“I like the dark. It’s friendly.”
I’ve loved black and white horror movies since I was a kid, sneaking out way past my bedtime to watch The Return of the Fly or Trog on “Weird” – a late night TV show out of Bangor, Maine. Later on I got to see a bunch of them on Saturday afternoon cable, often at my grandmother’s house. Most of the old Universal Monster movies, a bunch of Allied Artists Pictures like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and even the occasional Hammer film – like The Mummy.
I didn’t get to see a lot of the RKO horror films, though (King Kong being the exception). I have a vague memory of I Walked With a Zombie – Darby Jones as Carrefour makes an impression – but I mixed it up with White Zombie for the longest time. I didn’t see any other Val Lewton (or Jacques Tourneur) films until I was an adult, trying to fill in gaps in my horror viewing experience (a process that continues).
This is a roundabout way of explaining that it was a long time before I got around to seeing Cat People.
As an ‘I keep finding new things about movies I’ve already seen’ aside – I didn’t realize Alan Ormsby worked on the screenplay for the 1982 remake! Ormsby worked on Deathdream, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and my favorite Nazi zombie movie, Shock Waves (as writer, writer/actor, and makeup artist, respectively).
Cat People (and its sequel, the oddly affecting Curse of the Cat People) is available streaming for subs on Shudder (and AMC+). It can be rented and purchased from the usual online vendors.
The Criterion Collection release remains the go-to on Blu-ray, and is on my list to purchase eventually – I want to see the documentary that’s included, as well as hear the commentary track by Gregory Mank. IF you can find it, the Val Lewton DVD collection from Warner Archives also includes both films.
Oliver (Kent Smith), a handsome, if bland, engineer meets Serbian immigrant Irena (Simone Simon) at the Central Park Zoo where she is making sketches of a black panther. Intrigued with each other, they form a friendship and then a romance. Unfortunately, Irena harbors a strange obsession with a legend from her homeland. King John drove the devil-worshippers out of her village, but the ‘wisest and most wicked’ fled into the mountains. These women were actually cat people and would turn into great cats when aroused or angered. Irena believes that she is descended from those witches.
Despite this belief, which Oliver treats as an idiosyncrasy even though it keeps them from so much as kissing, the couple eventually marries. It’s only after Irena accidentally frightens a pet bird to death – and then feeds it to the panther at the zoo – that he begins to take her seriously, suggesting she see a psychiatrist.
Dr Judd (Alan Napier) is a pretty terrible psychiatrist. Pro tip for any mental health professionals out there – don’t hit on your married patients. Or any patients, really. In addition to the unwanted advances Irena gets an earful of “mind cankers” and “childhood traumas.” Afterwards Irena finds that Oliver has told his assistant Alice (Jane Randall) about her problems, a betrayal of trust that seems lost on her husband.
Oliver is, truth be told, kind of an idiot – and when Alice confesses that she’s actually in love with him he somehow manages to make it all about himself, talking about how he’s never been unhappy before and how he’s not even sure he’s in love with Irena. In a just world Irena and Alice would leave Oliver behind and travel the world together feeding dead birds to caged panthers.
When Irena sees Alice and Oliver together at a restaurant she waits until they separate and then begins to follow Alice. This leads to one of the most tense scenes in the film – hell, in ANY film – as both women move through pools of light and shadow, Irena getting closer and closer until we don’t even see her emerge from the shadows anymore. There’s a sound, something indefinable, and Alice begins to panic. A loud hiss and growl startles her (and us) only to be revealed as an arriving bus. Alice boards, relieved. (This jump scare at the end of a tense sequence actually became know as the “Lewton bus,” though I always thought of it as the “cat jump” scare, exemplified by Halloween 2.)
Elsewhere a groundskeeper at the zoo finds dead sheep and suggestive prints – pawprints that seem to turn into the imprints of a woman’s shoes.
Things move somewhat predictably forward from here. Irena grows more isolated and jealous, Oliver and Alice conspire against her with Dr. Judd, there’s one of the creepiest pool scenes ever shot, and something like a great cat begins to stalk – and kill – those who have angered Irena.
As a take on the werewolf myth Cat People is pretty understated. Unlike the Universal films the creature is mostly hinted at. A growl, a number of suggestive shadows. There’s no drawn-out transformation scene or awkward half-transformed creature. There is a woman who thinks she is becoming a panther and there is a panther. Whether she’s right or merely disturbed is open to interpretation. (Mostly – I think it’s clear what the film wants us to think.)
Cat People was made on a relatively low budget ($134,000 – roughly $2 million in 2018 dollars), but it looks great. First time producer Val Lewton makes every dollar count and Jacques Latourner knows how to make the most out of a limited number of locations (and a metric ton of suggestive shadows).
I think James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein was the first movie where I really noticed lighting in a film. Doctor Praetorius in the crypt – brrr…. But I remember after I watched Cat People for the first time that I found myself thinking that Tourneur was a filmmaker who also knew the value of light and dark. The light tables in the office, the areas of shadow near the bus stop, that whole scene where Alice is stalked in the pool. The shadows are damn near a separate character in the movie.
The Bottom Line
There are depths to Cat People – you could write a paper (and I’m sure people have) talking about gender roles and the virgin/whore dichotomy in the 1940’s or the nature of evil and whether it’s something that can be inherited. That’s not what I take away from the film at the end of the day, though, even if subtext does enrich the experience.
No, for me it’s all about the shadows, man – the SHADOWS.