Confessions of a Film Junkie: A “Classics” review of “Cat People”
By: Lauren Ennis
From the advent of silent pictures through the Golden Age of cinema, Hollywood was controlled by a system of production studios. Although each studio had its own sensibility and style, they all managed to release a startling amount of films across various genres each year. As remains the case today, the studios would often produce “B-pictures” that contained little substance but guaranteed to produce a sizable profit. In a few notable instances, these studio after-thoughts managed to rise above the expectations of cast, crew, and audience to become landmarks of popular culture. One of these unexpected gems was the 1942 horror film Cat People, which has since become a genre classic.
Cat People was the first of three successful collaborations between director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton, which also included I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943). The script originated as a pulp magazine short story written by Val Lewton in 1930 called The Bagheeta, which details the adventures of a Russian soldier as he attempts to kill a mythical femme fatale known for seducing and killing the men she comes in contact with. As the story evolved, the setting was moved from the forests of Russia to 1940’s New York and the femme fatale was changed to a reluctant anti-heroine.
The film opens as newly arrived Serbian immigrant Irene Dubrovna draws sketches by the panther cage in the Central Park Zoo. Irena is distracted from her work by local engineer Oliver Reed, who chastises her for littering. The two strike up a conversation and he accompanies her out of the zoo. As they leave, however, the audience glimpses one of Irena’s discarded sketches on the ground; an ominous drawing of a panther with a sword through its heart. Irena later invites Oliver to her apartment
|This kitty's got claws|
for tea and tells him of the legend of the cat people that haunted her village in Serbia. According to the legend, the people of Irena’s village turned to devil worship and were punished for their misdeeds by the fictional King John. She fearfully explains that the “wisest and most wicked” of the corrupted citizens managed to escape into the mountains, and continue to haunt the village with their memory. Oliver laughs at what he considers an old world superstition and disregards Irena’s obvious anxiety. Oliver continues to ignore Irena’s fears and eventually marries her despite the fact that she refuses to kiss him, let alone consummate the marriage, for fear that sexual passion will unleash the curse of her village. He tolerates her unusual behavior, but continues to treat her like a misguided child throughout their marriage. Eventually, the idea of a celibate marriage becomes too much for Oliver to withstand and he seeks comfort from his co-worker, Alice, who has no qualms about revealing her feelings for him. It is this act of marital betrayal that finally drives Irena to her breaking point, and unleashes the “cat woman” within her.
|Oh Hai, Crazy Cat Lady|
Cat People stands out from other horror films through the types of fears it instills in audiences, and the way in which it executes its thrills. While most horror films focus on an outside source of fear, Cat People maintains an inward focus on Irena’s fears and struggles to overcome them. Through its focus on the protagonist’s internal struggle, the film forces the audience to consider their own fears, however irrational they may be. The clash between the mystical forces of Irena’s past and the clinical explanations provided by her husband, and later her psychiatrist, provide another conflict; one between tradition and modernity. This struggle in turn brings another, much more real fear into the scope of the plot; mental instability. While perceptions of mental illness have become more sensitive today, in the 1940’s the mentally ill were routinely institutionalized in mental hospitals where they were often subjected to rudimentary treatments and questionable conditions. By including the possibility of mental illness in the plot, the filmmakers create fear for as well as of Irena as she starts to unravel while grappling with rejection from her husband and unwanted sexual advances from her psychiatrist.
The film’s greatest triumph is its ability to create suspense through implication rather than explanation. Throughout the film, it is implied that extreme passions such as lust and jealousy will cause Irena to transform into a blood thirsty panther. Despite this implication, no transformation is ever explicitly shown, and the constant integration of rational explanations into the story casts doubt as to whether such a transformation does in fact take place. The few occasions that a panther is shown are restricted to Irena’s observation of the panther in the zoo and one scene in which what appears to be a panther (the creature is largely kept in shadow) stalks Alice and Oliver in their office after hours. By keeping the dreaded monster off-screen for the majority of the picture, Lewton and Tourneur allowed audiences to create an image in their own minds more terrifying than anything 1940’s special effects could produce.
Through its combination of subtle visuals effects and psychological conflict, Cat People has become the little “B-Picture” that could and maintains a lasting influence in horror and suspense films. While it does not provide the violence or gore that are used to shock audiences today, the film still manages to unsettle through its eerie atmosphere and implications of the sinister. Tourneur’s effective use of shadow and trick of building up to a moment of suspense are key elements of the film’s success that have been recycled in countless other suspense and horror films. I wholeheartedly recommend this film to fans of horror, suspense, and those brave souls willing to take a brief venture into the unknown.