Irena, a young Serbian woman working as a fashion designer in America meets, falls in love with and eventually marries Oliver, a wholesome, all-American guy. The relationship becomes increasingly strained however when they fail to consummate their marital bonds because Irena believes she is descended from a race of satanic cat people, doomed to transform into a ravaging panther when aroused. Matters become further complicated when Oliver begins an affair with his co-worker Alice, and Irena’s heartbreak and jealously unlocks a side of her she had previously tried to suppress…
The first film in a series of moody, literate horror films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s, Cat People is an evocative example of how effective the ‘less is more’ approach to horror can be. Directed with effective restraint by Jacques Tourneur, the film is a masterpiece of mood and atmosphere. Choosing to suggest the horror rather than show it outright, Cat People remains a beautifully eerie and atmospheric chiller to this day. One of the first films to reference the work of Sigmund Freud, Cat People plays out as a dark and unflinching study of sexual repression and anxiety.
Val Lewton is that rarest of creatures – a producer who is more concerned with a film’s artistic integrity than its commercial worth or gain. Despite sourcing a number of directors to helm these quiet chillers, each one is recognisably Lewton-esque, marking him as that other rarest of creatures: the producer as auteur. Given a collection of lurid titles, Lewton was instructed to craft low budget horror films to compete with Universal’s slew of monster movies in an attempt to pull RKO back from the brink after Citizen Kane almost bankrupted the studio. Lewton defied all expectations and created a collection of subtle, provocative and tasteful films that became highly influential in the horror genre.
Cat People was the first of these moody horrors, and arguably the best. Lewton and director Tourneur preferred to suggest the terror, rather than show it outright. This was not only due to budgetary restraints, but also because of Lewton’s literate and intellectual approach to his subject matter – nothing could be scarier than the dark images conjured by the human imagination. While Dewitt Bodeen and Lewton’s script features several scenes that rely on horror clichés – the scene in the pet shop when the animals go berserk after Irena (Simone Simon) enters, or the moment when Oliver (Kent Smith) and Alice (Jane Randolph) fend off an attack by making the sign of the cross – they are wise enough to keep everything ambiguous. Is Irena a were-cat, or just a deeply disturbed and tragically doomed young woman? Almost everything can be explained away and as a result the film unravels as a seductive chiller not date-stamped by shoddy special effects. It is an elegant, sophisticated and hauntingly beautiful study of the horror of sexual repression and a disintegrating marriage filtered through Freudian psychoanalysis. Not bad for an intended B-movie Creature Feature!
The expressionistic cinematography courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca lights everything from below, giving the film a deeply moody look that fits the sombre tone perfectly. Roy Webb’s melancholy lullaby of a score accentuates the romantic and tragic aspects of the story, which unfolds in a contemporary setting and features characters with everyday lives, jobs and problems – a far cry from the gothic, far-flung based horror of Universal. The melodrama unfolds in cafes, plush apartments, brightly-lit offices and noirish city streets and is punctuated by several stand-out moments such as when Alice is menaced while taking a dip in a deserted swimming pool at night. She is forced to tread water when ‘something’ prowls and skulks around the pool in the rippling darkness; while Musuraca’s expressionistic cinematography creates all kinds of sinister shadow-play and hinted-at menace.
The technique of slowly building tension to a jarring shock, which turns out to be a false alarm, was first deployed in Cat People and soon became known as a “Lewton bus”. A shadow-drenched stalking sequence features Alice hurrying through a fog-shrouded Central Park (actually a sound stage) increasingly aware of a presence following close behind her. We cut between Alice’s increasing panic as she moves along the dark path from one pool of light to another, and Irena purposefully stalking after her, as Tourneur builds tension assuredly. When Irena’s footsteps can no longer be heard and the audience holds its breath for the ‘inevitable’ attack, something occurs that is now considered a basic staple of the horror genre, but back then, had never been attempted before. You’ll know it when you see it…
A haunting and strangely moving chiller.
Review by James Gracey, creator of Behind the Couch