John Charet’s Take On: Cat People (1942)

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.

-Star Rating-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)

My Top 10 Favorite Horror Films of All-Time

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This Halloween I had planned on doing a random list of great horror films for the holiday. However, I came to the conclusion that it would be best to start off with what I consider to be my top 10 favorite horror films of all-time. Obviously, I have more than ten favorites, but I want to limit it to that number since I believe it is the best amount to start at. Maybe next October I will dedicate the whole month to 100 or 50. Or If I can’t do that, I will do a random “10 Great Horror Films” in which I just pick random films in the genre that I gave either * * * * or * * * 1/2 stars to. Since I do not post picture images on this site, I will give links that will take the reader to a google image site providing pages of images for the film I will talk about on each number. Expect to see the link above the film I talk about. For example, you see where it says “Google Links” on the top center, that is where you can go If you want to see images of the film I am talking about. This will take you to a page that shows pages of websites that provide pictures/images of the film for those who are curious about the mentioned film. P.S. I have given all these films on my list * * * * stars (Out of * * * *). Now with all that out of the way, I want to now present to you with what I call:

My Top 10 Favorite Horror Films of All-Time

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1.) Night of the Living Dead (1968) (Dir: George A. Romero) (USA)
The granddaddy of all zombie films not only ranks somewhere on the list of “My Top 100 Favorite Films of All-Time” but it also happens to be my number 1 favorite horror film of all-time. The plot concerns a small group of people in a small American town trying to defend themselves from flesh eating zombies who once they have bitten you, that person infected will become one of them. Made on a low-budget and shot in grainy black-and-white, the style of the film gives off this documentary-like tone, which makes the proceedings even more disturbing. Add to that, Romero’s pessimistic yet subtle commentary on the political and social upheavals of the 1960’s and you have one of the most apocalyptic horror films ever made.

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2.) The Old Dark House (1932) (Dir: James Whale) (USA)
Although every single one of them is laced with subtle humor, neither of director James Whale’s horror films have succeeded as pure comedies as clearly as this one.  Blending elements of gothic horror and sophisticated comedy all into one, the result is a unique gem that is unlike any other film in the genre. Stranded during a bad thunderstorm, five travelers seek shelter at a nearby spooky mansion where they encounter all sorts of weird behavior from its inhabitants which includes among other memorable characters the family’s butler (Boris Karloff), a mute alcoholic. Taking into account everything I just said, The Old Dark House ranks above the competition as the greatest haunted house movie ever made.

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3.) Kill, Baby… Kill! (1966) (Dir: Mario Bava) (Italy)
Mario Bava (1914-1980) was one of Italy’s undisputed masters of horror (the other being Dario Argento) and for readers of this site, I personally rank him along with Argento as one of my favorite directors of all-time. What makes Bava so deservedly legendary is that all of his films are primarily known for their amazing use of color and Kill, Baby… Kill! is no exception. The plot concerning a series of murders committed by the ghost of a dead girl takes a backseat towards Bava’s aforementioned use of color. One of many examples include a staircase sequence employing the use of blues, greens and yellows. If I did a list of the best horror films shot in color (and their are many candidates), this one would top the list.

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4.) Bride of Frankenstein (1935) (Dir: James Whale) (USA)
Bride of Frankenstein is everything a sequel should be and much more. Previously thought dead, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his monster (Boris Karloff) end up surviving and this time another mad scientist (Ernest Thesiger) comes along and successfully convinces Dr. Frankenstein to help him build a female mate for the monster. What follows is a monster movie loaded with subtle humor, gothic imagery and even pathos. All of this begs the question as to why is James Whale often labeled the greatest director of the 1930’s Universal Studios horror films? The answer is simple; he expresses pure enthusiasm whenever he is working within this genre and upon viewing, one can sense the high level of joy he infuses in the proceedings.

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5.) The Evil Dead/Evil Dead II (1981/1987) (Dir: Sam Raimi) (USA)
Two for the price of one. Director Sam Raimi’s 1981 low-budget original ranks in my opinion as not only the quintessential cabin-in-the-woods horror film, but it also stands out as one of the greatest directorial debuts in cinematic history as well. His 1987 sequel Evil Dead II flawlessly blends slapstick comedy and graphic violence all into a complete whole and the result is pure madcap fun. The plot of the first film concerns a group of students spending a weekend in a cabin. While there, they come upon a “Book of the Dead” with a tape recorder that plays the translation. Listening to it accidently unleashes the demons in the woods and one-by-one it takes possession of each student. The second film is similar to the first in many ways; the only difference is the other film played out more like a grindhouse flick and this one plays out more like a comedic horror film. Nevertheless, they are both on the same level in terms of greatness and Raimi injects each film with a non-stop level of energy that has rarely been equaled. P.S. anybody who reads this site will also know that I gave Army of Darkness     * * * * stars (Out of * * * *).

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6.) The Black Cat (1934) (Dir: Edgar G. Ulmer) (USA)
Inarguably the first and best of the Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi collaborations for Universal Studios. Amid his quest to avenge the death of his wife at the hands of a Satan-worshipping architect/priest (Boris Karloff), a vengeance-crazed psychiatrist (Bela Lugosi) must also save the wife of a newlywed husband by matching wits with the exact same guy, who plans to sacrifice her in a satanic ritual. Armed with a big budget, director Edgar G. Ulmer takes full advantage of his past experiences in art-direction ( 1927’s Sunrise) and gives us a horror film that conjures up imagery and symbolism worthy of German Expressionism at its best. Legendary horror film icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi are also in peak form as well with the former as a villain and the latter as a hero. The only downside is that it marked one of the very few times in Ulmer’s career in which he was allowed to work with a Hollywood budget. P.S. although Edgar Allen Poe is mentioned in the opening credits, the plot shares absolutely no similarities to Poe’s short story and is actually meant as an original piece.

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7.) The Exorcist (1973) (Dir: William Friedkin) (USA)
Adapted from a best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist truly comes off as one of the (If not The) scariest horror films ever made. The story as everyone knows concerns the efforts of two Jesuit priests (Jason Miller and Max von Sydow) trying to exorcise a demonic spirit out of the body of a young innocent girl (Linda Blair) after her actress mother (Ellen Burstyn) tries everything she knows to help her. Known for employing documentary-like techniques, director William Friedkin scares us out of our minds not so much with the icky special effects ( i.e. the spewing of green vomit), but with the quieter scenes like the early behavior of the girl during the early stages of demon possession as well as the medical examinations that follow. Everything is superbly chilling here; from everything I just mentioned to the film’s use of locations to the utilizing of darkness and light (most notably the film’s poster image which is a scene in the film). Last but not least let us not forget the brief but effective use of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” music which is often associated with this film.

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8.) Cat People (1942) (Dir: Jacques Tourneur) (USA)
Cat People is the first of nine horror films produced by Val Lewton for the prestigious RKO Studios and it is also quite a unique one at that. An American man (Kent Smith) falls in love with and marries a mysterious Serbian woman (Simone Simon), who fears she will turn into a panther If sexually aroused. On paper, this sounds like B-movie material, but in execution it is more than meets the eye. Director Jacques Tourneur (son of his filmmaker father Maurice) focuses on atmosphere rather than cheap thrills; one of many good examples is his decision of never presenting to the viewer what the monster looks like. Among Tourneur’s other skills lies his frequent use of light and shadow to emphasize the influence of German Expressionism. Credit should also be given to the lead actress of the film Simone Simon, who plays the femme fatale with a considerable amount of pathos and sensuality. Another thing to think about is the story penned by DeWitt Bodeen; psychoanalysis as a fad was in it’s infancy in 1942 and the main character’s aversion to intimacy in the film can arguably be seen as a social commentary on sexual repression.

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9.) Dawn of the Dead (1978) (Dir: George A. Romero) (USA)
If “The Godfather Trilogy” serves as the definitive statement on the gangster film than George A. Romero’s “Dead Films” serve as their artistic equivalent in terms of the zombie sub-genre. This time, we have four people; two SWAT team members, one traffic reporter and his newsroom executive girlfriend. All together, they take shelter in a Philadelphia mall to defend themselves from the overpopulating zombies that have basically taken over Earth. Where the original film was shot in black-and-white, this one is shot in Technicolor and Makeup artist Tom Savini delivers the goods with his awesome display of blood and gore. Aside from being an undisputed master of horror, director/writer George A. Romero also knows a thing or two about social commentary and even humor. Released in 1978, this one could best be described as a critique of consumerism when one considers that zombies are roaming the mall as well as when our heroes begin overbuying to survive. The result is a true horror masterpiece that is both cynical and humorous.

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10.) I Walked with a Zombie (1943) (Dir: Jacques Tourneur) (USA)
Based very loosely on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and blending it with a story set in The West Indies, I Walked with a Zombie is without a doubt the most visually exquisite and richly fascinating of the nine RKO Studios horror films produced by Val Lewton. The plot has a young Canadian nurse (Frances Dee) vacationing in the West Indies to care for the wife of a plantation owner (Tom Conway), who seems to be in a zombie-like state as a result of severe tropical fever. Destined to heal her, the nurse thinks a voodoo (courtesy of a voodoo ceremony) might be the cure. As with Cat People, director Jacques Tourneur highlights the atmosphere with his utilization of light and shadow and here it gives the overall tone of the film a hazy dream-like quality. Although the source material came from an article written by Inez Wallace for “American Weekly Magazine“, Lewton reportedly disliked it and asked the screenwriters of the film (Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray) to use the aforementioned Eyre as the source material instead. Either way and I am being highly complimentary here, it stands out as the most literary of all zombie films.