In this loose adaptation of the 1942 horror classic of the same name, a 2001-style opening montage establishes some sort of sacrificial, mystical union between panthers and an ancient tribe of humans.
Flash forward to 1980's New Orleans, where waifish Irina (Natassja Kinski) meets her older brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell), a minister, for the first time since their animal trainer parents died and she was sent to a series of foster homes.
Paul's Creole housekeeper, Female (Ruby Dee), helps Irina settle into her brother's home, but Paul himself disappears.
Cut to a fleabag motel where a blasé prostitute finds an angry panther instead of a client; after mauling her, the cat is captured by police and a team of zoologists: Oliver (John Heard), Alice (Annette O'Toole), and Joe (Ed Begley Jr.). The next day Irina finds herself in the zoo where these scientists work; drawn to the newly captured panther, she befriends Oliver and takes a job in the gift shop.
Shortly after the panther's violence turns deadly, it escapes, and soon Paul turns up spouting an unbelievable story about his family's were-cat heritage and his inevitable sexual union with little Irina.
On the run from her dangerous brother, Irina takes refuge in a sexually frustrated romance with Oliver, afraid of what might happen if she consummates their passion.
Astute viewers will notice that the zoologist characters refer to the film's panthers as leopards; panther is actually a generic term for any large cat, especially a black one, but Cat People's panthers are in fact leopards whose black color comes from a recessive trait known as melanism.