Richard James Havis
Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway
Director: Jacques Tourneur
An evolutionary fear of the dark means that what is left unseen is often more disturbing that what's made explicitly clear. This is especially true in films where a hint of horror, or even the expectation of it, can instil terror in viewers.
Few movies use sound, light and shadows as effectively as RKO's 1942 film Cat People. Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, Cat People has continued to inspire feelings of dread without the use of special effects or the horror genre's stock-in-trade techniques.
It shouldn't have been that way. Cat People was actually conceived as a low-budget B-movie to provide quick shocks for an undiscerning audience. It was budgeted at a low US$134,000, but took an unexpected US$4 million at the box office. The reason for its success was simply a confluence of talent. Tourneur was a sophisticated director who understood the mechanics of cinema. Producer Lewton was creative enough to commission an intelligent script. The film's French star, Simone Simon, who was notorious for being temperamental, gave an internalised performance which lulled viewers into believing that she really was a cat.
Simon plays Irena, a Serbian immigrant to America who believes she is descended from an ancient - and evil - race who could take the form of cats. This metamorphosis can be brought on by any kind of sexual contact, including a kiss. Irena falls in love with the sturdy Oliver, who is not worried by her penchant for visiting black panthers at the zoo. Oliver is initially sympathetic to Irena's fear of physical contact, and takes her to a psychologist for treatment. But when this fails, he seeks comfort with female friend Alice. Jealousy rages in Irena, and the inevitable metamorphosis takes place.
Cat People is filmmaking of the highest order. One scene in particular influenced later horror films. Alice takes a dip in a secluded swimming pool, and is suddenly enveloped in ill-defined feline shadows and echoey roars. The big cat is not glimpsed, but its invisible presence becomes more and more terrifying.
Tourneur continued to make sophisticated horror films. Night of the Demon in 1957 took the shadowy, insidious nature of Cat People to a higher level of terror. Lewton, too, continued in a similar vein with The Leopard Man and The Body Snatcher.
Lewton also produced a sequel called The Curse of the Cat People, which was average. Cat People was remade in 1982 by Paul Schrader, starring Nastassja Kinski, with a plot revolving around bestiality.