Hailed as one of the more iconic early horror films, Cat People (1942, dir. Jacques Toumeur) is a story of mythology, paranoia, and repressed sexuality, starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, and Jane Randolph. Its synopsis is as follows:
When naval construction designer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) sees Serbian born beauty Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) at a zoo, he flirts with her, and soon they fall in love and marry. Complications arise because Irena believes she is the victim of an ancient Serbian curse that causes her to turn into a panther if a man tries to make love to her, and the marriage is not consummated. Oliver sends Irena for treatment with psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), and Oliver seeks “consolation” with his colleague Alice Moore (Jane Randolph). Irena becomes jealous when she learns that she may be losing Oliver to Alice. (source)
I put this film on my Blindspot series for this year because I had always intended to see it, knowing that it is one of the early, pre-Hitchcockian era horror films that is required viewing for film lovers. And indeed, Cat People is one of those early horror films that has received an apparently unfortunate modern remake, and which stands on its own as a solid, suspenseful horror film, with elements that appear to be borrowed from it and regularly used in horror films today, such as the ‘Lewton Bus’ trope. Director Jacques Toumeur specialised in making low budget horror films throughout his career, however Cat People doesn’t appear low budget at all, with classy and clever direction. The film’s story develops naturally, with a script that isn’t overtly melodramatic nor does it bend to typical horror film conventions. There are no splatters of blood on the walls in this film; the horror is in the suspense, in the chase, and in the potential for our protagonist Irena to snap at any minute.
Cat People is led by Simone Simon and Kent Smith as newlywed couple Irena and Oliver, both of whom lead the film fearlessly. Simone Simon in particular is difficult to take your eyes away from, as she performs Irena as fluctuating between a wide-eyed and anxious state, and an animalistic predator. In some ways, Cat People is also one of the better older films that I’ve seen that confronts the complexity of female sexuality of the time, particularly repressed female sexuality, with heavy use of metaphor and invented mythology. You often see in older Hollywood films that women are either innocent and chaste, or vampish sex bombs. To see a lead character who struggles with her own passions through the metaphor in the film is surprising and ultimately very interesting, but it also makes for a great horror film when you turn that theme into a threat that may or may not be very real for the characters in the film.
Visually, Cat People is quite beautiful. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca also worked on another enjoyable film, Clash By Night (1952). Musuraca’s vision is a bit more artistic when it comes to Cat People as opposed to Clash By Night, with Cat People featuring beautiful use of shadows and light, but also consistently murky and smokey visuals which suit the story well. The atmosphere all throughout the film is so creepy, with a constant sense of foreboding; a number of scenes have the viewer stuck right in the middle of the action, with a predator circling, not knowing when it will strike next. Particular scenes where a character is being stalked, and another scene featuring the echoing walls of a swimming pool, are the perfect meld between Toumeur’s suspenseful direction and Musuraca’s love of hiding a threat in the shadows.
Cat People is a triumph of style, story, and visuals, and is certainly very impressively acted by its leads. At this stage I’m unsure whether I will put myself through watching the remake from the 80s, as I’m sure that it will amp up the sexual themes of the film which are understated and open to interpretation in this original. However, Cat People of 1942 is still a very impressive interpretation of repressed female sexuality, which was the most compelling element of the film for me. This film knows what Hitchcock knew best – with a really good horror film, it’s best to conceal the threat to build suspense and a true sense of fear. Cat People is a cult horror film that is well worth watching and crossing off your own Blindspot list if you haven’t seen it yet.
Watch the trailer here.