Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942, USA)

          Cat People marked the debut of Val Lewton’s RKO horror films. It established the high standard for what was to come. Originally conceived as a low-budget response to Universal’s monster movies, RKO’s horror division came to represent something entirely different. Rather than relying on monsters, the movies Lewton produced relied on atmosphere, character psychology, and hidden threats. Made mostly during and immediately following World War II, the films also reflect a profound sadness of their era.

On the surface, Cat People is about an American man who married a Serbian woman. The woman fears that if she has sex with her husband, she will turn into a cat person. At a time when American films rarely suggested sex, this surface plot alone was highly controversial. Additionally, the film involves a subplot surrounding the husband’s infidelity. One of the things that is striking about Cat People in contrast to the Universal films, is that everyone feels like a real person. We see the characters at their jobs and in their apartments – living daily life. This brings a reality to the proceedings that makes the horror more impactful.

The inner level of the film is highly rich, dealing in many themes – most of them Freudian to some extent. The inability of Irena Dubrovna to escape the “old country” no doubt resonated with many Americans and Lewton himself, who was an immigrant from the “old country.” Simone Simon is excellent at conveying Irena Dubrovna. Apparently the tension on set between her and rival Alice Moore – played by Jane Randolph – was real tension, and this makes their conflict more believable. There are several scenes in Cat People – in particular the pool scene – which are still among the best that have ever appeared in horror films. Cat People is a classic for good reason and worth revisiting.


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