In 1942, financially troubled RKO set up a new horror unit in the hope of making some quick cash. The studio’s marketing department even had a list of lurid titles to inspire movies: ‘Cat People’, ‘The Leopard Man’, ‘I Walked With A Zombie’. But producer Val Lewton – a cultured Russian émigré who had previously been David O. Selznick’s story editor – had other ideas: “They may think I’m going to do the usual chiller stuff which will make a quick profit, be laughed at and be forgotten, but I’m going to fool them... I’m going to do the kind of suspense movie I like.”
Although he was stuck with the prefab titles, Lewton crafted psychological shockers that, unlike Universal’s in-your-face creature features, were coy and creepy. Shot for less than $150,000, Cat People was the first film from the new RKO unit, relying on suggestion and atmosphere to tease out its ambiguous, unsettling scares.
It begins outside the panther cage at New York’s Central Park Zoo where handsome draughtsman Ollie (Kent Smith) meets fashion-sketcher Irena (Simone Simon), a beautiful but brittle Serbian immigrant. Enticed by the enigmatic Irena, he pushes for marriage, little realising the depths of her neurosis – she believes she’s one of the cat people of Serbian legend and is part-panther.
Terrified of having sex with her new husband in case she awakens the beast within, Irena is frigid and distant, pushing Ollie into the arms of his friend and co-worker, Alice (Jane Randolph). Angered by jealousy and betrayal, Irena snaps – with terrifying consequences...
Marketed as a lurid B-movie (the poster had Simon vamped up like a femme fatale with the tagline ‘To kiss her meant death by her own fangs and claws’), Cat People actually proved restrained and majestic. Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create scares from nothing: shadows on the wall of swimming baths, the sound of high heels clicking along a dark alley, the low growl of an unseen, off-screen panther.
It’s a movie of tortured, Freudian repression – a metaphor for lesbian anxiety, perhaps – but, most of all, unsettling uncertainty. Compared with Universal’s The Wolf Man, where Jack Pierce’s transformative make-up is shown in all its fantastic detail, Cat People is all about what you didn’t see. It’s psychological horror at its finest: timelessly terrifying and absolutely purr-fect.
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