If someone was to strap me to a chair with my freedom determined by the horrifying demand that I had to name my ten favourite horror films right then and there, Cat People would definitely feature. It may seem an unusual title to throw out on UKHS amongst the buzz of the latest genre titles, but believe it or not this very week sees Cat People making its UK DVD debut. That’s a staggering thought. One of the finest examples of horror cinema which has been copied from relentlessly by a slew of more contemporary titles is only now being born into the mainstream UK film market. But hey, it’s here and thanks to Odeon for bringing it (and its sequel next month!). Why though do I consider it to be one of the greats?
First of all – and perhaps most importantly, it was produced by Val Lewton. This Russian immigrant who died at the criminally young age of 46 began life in Hollywood as an assistant to movie executive David O. Selznick. He was named head of the horror unit at RKO with the princely salary of $250 a week and ordered to create a slate of films that fell under three key rules. 1) They had to be under 75 minutes, 2) They had to come in under a $150,000 budget, and 3) The titles were to be provided by Lewton’s supervisors. Cat People was Lewton’s first movie and was also a huge success earning $4million at the box office. Iconic titles followed such as I Walked with a Zombie, The Seventh Victim and The Leopard Man (all 1943). His legacy is celebrated today, and Lewton himself was afforded a brilliant documentary (The Man in the Shadows) narrated by none other than Martin Scorsese.
The second vital piece in this Cat People jigsaw is undoubtedly the director Jacques Tourneur, the Parisian filmmaker who Is an iconic figure if only for shooting the phenomenal Night of the Demon (1957) – but he did so much more including one of the ultimate film noir’s in Out of the Past (1947) as well of course as the aforementioned I Walked with a Zombie. The combination of these two artists seemed to gel behind the scenes, rendering Cat People a phenomenal work of art.
The film itself begins at the zoo as we immediately become acquainted with Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) who is busily sketching the portrait of a black panther. A man called Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) begins a conversation with her, and after walking her back to her apartment along with her art equipment, she invites him in for a cup of tea. As the two converse over the hot beverage the style of the movie strikes you immediately as we witness Irena and Oliver portrayed almost only by shadows due to the dark nature of the lightning. Not just that, if you look closely at the way this scene is shot, the fraction of light on the windows makes them look like prison bars, its mesmerising. It only last momentarily as Irena soon puts a light on, but in doing so explains how she loves the dark – “it’s so friendly”, she says.
Over tea, Oliver asks Irena about some of the items that adorn her apartment and most specifically the statue of a medieval warrior on horseback impaling a cat with his sword. Irena explains that the figure is King John of Serbia (Serbia being her homeland) while the cat represents evil, before going on to tell a tale of witchcraft and devil worshipping that affected her village centuries ago. Shortly after, Oliver decides to buy Irena a cat but upon receiving it the feline seems uneasy and it hisses. “Cat’s don’t seem to like me” bemoans Irena, and they set off to the pet shop to exchange their furry adversary for something more fitting. At the pet shop though the animals are set off into a state of frenzy by Irena’s presence, and with the shopkeeper uttering the perceptive “animals can sense things in people”, Irena’s mind is sent to a state of worrisome introspection – surely she can’t be descended from those ‘cat people’ from the folklore of her village?
Granted, this description of the set-up of Cat People may not have your jaw dropping to the floor in wonder of its originality, but the importance of the film is more concerned with the style than the storyline. The film feels like a direct descendent of the German expressionist horror of the previous decades, be it Nosferatu (1922) or M (1931), as it displays such a radically stark imagery of darkness, light and shadows. At the time of course Universal horror was in its ascendency, and RKO wanted something to compete with it. Lewton rejected this though and in fact opted for something far removed from these heavily made-up creatures.
Cat People features no monsters and no make-up, with all its shocks and suspense coming from the viewers’ mind. In fact on first viewing I rejected that statement – I saw a creature, I remember it vividly. I was wrong though, my mind had simply created something through the power of suggestion. It was a clever ploy by Lewton and Tourneur, in fact it was Fritz Land who said “nothing the camera shows can be as horrible as the mind can imagine”. Indeed they created another memorable shock with the famed ‘Lewton Bus’ effect, which can simply be described as an increasing period of silent tension building to a crescendo only to be broken by a foil – which in Cat People’s case was an arriving bus. It may seem simple, and today it’s a regular occurrence in many horror movies, but in 1942 it was ground-breaking.
The suggestive horror in Cat People is undoubtedly its crowning achievement, and should provide a vital lesson (often ignored) to contemporary filmmakers on how to shoot a horror movie on a budget to maximum effect. In 1993, Cat People was selected for preservation in the American National Film Registry, while a copy is also held in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This alone displays the films importance, and despite its low budget nature and despite its rather misleading, hackneyed title – Cat People belongs in the hallowed hierarchy of horror cinema.