Kitten Without a Whip

Howard Hampton on Paul Schrader’s Cat People

Paul Schrader, Cat People, 1982, 35 mm, color, sound, 118 minutes. Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski).

ON FIRST SEEING Paul Schrader’s Cat People in 1982, my reaction was a wave of almost nauseated confusion: What was Schrader up to with this hodgepodge? Why did these voluptuous, neo-gothic jigsaw pieces sometimes feel like they had been soldered together by a blind monk in shop class? Precisely what the fuck was he thinking? I could barely sort out my own responses to what was thrashing around on-screen. It was as though the director, writer, actors, and designers had set out to make a perfectly respectable shocker, overlaying the sex, horror, patriarchal gore, and New Orleans juju with a nice ironic sheen of self-consciousness. (Cat People was a remake of the 1942 Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton cult talisman, albeit in name only.) But like an artificial entity that develops a twisted mind of its own, the movie had other ideas.

Excitement, disgust, humor, and ennui had all been locked together in this perverse, ungainly ritual of control and release. And so Cat People took on a clanking, lurching, irrational momentum that dragged everyone involved along for a ride down into the unconscious. The signposts of a standard horror film were tangled with a cerebral romanticism that seemed to be trying to wrestle those generic elements into submission, or repurpose them as votive art. Unless secretly, sadomasochistically, Cat People wished to submit to that primitive pulpy grip of myth-smeared mumbo jumbo, the pagan dance of splattered viscera and a beautiful child-woman who turns into a big man-eating cat during the witching hour and/or the sex act.

Much as I might have wanted to dismiss it as an orgy of hopeless cross-purposes, its discomfiting images, performances, sounds, and even imaginary smells stuck in my head the same way the David Bowie/Giorgio Moroder theme from Cat People—aka “Putting out fire with gasoline”—did. You could make fun of it, disdain it, sneer, giggle, throw the reels under the bus of aesthetic propriety: It knew something the viewer didn’t and yet maddeningly refused to disclose exactly what that knowledge consisted of. You could resist it, but the movie would win out eventually: It possessed the luster of sin, Eros as incurable disease.

Watching the movie again, on Blu-ray, in a new edition that beautifully reproduces the film grain as it looked when I originally saw it, I could not resist feeling a jolt of awe. Schrader, even more than his pals Scorsese and De Palma, tried to fully reconcile mainstream commercial work with the rigors of art cinema—in other words, to live the impossible dream. In Cat People, with an intensely visceral yet peculiarly ascetic voyeurism that nods to Vertigo (1958) and Cocteau and Dante’s Beatrice (the zookeeper hero plays a cassette audio translation of La vita nuova while reading the original), Schrader projects a rapturous obsessiveness onto twenty-year-old star Nastassja Kinski. That he was also having an affair with her during shooting will not come as a surprise: Of all the cinematic valentines of directors to an actress, this is among the most absolutely prurient and the most detached. She was at the pinnacle of her run as an international sex symbol. (Everyone who was sentient in the 1980s remembers the infamous Richard Avedon photo of her naked on a concrete floor with a boa constrictor wrapped around her like a bulging ribbon on a Christmas present.) Radiant, super vulnerable, otherworldly—the sex symbol presented as stained-glass icon.

I don’t want to slight the rest of the cast: Annette O’Toole is a marvel as the sensible, all-American woman eventually stalked by Kinki’s cat persona; John Heard does his best playing in essence Schrader’s stand-in (the role’s conception as a Jimmy Stewart–type straight arrow seems to have gotten muddied with the addition of the director’s fixations, or else Schrader felt he was just getting in the way of the camera’s undiluted gaze on his beloved); Ruby Dee is surprisingly credible as the voodoo housekeeper; and Malcolm McDowell’s sourly hammy brother-monster fulfills the film’s horror-cliché quotient. (He’s window dressing to reassure you that this is just a movie, while slowly the picture’s morphing into another beast behind his back.)

Kinski, though, with that amazing innocence-meets-experience bearing, little-girl voice (which could drop an octave into an ominous purr when required), and young-boy haircut/physique, allows Cat People to go into truly unsettling areas. Schrader likes to tell the story of going to a preview screening, sitting behind a couple of teenage girls: “And it came to that scene where he is tying her to the bed…it was shot as a religious ceremony but it was a zoophilic bondage scene, and I remember this girl in front of me going, ‘Oh my God,’ and I turned to [producer Jerry Bruckheimer] and said, ‘I think we went a little too far here.’ ”

Let’s not kid ourselves. The operative word here is not the demurely exotic zoophilic; it is the more old-fashioned, taboo-saturated, terror-stricken pedophilic. Kinski is playing a character who not only is symbolically underage (a virgin, “sheltered” in the extreme, yet coming from a family where incest is practiced, as it were, religiously), but who, in this scene, naked and bound spread-eagle on a bed, looks perhaps fourteen years old. No wonder the girl in the audience gasped: That could be her little sister up there. The zookeeper has stripped his Beatrice bare and found—Lolita. Schrader speaks of how “cool” the movie is, but cool is what Quentin Tarantino achieved when he lovingly appropriated “Putting Out Fire” in Inglourious Basterds. Cat People definitely wades straight into uh-oh, it’s-too-late-to-stop-now territory; smart folks like to bandy around concepts like “transgression,” but leave it to an erstwhile Calvinist to really hit the self-crucifying nail on the head.

The cat nymphet presents her suitor with a stark choice: You can save me or you can have sex with me, but you can’t do both. Being a man as sure of his own righteousness as he is helpless before his own unleashed desires, he seeks to do both—to finesse damnation into some pretzel-shaped approximation of redemption. Which results in a staggering final sequence that is simultaneously romantic, tragic, and genuinely, existentially horrifying. If there is a kind of wondrous buried joke here, it is that the critic turned director Schrader took his mentor-cum-adversary-cum-friend Pauline Kael’s idea of movie “trash” and managed to use it as a springboard to the most purely transcendental ending in all his movies.

Cat People is now available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory.