Paul Schrader's kinkamamie howler, "Cat People," is bound to rile moviegoers who recall the subtle 1942 horror thriller "The Cat People." All the modest virtues of the original film have been discarded in favor of lurid excess. What was once unpretentious, suggestive, implicit and erotically tragic has become bombastic, literal-minded, explicit and erotically stupefying.

"The Cat People" was about a mysteriously haunted young woman, played by the kittenish French actress Simone Simon, who feared, justifiably, that an ancient family curse would transform her into a large, predatory cat if she permitted herself to respond passionately.

RKO's Val Lewton and his colleagues, director Jacques Tourneur and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, preferred to sublimate the beastly aspects. One interlude with a prowling panther was forced on them by the studio, but the prevailing approach was designed to be ambiguous. The heroine's obsession could be taken literally or interpreted as a case of mental derangement evolving out of sexual fear and despair.

Schrader's prologue makes it graphically apparent that "Cat People" won't be wasting footage on any of that ambiguous, psychological stuff. The movie begins in some desert outpost of primitive antiquity, where maidens are offered as sacrificial mates to sacred black panthers. When a young woman enters the panther's lair, the camera dissolves from a closeup of her to a closeup of Nastassia Kinski in the present, superimposed over the image of the bride of the cat. One has reason to suspect that a direct ancestral link is being indicated.

The director's overexplicit vision condemns every sequence to monotony. Malcolm McDowell, looking more dissolute than he appeared in "Caligula," turns up to greet Kinski at the New Orleans airport and identifies himself as a long-lost sibling. A character added by Schrader and screenwriter Alan Ormsby, he recalls Lewton's "Leopard Man" but mainly satisfies the filmmakers' yen for an incestuous theme. Having located his kid sister, McDowell hopes to persuade her to cohabit with him in bestial security and eliminate his reliance on prostitutes, who tend to end up clawed and munched to death after he's engaged their services.

Kinski demurs, and the first half of the movie is preoccupied with her resistance to McDowell's overtures. A night of frustrated lust costs brother his freedom, and he ends up in the zoo, stuck in his panther form and caged among the jungle cats. Following an instinct, sister finds him there and strikes up a fateful relationship with the curator, played by John Heard, who becomes so fascinated by this jumpy, exotic newcomer (she leaps suspiciously high into the treetops when he startles her) that he tends to lose sight of the far more healthy, down-to-earth charms of co-worker Annette O'Toole.

Schrader prevents the audience from becoming terminally restless or sarcastic by inserting the occasional atrocity (an amiable young zookeeper played by Ed Begley Jr. has his arm torn off in shocking detail, for example), obligatory stalking sequence (the most effective, which isolates O'Toole in a swimming pool, is borrowed with little variation from "The Cat People") and striptease, with or without a copulation chaser. Loaded as his calculations are, they also misfire with ludicrous frequency. All the heavy breathing seldom builds up to the desired explosive payoffs of elemental sex and violence.

"Cat People," concludes on a note that must be meant to evoke profound pathos, but the literalness of the movie makes it unfit for serious sentiment. I'm sure Schrader had a notion rattling around his head about love as bondage or the supreme sacrifice of freedom, but he hasn't created a mythic context in which the notion could hope to impose itself on an audience. On the contrary, he seems to be trafficking in kinky kitsch.

Schrader takes himself very seriously, but after "Cat People," there's no reason the public should perceive him as anything greater than an exploitation director with delusions of grandeur.