* * * * (Out of * * * *)
1. The Right Stuff (1983)
2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
3. The Wanderers (1979)
* * * * (Out of * * * *)
1. The Beyond (1981)
2. Four of the Apocalypse (1975)
3. Massacre Time (1966)
* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)
1. Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
2. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)
3. One on Top of the Other (1969)
(a.k.a. Perversion Story)
I am going to sort out the films I mentioned in my last two entries in this series (read here and here) in chronological order. I know it may be misleading to call it “Part 3 of 3” since it does not reveal anything new, but I did not know what else to call it. Either way, enjoy the list 🙂
Happy Halloween 2019 everybody. Since I have been so busy lately, I have decided to gather up a large number (though it is not a complete list of horror films I consider to be great) of my favorite horror films from my favorite directors and paste it on here in the alphabetical order of it’s respected director’s last name. Happy Halloween dear readers and enjoy my results below 🙂
Warning: The following review contains potential spoilers. If you have not seen the film yet, than I strongly advise to not go any further.
Filmed in black-and-white on a low-budget reportedly consisting of $114,000 dollars, Night of the Living Dead proved to be a success with both audiences, and eventually critics nationwide. In addition to all of that, it not only served as George A. Romero’s directorial debut, but at the same time, it also cemented his reputation (and deservedly so) as a master of horror amongst devotees of the genre like myself.
During a visit to their father’s grave at a cemetery, siblings Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (an uncredited Russell Streiner) notice a dazed looking man walking awkwardly. When he tries to attack Barbra, Johnny intervenes by fighting back. Nevertheless, this backfires as the man fatally throws Johnny against a gravestone. Running for her life, Barbra seeks shelter inside a farmhouse that looks as If it has been deserted. Upon entering the upstairs area, Barbra discovers a seemingly devoured corpse leaving her terrified and ready to leave. Suddenly, an African-American by the name of Ben (Duane Jones) enters the place and defends it by killing two of the monstrous strangers with a tire iron. Although, Ben is able to persuade her to help him board up the entire house, Barbra’s mental state has deteriorated considerably due to everything that she has just witnessed. Semi-ignorant of her current state of shock, Ben tells Barbra that he first witnessed all of his chaos while passing by a local diner. In his words, he talks to her about how he went inside an abandoned truck so he could listen to the radio and remain informed on the current situation. While in there, he saw a bunch of these strange people chasing after a gasoline truck, which drove right through a billboard resulting in the driver’s death. Afterwards, Ben looked around and realized that he was allegedly the only person left alive and to survive, he would seek solace in someplace that was safe. Barbra summarizes everything that happened to her at the cemetery prior to hiding out in the farmhouse that she is currently sharing with Ben. Under the false impression that her brother Johnny is still alive, Barbra tries to convince Ben to go out and look for him. Ben quickly dismissed this idea by simply stating that your brother is dead resulting in a hysterical Barbra to reply back with No! My brother is not dead! and after slapping him, he smacks her back intending to shake some common sense into her, but ends up leaving her incapacitated.
Armed with a hunting rifle that he had found in the farmhouse, Ben uses it to fend off attacks from the outside while listening for the next radio report. Unexpectedly, the cellar door opens awakening Barbra and slightly startling Ben, who discovers that a few others have survived. We are introduced to a teenager named Tom (Keith Wayne) and an arrogant and unhappily married father/husband by the name of Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), who is unrelated to him. Tom’s teenage girlfriend Judy (Judith Ridley) is in the cellar assisting Harry’s wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) in any way she can with her and Harry’s ailing 11-year-old daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who was bitten by one of the attackers. Harry and his family are hiding in the farmhouse because their car was turned over by the same freaks encountered earlier on by Barbra and Ben. Tom and Judy sought refuge in the house after hearing about the recent string of murders from a radio report via an emergency broadcast from earlier. Shortly after discovering a television set somewhere in the house, Ben turns it on to listen to the next report with most (If not all) of the others and learns that this nationwide epidemic of murderous mayhem began when the deceased unexplainably came back to life and started feasting upon human flesh. One scientist thinks that this recent outbreak may have originated from a Venus space probe that exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere. According to a local Sheriff, the most effective way to kill these reanimated corpses is to aim for the head with either a gun, a club or a torch. As the number of zombies become more widespread, Ben fends them off while simultaneously plotting an escape route with the full cooperation of everyone around him with the exception of the selfish Harry.
Director/co-writer George A. Romero may have cited Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend (read here, here, and here) as an inspiration, but it would be unwise for anybody to sum up Night of the Living Dead as a pastiche of past horror fiction (cinematic or literary) since the result is the complete opposite. In terms of plot, it is most notable for being the first film to depict zombies (read here) as flesh-eating monsters. Succeeding Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and preceding Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch both by a year, the violence in Night of the Living Dead (like the former and the latter) was noticeably more graphic than anything else viewers had seen in the past. Unlike those first two titles however, this one was an independent film distributed by the lower-profiled Water Reade Organization (read here), a once high-profile movie theater chain. Aside from a considerably gory stabbing, a crushed skull and the decomposed face of a corpse, we also get zombies completely devouring human beings.
At heart, Night of the Living Dead also works as a biting satire on the political and social turmoil that ended up shaping the 1960’s as a whole. Not unlike The Wild Bunch, Night of the Living Dead’s display of graphic violence (strong for it’s day at least) was symbolic of the American news media’s daily televised depictions of the ongoing Vietnam War overseas (read here), which the United States was heavily involved in at the time. Taking into account the continued escalation of U.S. involvement (read here) during the then presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969), one can’t help but possibly see this as a fitting metaphor. One could also potentially see a parallel between the killings of the zombies and the protest activity that erupted at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago (read here and here) with the posse of armed men in the roles of the police officers upholding law and order by physically restraining them. While privately understanding of their anger, the police (alluding to the posse) feel that it would be a dangerous mistake for protesters (alluding to the zombies) to let that emotion influence them to cause chaos and destruction. If Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds served in part as an allegory of the decline of the nuclear family (read here), than director George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead symbolically serves as one about it’s demise. For example, Harry and Helen Cooper’s marriage is obviously an unhappy one judging from Helen’s remark to Harry of we may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn’t going to solve anything. According to Helen, it is important for her egotistical husband to be right and for everybody else to be wrong. Fairly or unfairly, it seems that dysfunctional families like these have only become more common since the passage of no-fault divorce the following year in 1969 by then California governor (1967-1975) and future 40th U.S. President (1981-1989) Ronald W. Reagan (read here and here), who would later reportedly cite this as the biggest mistake of his political career. By 1985, all except one state had some form of it and by 2010, New York would become the last state to pass a no-fault divorce law (read here). Explicitly, the already insecure Harry resents taking orders from Ben, who (along with Helen) hates him due to his arrogance and bullying. Implicitly, Harry harbors a racial hatred for the African-American Ben, who is almost killed by the zombies when Harry purposely locks him outside. Later on, Ben gets his revenge by shooting him with the hunting rifle. Open or closeted, Harry’s racism was typical to that of extreme critics of the Civil rights movement (1954-1968) (read here). By the end, just as it looks as If Ben is going to be the lone survivor, he is unexpectedly shot in the head long range by a posse member, who had mistaken him for a zombie. This ending resembles the pessimism that drove the mood of the nation following two 1968 assassinations on political leaders in the form of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4 of that year (read here) and then New York senator turned Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy (read here) two months later on June 5. The eerie music that plays during the closing credits foreshadows the two turbulent events that followed in the guise of the King assassination riots (read here) and the aforementioned protest activity that occurred at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago of that same year. Romero’s vision of a radically changing America is made all the more terrifying when one comes to the realization that most (if not all) of these incidents were taking place between early April and late August of that year; prior to the film’s premiere during that month of October.
While I personally feel that director George A. Romero would surpass this one 10 years later with the gorier and wittier Dawn of the Dead in 1978, Night of the Living Dead is still truly deserving of it’s status as an influential cult classic. Even at the tender age of 50, it feels every bit as scary and timeless now as it was in 1968. To put it in other words, Night of the Living Dead is a horror film with a lot on it’s mind.
* * * * (Out of * * * *)
Warning: The review contains potential plot spoilers. If you have not seen this film than I advise you to not read any further.
Three years after he reinvented cinematic horror with Psycho in 1960, director Alfred Hitchcock (a.k.a. The Master of Suspense) would return to that genre in 1963 to do it again; this time with something more ambitious and on a much larger scale as well. The finished result was The Birds and with it, Hitchcock succeeded in not only equaling and surpassing his aforementioned previous effort, but at the same time, everything he did before and after this. If I were to compose two lists of my top 100 or more favorite films of all-time; with one dedicated to the horror genre and the other towards cinema as a whole, I would place The Birds at the number 1 spot on the former and somewhere in between numbers 1 and 10 on the latter.
While visiting an urban pet store one day to pick up a mynah bird for a relative, San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) gets mistaken by a customer (Rod Taylor) for a saleswoman and requests a pair of lovebirds for his little sister’s 11th birthday party. As with the mynah bird, it turns out that the shop is out of lovebirds, so Melanie suggests a canary, which flies out of her hand after taking it out of it’s cage. After catching the canary with his hat, the still unnamed customer places the bird back in it’s cage and says: “back in your gilded cage Melanie Daniels.” A stunned Daniels asks him how he knew her name and it is revealed that he saw her in court. According to him, she was responsible for a practical joke that resulted in a broken glass window and personally feels that she should have been sent to jail for it. He purposely knew from the very beginning that Daniels was no saleswoman and reveals that it was his way of reminding her of “what it’s like to be on the other end of a gag” as he puts it. Undetered by not getting his lovebirds, he leaves with two closing remarks to Daniels: “I’ll find something else” and “see ya in court.” An annoyed Daniels decides to write down the number of the license plate on that customer’s car and calls the Department of Motor Vehicles to find out the name of the individual who owns it. In an attempt to get even with him, Daniels asks the pet shop owner to order a pair of lovebirds for her and have them delivered as soon as possible, which in this case would be the next morning.
The next day, Melanie Daniels arrives at the apartment building to place a birdcage (with the two lovebirds inside) on a doorstep with a note addressing that customer’s real name as “Mr. Mitchell Brenner.” Before leaving, a neighbor of his reminds her that he is visiting Bodega Bay, which is up the coast from San Francisco. Eager to get even with Mitch, Melanie drives up there and visits a local store to see If it’s owner knows where Mitch is residing for the weekend. Coincidentally, he knows the location of the place, which is across the dock seen close by. He knows that it belongs to his mother, but when asked about Mitch’s younger sister, he cannot seem to remember her first name. Nevertheless, he is able to direct her to a local schoolteacher by the name of Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who not only teaches Mitch’s younger sister, but also reveals herself to be Mitch’s ex-lover much later on. Upon learning that Cathy is the name of Mitch’s younger sibling, Melanie rents a motorboat to get to Mitch’s house to deliver her surprise. After placing the caged lovebirds on a comfy chair, Melanie tears up her original note for Mitch and replaces it with one carrying the words “To: Cathy” on it. Unofficially, Melanie hopes to shock Mitch with her knowledge of a family member’s identity much in the same way he did with hers the day before. Melanie rushes out of the house and back to her motorboat to see how Mitch will react when he inevitably goes back inside. Seemingly amused and curious, Mitch drives to the other side of the dock and gets out of his car to see what she will either say to him or do next. Suddenly, a seagull flies down and quickly attacks Melanie on the forehead prompting Mitch to help her out of the boat and treat her wound.
At the local diner, while treating her injury, Mitch Brenner reveals to Melanie Daniels that he is a criminal defense attorney, who practices law in San Francisco, but comes to Bodega Bay on the weekends to relax. After asking her why she is in the area, Melanie tells a lie and a half. Considering that Mitch is unaware of it being a prank yet humored and touched by the deed at the same time, Melanie tells him that she wanted to deliver the lovebirds for his little sister’s birthday. Deep down though, Melanie saw Mitch as a potential boyfriend ever since that first coincidental meeting at the pet store the day before. Even though Melanie denies it publicly, Mitch personally feels that she is in Bodega Bay to see him. Is it possible that Mitch could care less about her earlier prank and only got even with her that previous day so she could come to Bodega Bay to see him? The other lie Melanie tells Mitch is that she is visiting to see local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (a.k.a. his ex-lover) by claiming that she and her were friends during their college years. Later that night, Melanie reluctantly accepts Mitch’s invitation to dinner to meet his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), who adores both Melanie and the lovebirds she bought her and his widowed mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), who initially fears her presence. As Ms. Daniels is about to leave to spend the night with Annie, a curious Mitch asks her to talk a bit more about herself in regards to a story brought up by Lydia earlier regarding Melanie frolicking naked in a waterfall while vacationing in Rome, Italy. Melanie claims that she was dumped in there with her clothes on and that the article his mother was referring to was written by a columnist hired by a rival of her father’s newspaper company to slander her family. Still unsatisfied, Mitch wants to know why she lied to him about knowing Annie resulting in an already annoyed Melanie to quickly drive away from him for a short period of time.
Later on at Annie Hayworth’s house, a curious Melanie Daniels asks Annie about her past relationship with Mitch Brenner, whom she was madly in love with at one time. According to Annie, she still desires a romantic relationship with him, but his overprotective mother Lydia just kept getting in the way and it eventually proved to be too much for her to take. Suddenly, Mitch phone calls Melanie to sincerely apologize for his earlier behavior and to make it up to her, he decides to officially invite her to celebrate his little sister Cathy’s 11th birthday party for the following day. Thinking back and forth for a while, Melanie decides to go. Shortly before both of them go to bed, a loud noise is heard from the outside. After opening the door to see what it is, Annie and Melanie discover a dead seagull on the front step. This is just the third strange occurrence that has plagued Bodega Bay since Melanie arrived. The first incident came earlier in the form of a seagull briefly attacking Melanie on the forehead and the second one involved the town’s chicken feed and why the chickens were not eating it. The next day at Cathy’s birthday party, numerous birds begin to violently attack the party guests and shortly after that, Mitch fends off a bird attack within his own home. From here on out, these incidents prove to be just two of the numerous attacks the birds will launch on the town and it’s inhabitants.
On the surface, The Birds plays out as a standard horror film about humans being attacked by the title villains. Nevertheless, in the hands of it’s iconic director and producer Alfred Hitchcock, it inevitably goes much deeper than that. Along with Vertigo and Psycho, this one requires viewers to pay close attention to every single detail that unfolds on screen from beginning to end. Not unlike what he had achieved with those two classics, Hitchcock proves once again here that the power of cinematic storytelling lies not so much in the payoff as it does in the buildup. While this can easily be said about any of the master filmmaker’s best work, it is in The Birds where Hitchcock finds himself reaching his fullest expression of that particular trait.
As much as I adore Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, The Birds still ranks for me as my favorite of director Alfred Hitchcock’s three film adaptations of a Daphne du Maurier property. Instead of merely adapting du Maurier’s 1952 novelette of the same name, Hitchcock simply reimagines it by using a 1961 Santa Cruz Sentinel article as “research material for his latest thriller”. – (read here). The piece itself was about a large number of seabirds unexplainably attacking the city of Capitola, California on August 18th of that year. Eventually, it turned out that the birds may have been “under the influence of domoic acid” (read here) at the time of the attacks. To further expand upon this idea, Hitchcock hired famed crime/mystery fiction writer Evan Hunter (a.k.a. Ed McBain) to write a screenplay that would effortlessly move from one tone into another. All through the first half-hour, viewers are intentionally tricked into thinking that the mood is going to play out like a sophisticated romantic comedy based on the playful banter between Melanie Daniels and Mitch Brenner. Thirty minutes into the film, that feeling more or less dissipates as it turns into something resembling a psychological drama that expands upon and rivals Psycho in it’s depiction of the darker side of a mother and son relationship. Finally, seven minutes before the second hour, it ultimately becomes an apocalyptic horror movie and a truly terrifying one at that. Hitchcock seemed to believe so himself based on the film’s legendary trailer (see below), which among other things, visually illustrates the question of “WHAT IS THE SHOCKING MYSTERY OF THE BIRDS?” across the screen. Unlike Hitchcock’s other films though, the mystery of The Birds remains unsolved and in a stroke of genius, Hitchcock and Hunter leave it up to viewers to answer the question for themselves.
Symbolically and thematically, The Birds is mainly a film about complacency as seen from director Alfred Hitchcock’s point-of-view (read here). I agree, but I am going to go one step beyond with not one, but two debatably complex interpretations. Prior to 1970, or maybe even five years earlier, one’s own praise of The Birds as Hitchcock’s most elaborate prank to date would be doing it complete justice. On the one hand, he is subtly thumbing his nose at upper class society by using the Melanie Daniels character as his target. True, Melanie may not have literally delivered the resulting chaos, but she might have done so figuratively in the form of her harmless prank involving the delivery of two lovebirds. The hysterical mother in the diner summed it up best when she said “I think you’re the cause of all of this. I think you’re evil. EVIL!” Later on and in a strange twist of irony, the birds viciously attack Melanie and this possibly gives off the vibe that her prank has backfired. On the other hand, Hitchcock does not seem too fond of small town sanctimony either. Since the plot already deals with birds violently attacking residents of a tiny village, Hitchcock is now officially left with doing nothing else but sitting back and enjoying the show like the rest of us.
Taking into consideration all of the radical changes that shaped the decade as it continued and ended, The Birds also comes off as a film that eerily foreshadowed the death of early 1960’s optimism and the slow, but steady decline of the nuclear family in a rather symbolic way. The lighthearted elements that defined the first half hour quite possibly resembles the stereotypical cheery mood that preceding American President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) passed on to his successor John F. Kennedy (1961-1963), who briefly upheld this notion in the earlier days of his presidency. Contrary to the first 30 minutes, the second half hour carries a cautiously optimistic tone as we learn more about the characters. This unexpected feeling of cynicism coincides perfectly with the notable disappointments of the Kennedy era that include the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion (read here), his escalation of the Vietnam War beginning that same year (read here) and to some extent, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (read here). Shortly after turning into a horror movie near the end of the first hour, viewers get a fairly graphic glimpse of the birds first casualty by way of a neighboring farmer. Psychologically, our terrified reactions at this sight mirrors that of the American public’s when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963 (read here). Amid all of these previous events, the status of the nuclear family suddenly began to deteriorate. Two characters in The Birds demonstrate this aspect quite powerfully. In the case of Melanie Daniels, we get a wealthy woman, who admits to Mitch Brenner that her mother ditched her and her father when she was 11 years-old for “some hotel man in the East” before getting briefly emotional about her revelation. The other one comes in the form of Mitch’s widowed mother Lydia, who wishes that she “was a stronger person.” While sipping on a cup of tea, she laments to Melanie about how much she misses her husband (whom she reveals as Frank), who was not only able to connect with Mitch and Cathy on so many levels, but whose presence always gave her a sense of security deep down. Ever since his death from four years back, Lydia has felt insecure and she painfully admits to Melanie that “it’s terrible how you, you depend on someone else for strength and then suddenly all the strength is gone and you’re alone.” In many ways, Lydia can’t help but remain dependent on Mitch because she does not want him to abandon her given how she implicitly looks upon her recent self as that of a failure. When Lydia becomes anxious on the status of the bird attacks, Mitch comes to feel like one himself when she expresses all of her worries and all he can say is “I don’t know.” A hysterical Lydia than screams something along the lines of “If only your father were here” before sincerely apologizing to him a few seconds later. One scene visually expresses this by having Mitch sitting down in front of a portrait that may be his late father. While Melanie, Lydia and Cathy are sitting down waiting for the radio news report, he sits there looking like he is struggling to be as larger than life as his father apparently was. Unlike Norman Bates in Psycho, Mitch does not really see himself as a mama’s boy. While he does love Lydia (his mother) with all his heart, at the same time, he yearns for a social life. Unfortunately, Lydia is always preventing this by interfering with his relationships like the one he had with Annie Hayworth earlier. Speaking of which, some viewers have suggested that the bird attacks represent Lydia’s rage at any woman, who attempts to form a romantic relationship with Mitch. One could even say that the ending may imply that Lydia has come to grips with accepting Mitch’s desire for a social life. This occurs in that last scene in the car where Lydia is warmly looking upon Melanie, whose head is resting on her shoulder. Based on what viewers know about Melanie’s family life, it looks like her implied wish of “a mother’s love” has finally come true. Considering all of the political and social turmoil that ended up defining that decade as a whole, The Birds strangely but subtlety comes off as something of a spiritual prequel to George A. Romero’s similarly apocalyptic (albeit lower-budgeted) horror classic Night of the Living Dead from five years later in 1968.
If Psycho served as director Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of a horror film, then The Birds serves as his redefinition of that genre. Unlike the majority of his previous films, Hitchcock uses very little music this time around to build suspense. We notice this from the opening title sequence set to nothing but the squawks of birds, who fly all over the place tearing apart each new credit a few seconds after they initially appear on the screen. Aside from sound effects, Hitchcock utilizes editing and special effects to tell the story. This is most noticeable during the last 67 minutes of the film’s 119-minute running time. The first bird attack on the town occurs at a children’s birthday party and as edited by Hitchcock’s regular editor George Tomasini, we get fast (but not too fast) back and forth cuts to emphasize all of the chaos that will embody the remainder of the film. The second major example comes when Melanie Daniels is sitting on a bench waiting for Cathy to get out of school. While the schoolchildren are heard inside singing “Risseldy Rosseldy” (read here), Melanie frequently stares back and forth at the playground and with each stare, she sees more and more crows sitting on the equipment with menacing looks on their faces. Much like the previous scene, the birds attack everybody including the children. Next up, birds attack a gas station resulting in leaking gasoline and after a man unknowingly throws a cigarette on the ground, he and the place explodes resulting in the diner patrons to run for their lives. As Melanie hides within the telephone booth, she witnesses birds attacking a horse carriage, a man inside his car and another man getting pecked to death by birds themselves. After witnessing each instance terror, the camera cuts back and forth to a frightened Melanie. During the climax, Melanie opens a room and finds herself being pecked by an army of birds leaving her badly wounded If not dead. This sequence works as a companion piece to Psycho’s iconic shower scene based on it’s frenzied editing style. Last, but not least, credit should also be given to it’s photographic visual effects courtesy of Ub Iwerks (read here). Despite being made over 55 years ago, the imagery of the birds themselves still look timeless. Sometimes, the creatures come off as credibly scary (i.e. the crows) and other times, they look (deceivingly) harmless (i.e. the seagulls).
Along with The Shining from 17 years later, The Birds is a masterpiece of cinematic horror that allows viewers to form their own interpretations of everything they had just seen. In addition to all of that, I see The Birds as more than just my number one choice for the greatest horror film of all-time. To go one step even further, I would rank it somewhere within the top 10 range of my still unpublished blog entry of the 100 (or more) best films ever made according to me.
* * * * (Out of * * * *)
P.S. In case, you are interested, here is a link to the trailer of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which Hitchcock promoted in a way that was similar to Psycho from three years earlier.
Warning: This review contains potential spoilers. If you have not seen the film yet, I suggest you read no further.
In a desperate attempt to recoup from the back-to-back costly failures recently brought on by legendary director Orson Welles twin masterpieces of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, newly hired RKO Pictures executive Vice President Charles Koerner (read here) appointed former novelist Val Lewton as head producer for a series of B horror films that would give the hugely popular Universal monster movies a run for their money. Directorial duties would be individually assigned to Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson and Robert Wise respectively. Cat People (directed by Tourneur) was the first of the nine entries Lewton produced for that genre and today, it is generally (If quietly) recognized (and rightfully so) as one of the most influential horror films ever made.
Fascinated by her sketches of black panthers at a New York City zoo, marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) befriends a Serbian-born fashion sketch artist named Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) and not too long afterwards, the two of them begin a semi-romantic relationship. Back at her apartment, Oliver is equally intrigued by her figurine of a knight impaling a cat and we learn from Irena that he is King John of Serbia (a.k.a. Jovan Nenad). According to Irena, the cat represents evil as she tells him a historical tale involving Satanism and witchery, but Oliver dismisses it as pure nonsense. When Oliver tries to buy a kitten for Irena, the animal just hisses at her and when they go together to the pet store to exchange it, all of the animals freak out over her presence. Suddenly, Irena thinks that she may be cursed as one of the cat people that was spreading chaos in that aforementioned story she told Oliver. Unfazed by all of this, Oliver proposes to Irena and she reluctantly accepts. While celebrating her wedding dinner at a small restaurant, a mysterious lady comes up to Irena and calls her “moya sestra” (translation: “my sister”), which only confirms her realization that she is indeed a member of the cat tribe.
Predictably, Oliver’s marital relationship with Irena proves to be a troubled one from the start. Terrified that feeling even the slightest bit of intimacy for him will transform herself into a vicious panther, Irena thinks that it would be best for both she and Oliver to sleep in separate rooms. Worried that their marriage is hitting rock bottom, Oliver advises Irena to see local Psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) so she can talk freely about this phobia to someone within the medical profession. After going to Dr. Judd, who believes that her concerns are little more than fears rooted in childhood, Irena stops attending most (If not all) of her sessions with him. Upon discovering that Oliver’s colleague Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) was the one who recommended Dr. Judd for her, Irena gets upset at Oliver for sharing her personal problems (especially without her consent) to those whom she views as complete strangers. Disillusioned with the seemingly deteriorating status of his married life, Oliver grows more intimate with Alice, who shares similar feelings for him. Shortly afterwards, a mysterious chain of events break out involving dead sheep and three failed attempts on Alice’s life involving one with Oliver as a target.
Allegedly adopting the motto of “showmanship in place of genius” or “showmanship instead of genius” (read here and here) coined by the studio’s then executive Vice President Charles Koerner, everybody at RKO Pictures must have been under the impression that Cat People was just going to a profitable low-budget horror film and nothing more. While it’s commercial success can most certainly be credited for significantly improving RKO’s then notorious financial status, one must not overlook some of the surprising artistic qualities that shape Cat People as a whole.
Despite being shot on a shoestring budget of $134,000 (even lower today by Hollywood standards), Cat People overcomes that limitation in a rather creative way. Unable to show viewers a convincing looking monster obviously due to budgetary restraints, producer Val Lewton slyly places the emphasis on atmosphere alone; suggesting that our deepest darkest fears are scarier when left to the imagination. Visually, Lewton achieves this with his use of lighting to generate a true feeling of dread on the part of the audience. As with any great horror film, this one contains a fair share of standout set pieces. The first one comes in the form of Irena carefully stalking Alice at nighttime; the camera cuts back and forth from Alice’s footsteps to Irena’s and back again to build suspense. Suddenly, a bus arrives scaring Alice out of her mind before ending with her going on it. Next up is the renowned swimming pool scene, which starts off on a lighthearted note with Alice noticing a rascally kitten, but after running off, the inevitable terror begins. When Alice hears the roar of the panther, she makes a run for it and then dives into the swimming pool while remaining terrified of both the panther’s roars and where the animal may be hiding. Eventually, the lights in the pool room are turned on by a calm Irena, who wants to know where Oliver is. Soon enough, Alice gets out of the pool to grab her robe; only to discover that it has been “torn to ribbons” as said by the receptionist of the club/gym. Other notable scenes involve slaughtered sheep, Oliver and Alice fending off the shadowy panther with a Christian cross and later on, the offscreen mauling of a victim by the aforementioned unseen creature. To top it all off, we get brief surrealistic imagery courtesy of a dream sequence involving panthers.
Undoubtedly, all of the cinematic trademarks on display in Cat People belong to it’s producer Val Lewton, but credit should also be given to it’s director Jacques Tourneur for bringing his intended vision to life. Following in the footsteps of his then prestigious (If now similarly overlooked) father Maurice Tourneur (read here), Jacques Tourneur began his career as a filmmaker three years earlier in 1939 with They All Come Out, a socially conscious crime drama. I have not seen that one, nor have I seen the three films of his that followed, which include: Nick Carter, Master Detective, Phantom Raiders and Doctors Don’t Tell. Roughly a year and (almost) three months after that last title, Tourneur would finally hit pay dirt in 1942 with his fifth feature-length film (i.e. Cat People). Courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca’s black-and-white cinematography, Tourneur utilizes lighting and shadows to further emphasize the visual elements that are now officially rooted in the film noir genre (or sub-genre). At the same time, the script allows Tourneur to briefly explore some of the themes that he would expand upon in some of his later works including but not limited to Christianity as a force of good (Stars in My Crown) and Satan worship (Night of the Demon).
Contrary to it’s schlocky title, there is actually much more going on in Cat People than viewers might realize at first. For starters, producer Val Lewton had a phobia of cats (read here) and it is possible that his screenwriter Dewitt Bodeen may have picked up on this aspect while writing the script. The character of Irena Dubrovna obviously symbolizes these fears of his, which in turn, drives the horror elements of this film. As it slowly unfolds behind it’s disguise as a crowd pleasing horror thriller, Cat People ultimately reveals itself as an insightful yet tragic social commentary on sexual repression. Irena’s fear of sexual arousal confirms this, which distances herself more and more from Oliver. Irena loves him dearly, but at the same time, she does not want to accidentally kill him given that those kinds of thoughts can transform her into a vicious black panther. When Oliver starts seeing Alice more frequently, Irena’s feelings of resentment turn her into a panther, who stalks Alice with the intention of murdering her. Along the way, the panther inadvertently kills a bunch of sheep. Later on, Irena comes home and locks herself in the bathroom and shortly after, she is seen crying in a bathtub. Irena’s sadness may be due to Oliver’s betrayal of her and her guilt for either genuinely emoting for the first time or for expressing those forbidden emotions. After having a weird dream with a voice exclaiming “the key”, Irena goes to the zoo and steals the key to the panther’s cage. Irena’s action represents the unleashing of her sexual freedom and the elimination of some of her insecurities. Even though Irena (in panther form) still fails in her attempts to kill Alice, she feels more confident about herself as a human. This feeling of happiness does not last long however when Oliver announces that he is divorcing her. Outraged, Irena (as a panther) now tries but backfires in killing both Oliver and Alice. After transforming into a panther for one last time and leaving a casualty behind, Irena stumbles over to the zoo to place the stolen key in the hole to unlock the panther’s cage resulting in her death by the zoo panther, who is run over by Oliver’s car shortly afterwards. I do not know about everyone else, but I see Irena’s death as a sacrifice. In other words, it serves as her way of dying for her sins. No doubt, Irena was not totally at fault for all of her actions, but even when she got some form of revenge, she always seemed to carry around a moral compass at the same time. If Cat People has one performance that can be singled out for praise, it would easily be it’s leading French actress Simone Simon, who perfectly balances sexiness with childlike playfulness in her role of Irena. Regardless of whether or not readers will echo my sentiments here, their is no denying that it does stand as one of many interesting ways to look at it.
Even If it still (annoyingly) remains a little known fact to this day, producer Val Lewton (not the equally masterful director Alfred Hitchcock) stands as the real grandfather of psychological horror and Cat People serves as the perfect entry for unfamiliar viewers to begin their journey with. Similar to how it concluded in 1946 with Bedlam, Cat People began Lewton’s cycle of RKO horror films with a bang. Also worth checking out is the 1944 sequel entitled The Curse of the Cat People directed by Robert Wise instead of Jacques Tourneur and despite it’s differences (that one plays out more like a supernatural drama), I personally feel that it is every bit as spellbinding as this one is.
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