This is a movie I’ve long wanted to see. Most horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s, at least the best-known ones, are from Universal. RKO had their own line of horror films in the 1940s, however, produced by auteur Val Lewton (unusual, as it’s usually the director who’s the auteur, but in this case, Lewton handled every detail of his movies). Lewton’s horror movies were far lower budget than Universal’s, but made up for it with more adult scripts and an emphasis on atmosphere rather than monsters. Additionally, Lewton had access to the lavish sets Orson Welles had recently used for his RKO films, which had nearly bankrupted the company.
Cat People is about Irena and Oliver, a young couple who meet at the zoo and almost instantly fall in love. Irena is an immigrant to the United States from Serbia, and her village has a legend that witches have cursed certain young women in the village to turn into panthers if they become sexually aroused. Irena happens to believe she has been so cursed, and at first, resists her feelings for Oliver. But Oliver is both insistent on her company, and reassuring that she doesn’t have to believe her native fairy tales now that she lives in America. Soon they get married.
At the wedding party, a strange woman with cat-like make-up approaches the table where Irena and Oliver sit and hisses a word at her in Serbian. Irena turns pale and says the woman called her a sister. On the wedding night, Irena can’t bring herself to go into Oliver’s bedroom, afraid she’ll transform and kill him. Oliver is patient and understanding, but as this continues over the following weeks, Oliver sends Irena to a psychiatrist to try to work out her intimacy phobia. Meanwhile, at his work, he begins confiding his problems in Alice, a pretty and sympathetic co-worker who’s not-so-secretly in love with Oliver herself.
Irena discovers that Oliver’s late evenings at work are spent with Alice, and begins stalking Alice when she leaves for home at night. Meanwhile, Irena’s psychiatrist thinks the only way for her to get over her fear of turning into a cat is to actually kiss a man and see how silly her fear is. Maybe she should start by kissing him. But is releasing Irena’s pent up jealousy and erotic energy really such a good idea…?
Whatever its merits as a horror movie (see the rubric below), this is just a good movie. The characters are completely believable and the dialogue and plot flow completely naturally. The sets– Irena’s apartment building, an underground swimming pool, the office of Oliver’s ship design firm–are packed with details. There is also an interesting undercurrent of Freudian imagery. For instance, when Irena and Oliver first meet at the zoo, she is sketching the panther cage. As they leave, she discards her drawing, and the wind blows it away. The camera zooms in, revealing a picture of a panther pierced by a sword. The movie is full of symbolic touches like this. I believe this movie is a favorite in college film classes, and for good reason, as it would certainly reward repeat viewings.
Cat People (1942)
Story/Plot/Characters— The acting in this one is superb, the plot is airtight, the script sharp, the characters well-rounded and interesting. (4 points)
Special Effects–The special effects, such as they are, are mostly in the camera angles, the sounds on the soundtrack, things like that. What’s used is well done. (1 point)
Scariness— My daughter asked “Did people back then think this was scary?” Not without a few chills, but maybe it’s better referred to as eerie than actually frightening. (.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness— Any movie that reuses the mansion set from the Magnificent Ambersons is going to have a head start in atmosphere. Moreover, Cat People is full of deep shadows, zoos at night, foggy streets, etc. A moody, dreamy atmosphere is much the point, and fully achieved. (2 points)
Total=7.5 points (Excellent)