cat People as in his previous two movies, Hardcore and American Gigolo, director Paul Schrader explores the intricate textures of desire and the interplay between eros and animality. He continues to show an interest in the split between romantic longing and sexual passion. Irena is terrified of her physicality, and Oliver yearns for an otherworldly woman. Their love for each other eventually transcends enormous impediments and comes to fruition in a solution agreeable to both. Cat People is surely the most unusual love story you will see on a cinema screen this year.