Cat People (1942)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by DeWitt Bodeen
Starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Tom Conway
Val Lewton is one of the great names of horror film, even though he never wrote or directed anything. He was a producer, but managed to put his own stamp on horror by using one rule that is still considered the bedrock of intelligent horror: It's better to avoid showing the monster, letting the audience's imagination fill in the blanks with something more horrible that anything that could be put on screen. In 1942, he was named the head of RKOs horror unit, charged with doing low-budget films. The first of these was Cat People, and it is the bedrock upon which his reputation was built.
The story is about Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a Serbian-born woman who attracts the eye of Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) when he spots her drawing a black panther at the zoo. He starts to flirt with her and goes up to her apartment, which has a strange statue of a man on horseback running a cat through with a sword. Irena tells her that in her village, some people turned to evil after an invasion, including devilish rites.
Oliver buys her a kitten as a gift, but the animal is terrified of her, as are all the animals in the pet store when they go to return it. Despite this, he proposes to her. They marry, but there's a catch -- she refuses to be intimate with him. Oliver is caring and patient, but as time goes on, he confides her problems with his co-worker Alice Moore (Jane Randolph). Irena visits a psychologist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway*), who tries to get to the bottom of things. But Oliver starts spending more time with Alice -- both at work and out of it. Much of it is innocent, but Irena takes it the wrong way. She is spending a lot of time staring at that panther in the zoo. . . .
The horror sequences are well constructed. The panther that stalks and kills is only shown in quick cuts and shadows, and you never know where it might show up.
Simone Simon plays Irena perfectly: a woman with a dark secret, who loves Oliver deeply, but fears what that might mean. She never became a big star -- she was rumored to be temperamental and difficult to work with -- but this is her signature role, and she's just fine as a woman worried about what she is.
The movie was directed the Jacques Tourneur, who later collaborated with Lewton on I Walked With A Zombie. His atmospheric direction makes the scary sequences work nicely.** What also makes it interesting is the subtext of sexual frustration and jealousy.
The film was a major hit. Since it was made on a shoestring, the studio made a hatful of money. The success allowed Lewton to continue his work redefining horror. And, also it spawned a sequel.
The Curse of the Cat People (1944) Directed by Gunther Von Frisch and Robert Wise
Written by DeWitt Borden
Starring Ann Carter, Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Julia Dean, Elizabeth Russell, Sir Lancelot
Note: Spoilers ahead. They really won't ruin your enjoyment of the first film, but if you're allergic, watch Cat People first. I'll wait.
The Curse of the Cat People is probably the weirdest horror sequel ever. And I don't mean that in a good way. It is clearly a sequel, but has very little horror in it. Instead, it's a psychological study of a child with an active imagination who is ignored by everyone.
The movie takes part about eight years after the first film. Oliver and Alice (Smith and Randolph again) are married and living in Tarrytown, NY, raising their 6-year-old daughter, Amy (Ann Carter). Amy has a very active imagination and sometimes has trouble understanding the difference between fact and fiction. The other children refuse to play with her, so she's off alone. But as she passes what the other children call a haunted house, someone waves to her and throws her a ring. When the houseman (Sir Lancelot***) tells her it's a magic ring, Amy makes a wish for a playmate. And it is soon granted: Irena (Simon) appears and starts to play with her.
Eventually, Amy admits to her parents that the woman in an old photograph of Irena is her playmate. This creates some serious issues, both with the fact Irena is Oliver's first wife and that she died at the end of the first film.
So where is the horror? Or, for that matter, where are the cat people? Nowhere. The film is actually a psychological study of a lonely girl and her relationship with her parents as well as the strain it puts on both her and them. It never explains whether Irena is a ghost or a figment of Amy's imagination.****
There are a few scary moments, but that's not the point of the film. Indeed, the "horror" climax at the end seems a tacked on way to put Amy in danger and maybe give people a thrill.
Ann Carter is the show here. She's not a great actor -- few child actors of the 40s were -- but she handles is well enough to get the point across.
Lewton wanted to change the name of the film to "Amy and Her Friend," but was overruled by RKO executives, who wanted people to connect this with the extremely popular Cat People. And that certainly brought in people, only they were disappointed to discover the sequel was nothing like the original.
Lewton made several more horror films of the era, but the Cat People franchise ended until a remake of the original was made in 1982 starring Nastassja Kinski, which got mixed reviews and only did so-so business*****. But the two originals were first-class movies, one horror, one drama, and both very entertaining.
*Conway is the brother of George Sanders, and you can see the similarities in their voice and appearance.
**Evidently, the movie led to a bit of Hollywood slang: "The bus" was a term that mean a scary sound that turns out to be harmless.
***His real name was Lancelot Victor Edward Pinard. Acting was just a sideline for him: he made his mark as a Calypso singer, and is considered a major name in both Calypso and Reggae. His song "Shame and Scandal" (written for I Walked with a Zombie) is a classic.
****Another trait of Lewton films: it's often quite ambiguous as to whether the events are really happening or just imaginary. When Alice is being menaced by a panther, it's very ambiguous as to whether the panther really exists, and in I Walked with a Zombie, there is also an ambiguity as to whether anything supernatural had occurred.
*****Its theme song, Cat People (Putting Out the Fire) was sung by Davie Bowie.