Disc Jockey: ‘Cat People’ is one messed-up movie about sex

Natassja Kinski plays a woman who turns into a deadly leopard when she has sex in "Cat People." Credit: Shout! Factory
Nastassja Kinski plays a woman who turns into a deadly leopard when she has sex in “Cat People.”
Credit: Shout! Factory

‘Cat People’: Collector’s Edition
Shout! Factory

The name Jerry Bruckheimer has long been synonymous with mega-testosterone man’s man movies that blow stuff up real good: “Top Gun,” multiple Michael Bay productions and endless “Pirate of the Caribbean” pictures. But sometimes people start off meaning well. Early into his career, the producer helped birth Michael Mann via the Tangerine Dream-drenched “Thief.” And he brought Paul Schrader, still most famous as the screenwriter of “Taxi Driver,” ever so briefly into the mainstream, first with “American Gigolo,” then with 1982′s “Cat People,” one of the most messed-up films ever released by a major studio.

Schrader today claims his film changes enough from the 1942 Val Lewton low-budget horror classic to not be a remake. But it carries over enough. Nastassja Kinski is a pretty young woman of ambiguously European roots who believes if she has sex she will turn into a rampaging leopard. In the original, the question remained unanswered (just as the mention of sex had to be a read-between-the-lines affair). Here, with a sizable budget, she definitely does. Her condition puts a cramp on her hesitant romance with a nice zoologist (John Heard). But at least she’s more into him than her brother (Malcolm McDowell), who claims that not only does their lineage mean they can only have sex with eachother, but they will die if they don’t. Repeat: This is a movie where a man will die if he doesn’t bang his sister.

“Cat People” wasn’t a big hit, and a year later Bruckheimer broke into the big time with “Flashdance,” a more empty form of big screen, acceptable T&A. “Cat People,” by contrast, has loads going on underneath the frequent nudity and crazy sex — too much, one could argue, if one wanted. It’s a movie drawn to the danger of desire like a moth to the flame; the more dangerous the better. Kinski, her face usually a slack-jawed blank, could be said to be lacking as an actress. But she gives the kind of relaxed, utterly unforced performance that nobody else could deliver. It’s hard imagining anyone who could match her mix — she’s vulnerable and virginal but she’s still gotta have it.

Schrader, who author Peter Biskind claimed — with his usual questionable veracity — was in a relationship with his star at the time (and shooting way more hard stuff with her on the off-hours), amps up the heavy filmmaking, a heavier Giorgio Moroder score and some out-there prurience. When, early on, a prostitute (Lynn Lowry) escapes a werecat attack by tumbling down some stairs, the moment ends with her bra conventiently bursting open. Outside of the work of Brian De Palma it’s hard to find a more openly pervy Hollywood picture. But Schrader goes even farther into the weird and the aberrant than De Palma ever did. That’s saying something.

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