in Shocktober

Cat People (1942)

What are the odds that I ended up watching back-to-back films with panther women? I blame Criterion, clearly, they have a weird fetish. I just don’t want people to think this is THAT KIND OF BLOG. But don’t let the title fool you, Cat People isn’t a cheap B-flick. Well, it was cheap and it was a B-flick but trust me, Cat People is a classy production. You can thank one Vladimir Leventon for that, known more famously as Val Lewton.

Immigrating from Imperial Russia as a child, the ambitious Lewton worked as a reporter at the age of 16 before publishing the novel No Bed of Her Own in 1932. Not long after, Lewton landed a job as a writer for David O. Selznick at MGM. His credits included “revolutionary sequences arranged by” on the 1935 version of A Tale of Two Cities and an uncredited rewrite on Gone with the Wind. Supposedly, Lewton wrote the iconic scene of the camera pulling back to reveal hundreds of wounded soldiers.

In 1942, Lewton was put in charge of the horror unit at RKO with three guidelines he had to follow on every film.

1. Every film had to be made for under $150,000
2. Every film had to run under 75 minutes
3. Lewton’s supervisors would pick the titles and then let Lewton make the movie based off the title.

The fact that someone was able to work with such restrictions and make not one but five classic films is incredible. We’re talking about short movies for no money with the worst titles imaginable; Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, Curse of the Cat People? It’s hard to believe those are all well reviewed and respected pieces of cinema instead of cheap skin flicks with rubber suit monsters blaring at a drive-in being projected by an ex-con with a panther woman fetish. I like to paint a picture.

These films worked because Lewton was smart with his money. He didn’t go for cheap effects or cheesy monsters. Lewton films were more about establishing mood. The classic “the scariest thing is what you don’t see” approach. His films were rich character dramas with sinister undertones and he made sure of putting his signature on every film he worked on by doing uncredited rewrites on all of them.

Cat People, directed by film vet Jacques Tourneur, is the best of these films and for a good reason. It’s a crazy concept made believable through clever writing, likable performances, sharp direction and an iconic film technique known today in the horror community as the “Lewton Bus”.

French actress Simone Simon plays Irena, a shy fashion designer who spends her days sketching panthers at the zoo. She meets Oliver (Kent Smith), a charming marine engineer taken by her innocence. The two fall for each other and are married, despite Irena’s warning that any form of romantic physical expression may unleash a curse put on her and her descendants. The curse being that love may turn her into a cat person due to her descendants practicing witchcraft. It’s a ridiculous idea but the theme behind it is revolutionary for the time. How many other films in the ‘40s dabbled with the idea of sexual repression?

As the film progresses, Oliver discovers he has feelings for his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph) causing a rift in the relationship. The tension is drizzled on like gravy with the additional dread that at any given minute Irena could turn into a cat person. Will she? Won’t she? All the nervous animals constantly around her seem to think so. It’s the mystery that draws you in but the characters that pull you in further.

Then there’s the iconic “Lewton Bus” sequence. In this scene, Irena follows Alice down a darkened city sidewalk. Alice moves faster and faster, terrified at what Irena may become. The scene crescendos with a sound like a hissing panther—only revealed to be a bus pulling up. It’s a technique used to subvert expectations that has become a classic staple of horror cinema, and damn if it isn’t still effective.

Without spoiling anything, I will say the ending doesn’t disappoint. It’s a razor-sharp thriller with good characters, good scares and a great finale. The only problem is I think panther fetishists might be let down. Regardless, you don’t have to be a horror fan to enjoy the craft and style of Cat People. It’s purrfect.