I watched CAT PEOPLE (1942) awhile back but I've just been too busy lately to sit down and write about it. The new year offers an opportunity to play catch up with this and other films I saw in 2015 but haven't written about so let's see if I can clear off some of these notes and papers on my desk starting today.
CAT PEOPLE, produced by Val Lewton at RKO is quite simply one of the best horror films ever made. Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur got a terrific amount of bang for their buck with this low budget ($134,000), atmospheric masterpiece. Saddled with a shoestring budget and a corny title, Lewton and Tourneur along with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, delivered a slick, beautifully crafted meditation on sexual anxieties and the power of myth.
Irena Dubrovna (the lovely Simone Simon), believes she's a member of an ancient race of cat people. These people become cats when they are sexually aroused, or so the legend goes. Irena falls in love with architect Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and as her love and sexual desires become more intense, so too do her fears of turning into a killer beast. She seeks help from psychiatrist Dr. Judd (the urbane Tom Conway, who would have made a terrific Ham in a 1942 DOC SAVAGE film), who uses hypnosis to probe her fears. Is Irena really capable of transforming into a cat or is it all just in her head, a very dark and disturbing neurosis that threatens her marriage?
Two sequences in the film are standouts and masterfully demonstrate what can be done to create terror with just shadows and sounds. The first is when Alice (the also lovely Jane Randolph), a co-worker of Oliver's, walks along a sidewalk at night, convinced she's being followed by something. The abrupt hiss of air brakes on a bus (which sounds remarkably like the screech of a cat) at the end of the sequence makes me jump every time I see the film even though I know it's coming.
But the most memorable scene by far is the swimming pool sequence in which Alice swims alone at night in an indoor pool. There's something else in the room with her, something not human. Again, we never see anything, just shadows on the wall and strange sounds but Lewton, Tourneur and Musuraca orchestrate everything so brilliantly, the viewer fills in the spaces in his or her own mind, creating something far more terrifying than anything that could be put on the screen at the time.
With a running time of 73 minutes, CAT PEOPLE is a tight, well constructed film that is rich in both psychological and sexual themes and horror. The cast is good with Simon a stand out as the haunted and doomed Irena. A sequel, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE was produced in 1944. Producer Val Lewton reunited stars Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Jane Randolph and turned the directing duties over to the team of Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch for the film which deals more with childhood fantasies than outright horror. And let's not forget the 1982 remake, directed by Paul Schrader with Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell. Kinski is one helluva sexy cat woman in the film which is loaded with explicit sex and violence. It's a visually stunning film but it's nowhere near as good as the original.
CAT PEOPLE is a bonafide classic horror film. Highest recommendation.