Should I Watch..? 'Cat People' (1942)
What's the big deal?
Cat People is a horror film released in 1942 and was the first film produced by novelist and screenwriter Val Lewton. Based on a short story Lewton wrote in 1930, the film follows the turbulent marriage between an American and his Serbian wife who fears she is cursed to transform into a murderous panther whenever she is aroused or angry. The film stars Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph and Tom Conway and was directed by Jacques Tourneur. The film was intended to be RKO Studio's low-budget response to the enormous success enjoyed by Universal Studio and their popular horror films such as Dracula and Son Of Frankenstein. The film was a huge hit with audiences with rumoured global earnings of $8 million (the actual total is the subject of debate) and helped establish a number of horror tropes that are still used in the industry today. The film was selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry in 1993 for its cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.
What's it about?
Enjoying a day at the Central Park Zoo, marine engineer Oliver Reed spots a beautiful woman making sketches of a caged, aggressive panther. He discovers that she is Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian woman working in New York as a fashion designer. Immediately bewitched, the pair of them fall in love despite Irene's timid nature and unusual stories of her homeland. She tells Oliver the story of Serbia's King John who led a crusade to drive evil witches out from her native village, symbolised by a statue in her apartment of a man on horseback spearing a cat with his sword. Despite her fears that she may be descended from cursed witches that fled into the surrounding mountains, Irena and Oliver soon decide to get married although Irena maintains a distance between them.
After their wedding celebrations are interrupted by a strange looking woman, Irena is convinced by Oliver to see a psychiatrist in order to get her to overcome her fear that she will transform into a deadly cat creature if she is intimate with him. Meeting with Dr Louis Judd, Irena realises that he cannot help her but is shocked to find that Oliver has grown closer to his work colleague Alice Moore. It is only then that she begins to realise that her fears are not entirely unfounded...
Dr Louis Judd
Release Date (US)
25th December, 1942
PG (1999 re-rating)
Fantasy, Horror, Mystery
What's to like?
Given the relative inexperience of those involved in its extremely rushed production (shooting took just 18 days), it's remarkable how influential Cat People proved. Instead of depicting grotesque monsters like Universal's horror films, this movie proves a much more psychological experience with careful use of shadow and suggestion to play on the viewer's imagination. The film's microscopic budget (less than $150'000) meant that special effects were probably never going to feature that prominently but the film proves that what's scarier than some hideous creature we can see is actually what we can't see, the dark recesses of our mind being explored and probed and projecting our own nightmares onto the screen. Nowhere is this more evident than the swimming pool scene - nearly cloaked in shadow and trapped alone in a strange and unfamiliar environment, we struggle to make out what exactly is stalking its prey. Now think how many times you've seen the same technique in horror films through the years from Alien to Friday The 13th.
Simon also provides the film with an unlikely protaganist, a strange and timid woman who clearly has something to hide but also a vengeful and suspicious woman with a real air of danger behind her. It could have been a difficult job that capture both sides of her character but Simon is brilliant in the role, her natural French accent adding to the intrigue of Irena. She hints at another, darker story behind this film that would have been impossible to film at the time but again, the film uses suggestion to convey its own narrative. But the film isn't without its own traditional scares such as the famous "bus" sequence (see Fun Facts) which rivals anything Hitchcock could produce in terms of building tension.
- The bus sequence is an example of what is known as Lewton's Bus - a long series of shots that build tension up before springing its surprise, a benign presence or unexpected shock that bears no threat in order to get the audience jumping out of their seats. The term "Lewton's Bus" is still used in horror films today and has been imitated countless times since.
- The film remained so popular with audiences that cinemas kept showing the film for far longer than intended. It was in cinemas for so long that critics who slated the film when it first came out were able to rewrite their reviews more positively. It even delayed the release of Lewton's next films - I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man.
- Incidentally, the black panther seen in Cat People was also cast in The Leopard Man. The animal's actual name was Dynamite and these were the only two films it appeared in.
- The film's budget was so low that Lewton insisted on shooting as much shadow as possible to disguise the fact that there wasn't actually a panther on set - in all, the panther only appears on two sets. They were also forced to reuse sets from Orson Welles' film The Magnificent Ambersons.
What's not to like?
There's no getting around the fact that the movie is more melodrama than blood-curdling horror. Cat People isn't for those who expect a classic chiller of the sort that Universal were releasing at the time and certainly not for gore hounds used to modern horror films being little more than an excuse for spilling claret. What the film is these days is an interesting look back at how simple film-making techniques could overcome budget shortfalls and still create an eerie and unsettling atmosphere that would influence film-makers for generations. But its own horror credentials are weakened by the other cast members, all of whom seem unflappably stoic and overly starched. Conway, as the psychiatrist version of Van Helsing, is borderline hilarious as he reveals his cane is actually a sword.
The film has other issues such as a slow pace despite its ridiculously short running time. It spends too long furthering the mystery of Irena when most audiences, even at the time, would have been aware of her true nature or certainly figured it out long before the characters ever do. I did feel a little short-changed by the lack of genuine shocks but I was more curious than I was scared - the film-nerd in me winning out over what people's desire to be frightened or entertained. Like the Universal horror classics of the time, there is more of a thrill from watching an important movie than the film's narrative itself.
Should I watch it?
Cat People might lack the visual thrills of other horror films from the time but it demonstrates that the power of suggestion and psychological tricks of the mind can be just as effective. The film isn't like as lurid as its advertising claimed but the film is a fascinating watch at the combined talents of Lewton, Tourneur and Simon creating a film that stands the test of time. It's not a shock-fest by today's standards but the film is still absolutely worth a watch for horror veterans and film nuts like me.
Great For: err... horror veterans, film nuts like me, repressed cat owners
Not So Great For: thrill seekers, gore fiends, home commentaries
What else should I watch?
So successful was this film that RKO produced a sequel in 1944, The Curse Of The Cat People. However, this film proved divisive as it was less of a shadowy horror and more of an exploration of a child's fantasies and imagination told via a ghost story. Despite bringing back most of the first film's characters and actors, the sequel only has a tenuous link to Cat People although its stature has grown over the years. There was also a remake of the first film in 1982, also called Cat People which was much more explicit in terms of its eroticism and violence.
Cat People was RKO's first foray into B-movie horror to specifically challenge the dominance held by Universal Studios. Since the release of the silent adaption of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame in 1923, Universal continued to set the standard for horror films for years after as well as introducing icons who would become synonymous with the genre - Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price. So prolific was the studio that the output between the 1920's and 1950's is known as Universal Classic Monsters - the first shared universe in cinema history, long before Marvel ever got the idea. With classics like Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolfman, the studio had no shortage of material to spin sequels off.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox