Cat People (1942)
Release Date: December 25th, 1942 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Jacques Tourneur Actors: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph, Jack Holt
at People” relies on excellent atmosphere, creepy locations, and clever techniques of hinting at the horrors to come – especially since none of the actual slaughter takes place on screen. Rarely seen in thrillers these days, this Val Lewton production (directed by Jacques Tourneur, who, the following year, would also helm “I Walked with a Zombie” and “The Leopard Man” for Lewton) focuses on character development and an interesting love triangle over senseless, violent kills. In fact, the film likely features the smallest body count of any horror film out there – yet plenty of intrigue still surfaces in the form of ominous supernatural elements and the unique catalyst for transformation.
C.R. Cooper Ship and Barge Construction Company worker Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) falls for Serbian fashion designer Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a mysterious woman with a haunted past. After just tea and a failed gift (a kitten that doesn’t like her – sharing the attitude of every other animal at the pet shop), they become madly in love and ready for marriage. Irena’s childhood, involving King John having liberated Serbia from evil witches, remains a dark omen that plagues the wedding and their future. She’s constantly terrified of the “cat people” that descended from the surviving warlocks, but Oliver is convinced it’s a harmless fairy tale.
Months pass and Irena continues to worry that wicked feline creatures are controlling her, including a panther at the nearby zoo she occasionally visits. It doesn’t help that her apartment is within earshot of constant howling from the lion’s den. Jealousy over Oliver’s co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph) further deteriorates the situation, along with the fact that Irena doesn’t want to kiss Oliver for fear she’ll turn into a vicious cat and kill him. When Irena’s pet bird dies, a psychiatrist (Tom Conway) is the next step. Alice soon believes that she’s being stalked by Irena, who she claims morphs into a catlike monster, but the skeptical doctor reasons with explanations of hallucinations and insanity and even a subconscious psychic need to loose evil upon the world. Unswayed, Alice knows the uncanny woman is transforming into something murderous… and not human.
Bloody paw prints gradually turning into high heel marks, a shredded robe, and animated shadows are an effective but dated method of revealing as little as possible – partly because of a low budget and conveniently because less is more. Even as a B-picture, the acting is quite good – it’s not over-the-top like most cheesy horror fare, but adequately believable. With great sets and very few characters in the film, the scenes in which the doctor must go back to an apartment to retrieve a forgotten item, alone, and when Alice takes a solitary midnight swim, are genuinely intense, if not humorously suspenseful. Val Lewton proves that it doesn’t take much money to create a short bit of sufficiently thrilling, creative, and classically scary entertainment.
– The Massie Twins