Bright Lights Film Journal

Blank Like a Panther: Cat People (1982) blu-ray review

Tyler Sage’s trenchant piece on whether or not its safe to love Wolf of Wall Street (Who are We to Judge – 1/22)  touches on some key issues regarding the great moldy tub of debauched macho auteurs still in our refrigerator from the 1970s, like Paul Schrader, John Milius, James Toback, and Marty Scorsese (though at times Scorsese transcends the tub, other times Leo comes along and guides him back in).

High on cocaine, top flight champagne, Vietnam disillusionment, European art cinema, and classy prostitutes (I assume) in the pre-awareness-of-AIDs era, these tubmates shot for the skies, for the dark literary Conradian heart of the American dream. As for their right to immortality, well, time has told and most film lovers agree: better one flawed crass attempt at Manly Greatness than a perfect little PC film of no particular reach or ambition. Julie Dench’s grey eyes reflecting a windswept coastline will earn a film all sorts of polite applause but the bloody nude sexy daughter of Klaus Kinski stalking a dream jungle in Paul Schrader’s lush-lipped 1982 hit Cat People will get those same applauders stamping and straining at the bit, either for or against, incensed, turned on, outraged, in short, it dares to walk the Eurocine walk between art and sleaze, and is very of its time.

A 40 years-later revamping of an old Val Lewton masterpiece original, Schrader’s Cat People comes when he was high on the horse of American Gigolo and his artistic confidence is high; he takes his time, encourages us to lean up against the bars of the screen and fall in love with the gorgeous star, Nastassja Kinski, as he himself had done (“I sleep with all my directors,” noted Nastassja at the time, as if warning him this would not last).  Zardoz-ian flaws-n-all it’s now a part of history – the sexual mythic snapshot of 1982, the single greatest year in the history of science fiction, horror, and fantasy (Conan, The Road Warrior, The Thing, Blade Runner, to name a few) and the only one to at least wade in, (making wading boots forever sexy) to the sexual chthonic mucky muck. Objectified or not, Irina isn’t a ‘pleasure model’, not a streamlined manifestation of male horniness. I mean she is, it’s a Schrader movie, it’s in the tub of moldy manliness hitherto mentioned, but Irina transcends it – she even transcends the Yellow Wallpapered room of made-mad-by-men ladies like Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965). She’s like if Deneuve had externalized her madness, a Deneuve in therapy. 

It’s a film about sex and obsession but it’s important to note that the film is never about John Heard’s, his obsession; he only shows up once she goes to the zoo. She’s the star, and his status as a wild beast tamer implies there’s no real heart of darkness within him. He’s a cipher just a shade less flat and boring and unconsciously sexist than his counterpart in the original, Oliver (Kent Smith). His sexual innuendo dialogue like “letting that sucker slide right down your throat” eating oysters, or that the new panther should get “a few bones now and then,” links him (in the mind on anyone who reads Stanley Cavell’s double entendre deconstruction of Howard Hawk’s Bringing up Baby in Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedies of Remarriage) to Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby (Telling ‘Miss Swallow’, “Alice, I think this one goes in the tail.”)  There’s no doubt being a zoo curator in the legit world is a metaphor for sadomasochism and ownership / control over wild things puts Heard in the same category as Grant in Baby with his little butterfly net, Charles Laughton in Island of Lost Souls (1933) and Sean Connery in Marnie (1964) –all more less coded impotent, at least for the moment, as the close in on their sexually anxious quarry

No, the film is really about Kinski’s sensual awakening, which makes it a S/M fairy tale of the old school. There’s even a bit of a wry Cinderella-ish post-code comedown that manages to be supremely sexy. Irina chooses to live in a cage as a sexually uninhibited panther rather than a repressed human, but it’s her choice. A presence in Schrader’s version not in the original, Malcolm McDowell as her brother and would-be incestuous mate. See, if they mate together it doesn’t ‘count’ as far as having to kill to turn human again. Actually, it’s the literalness of this curse that stands as one of the lesser qualities of the film, as for all his lip service to Ozu and Bresson, Schrader can’t trust the dreamy poeticism of the cat curse, and has to literalize it by showing red sky ancestors sacrificing their virgin daughters to mate with and/or be devoured by panthers. I’ll never say no to beautiful red skies, but it feels overthought compared to other stretches.

Cat People has been released this month for the first time on blu-ray from Shout. The film is now so lovingly restored that certain scenes glisten, you can see so much detail that you can smell New Orleans, the ancient crumbling blackened edifices, the stillness of the famous cemetery where Peter Fonda once tripped, the staggering sexiness of Kinski in wading boots and khaki shorts, the gorgeous magic hour reflection on the bayou water, the heat between Heard and Kinski so intense the blu-ray sharpness even picks up their heat shimmers.  Kinski’s giant feline eyes don’t even need slit contacts the way Malcolm does. Never forget who her father is, and that she is dangerous, for a wild man’s blood courses through her. And the finer facial details of the black panther — a jet black blur prior — come out and the sheer force and fury of the animal is felt, you feel that it really is really Malcolm McDowell in there, and that each is the measure of the other, as the naughty boy who needs to kill before he can return to human form but missed his shot (like any 70s raging bull coke head he’s a monster until le petit morte de le grande assassiner knocks him sober). Schrader lingers on the cat going nuts in his cage, and we’re almost like that too as the film has slowed way down for these idyllic scenes of gin and tonics with sexy earthy O’Toole and the very Ingmar Bergman-esque androgynous class of Kinski; we want some action, and on blu-ray those scenes of the panther are really something else – you can feel how pissed he is; he almost seems to be acting!

Anette O’Toole – the reincarnation of Veronica Lake?

I remember the first time I saw it, taped it off Showtime, saw it the next day, alone, after school –it blew my mind. Schrader’s sexual pulse has never strayed from the immediate craziness of adolescence, a plus in a horror director. I fell in love with Annette O’Toole’s earthy girl next door vibe even more than with Kinski, who was too androgynous for my tastes at the time, though I thought it was perfect casting – she should be androgynous! I was indifferent to the film overall until that freeze frame ending with David Bowie’s vocal finally coming in slow and sexy on the soundtrack and the bestiality implication (after all the incest). No one saw this delirious ending coming, and it still resonates within my sacral chakra like an ethernet cable to the great anima mundi erogenous zone trampled far beneath my feet, but still pulsing, ready to rise, when the time is right. Don’t resist it, don’t resist the pull of Nastassja Kinski’s feline carnality. The psychoactive tub of moldy macho men and their male gazes can still be intellectual as well as sexual. If we ever forget we can be both sexy and intellectual at the same time we should thank god that tub is still in the fridge, just waiting until we’re mature enough that their coked-up cock wagging doesn’t inspire feminist ire, but a merry shrug. It’s just sex, after all, even if it kills you.