“I like the dark. It’s friendly.”
In 1942, an enterprising young producer named Val Lewton was named the head of horror at RKO studios. He was given three simple rules to follow: all of his movies had to be made for less than $150,000, they could only run 75 minutes and the titles would be supplied by the studio. Finding creative ways to work under these restrictions, Lewton become an icon of the genre. His first (and arguably, best) RKO horror feature was Cat People, in which he teamed with director Jacques Tournier to create an atypically subtle, elegant piece of psychological horror.
The tale begins as a simple romance. Serbian-born fashion designer Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon, Seventh Heaven) and engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith, The Fountainhead) meet at the Central Park Zoo in New York City, where Irena is drawing a sketch of the zoo’s black panther (an animal she finds strangely fascinating). They have a pleasant conversation, share an afternoon tea, make arrangements to have dinner together and soon find themselves head over heels in love. In the blink of an eye (probably because the film has to stick to that lean running time), wedding bells begin to ring.
Ah, but Irena has some private doubts about whether she’s made the right decision. She tells Oliver a dark story about her ancestors turning to witchcraft and Satanism, and eventually reveals that she believes an ancient curse has been placed upon her. Irena believes that if she ever dares to indulge her romantic passions, she will turn into a panther and try to kill the person she loves. Oliver gently persuades Irena that the whole thing is just an old story, and the wedding goes forward as planned.
The dark folktale hangs over the rest of the movie like a storm cloud, informing everything else we see and giving potentially mundane moments an air of unease. One of the film’s greatest strengths is its tendency to introduce unsettling elements and then leave then unexplained, thus allowing the viewer’s imagination to run wild. In one scene Irena is approached by an ominous-looking Serbian woman who is dressed in a black outfit that makes her look curiously cat-like. Speaking in her native tongue, the woman greets Irena as “sister” and then departs. We never see this character again, but she haunts the movie.
The marriage quickly proves to be an unhappy, complicated one. Alice is unable to work up the nerve to actually share a bed with Oliver, and begins leaving the house late at night for unknown reasons. She continues to obsess over the black panther at the zoo, believing that it may be calling to her in some way. Taking an approach that foreshadows William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, Tournier and Lewton methodically attempt to explore every possible rational explanation for what’s happening before jumping to wild conclusions. Oliver suggests that Irena should spend time with a psychiatrist (Tom Conway, I Walked with a Zombie), who is certain that he can tap into the buried traumas that are causing this poor woman to act this way.
Further tension arrives in the form of Oliver’s friendship with Alice Moore (Jane Randolph, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein), who has long harbored secret feelings for Oliver and uses his distress over the state of his marriage to become even closer with him. Naturally, this inspires feelings of jealousy and rage in Irena, and suddenly we begin to draw mental connections between a murderous panther and a jilted lover.
Cat People is a cheaply-produced movie (recycling sets from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and cutting corners at every possible turn), but it uses its budget limitations to its advantage. Rather than taking the tried-and-true approach of making its audience scream by hurling grotesque (and expensive) imagery at them, the film often chooses to simply imply what is happening by making creative use of shadows, sound effects and narrative foreshadowing. Like many great horror films that followed, it understands that giving us a mental picture of something terrifying is far more effective than actually showing us something terrifying (this may be why the film somehow seems to recapture the spirit of some of the eeriest radio horror tales of the era – the best episodes of Inner Sanctum and Lights Out are still skin-crawling in a way the cinema rarely matched at the time). It creates further horror by playing against the expected tone of the genre, allowing its creepiest elements to exist in a world that seems sunny, blindly optimistic and wholesome on the surface.
Cat People (Blu-ray) Criterion offers a strong 1080p/full frame transfer that effectively highlights the film’s shadowy, frequently stylish cinematography. The image benefits from considerable depth, excellent detail and a warm, healthy layer of natural grain. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is simple but very effective, using carefully-employed sound design to ratchet up the tension and presenting the dialogue with clarity. Supplements include an audio commentary with film historian Gregory Mark (containing excerpts from an audio interview with Simon), the feature-length documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, a new interview with cinematographer John Bailey about the film’s look, an older interview with Tournier, a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.
The seeds of hundreds of horror gems can be found within this film’s DNA. Lewton’s techniques have been borrowed over and over again, but Cat People remains a unique and strangely effective work.