In the early-‘40s RKO studios had got themselves into a bit of bother. It’s all very well having Orson Welles knocking out critically acclaimed classics like Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), but at the end of the day he was spending rather a lot on movies that not enough punters were very keen to see. So it was time for RKO to get their financial house in order and that included making more of those less risky B-movies. Horror movies had always done the job for Universal, so inexperienced producer Val Lewton got the horror gig for RKO. They gave him a title and all he had to do was turn out something akin to Universal’s monster-movie output of the ‘40s. Definitely not rocket science. But Lewton was a bit more ambitious and decided that a B-movie budget didn’t stop you turning out A-movie quality. He started with Cat People.
Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) falls in love with the Serbian-born Irena (Simone Simon). The only problem is that Irena believes she’s descended from some legendary cat people and will transform into a panther if she gets passionate. Awkward. So with their eventual marriage unconsummated, Ollie gets inevitably involved with work colleague Alice (Jane Randolph). Looks like turning into a panther is back on the agenda but this one might be a bit on the vengeful side. Oh dear.
Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur’s creative use of lighting, plus the very expensive (and huge) stairway-set from the aforementioned Magnificent Ambersons completely disguise the fact that this was made for $134,000 (it made $8 million). But make no mistake; this is one of the most groundbreaking and influential horror movies ever made. It’s themes of female sexuality immediately put into a different category of its contemporaries but where lesser films were very keen on a money-shot of someone transforming into something the make-up budget was spent on, Cat People lets us see... well, practically nothing. With only a 73-minute running time, this manages to be a slow-burner that delivers its thrills via stunning tension-building set-pieces. The swimming pool scene is rightly the stuff of legend and is still as powerful as ever. And this is of course the movie that gave us the most repeated horror trope of all time: The Lewton Bus. You know how it works. Slow terrifying build-up and then suddenly... something completely innocuous happens. Think of Jones and the cattle-prods in Alien (1979) or the attic in The Exorcist (1973) and you get the idea. Well Cat People did it first. It was Val Lewton’s idea and, in this case, it involves a bus. So it’s a Lewton Bus. And if you want mystery, the bit where an oddly catlike woman in a restaurant says “moya sestra” (“my sister”) to Irena without further explanation is one of this reviewer’s favourite film moments.
Cat People’s influence means that it isn’t quite as terrifying today as it once was but it’s still an essential masterpiece.
Special Features: Audio commentary / The Man in the Shadows documentary / Interviews / Essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien / Trailer
CAT PEOPLE (1942) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: JACQUES TOURNEUR / SCREENPLAY: DEWITT BODEEN / STARRING: SIMONE SIMON, KENT SMITH, TOM CONWAY, JANE RANDOLPH / RELEASED: SEPTEMBER 26TH