It probably seems pretty tame today, but in 1942 when Cat People first appeared it was a pretty striking departure from the established horror genre. Producer Val Lewton, writer DeWitt Bodeen and director Jacques Tourneur didn’t exactly reinvent the genre, but they definitely rethought it. At the time horror had become largely associated with what could loosely be described as Universal’s “monster” movies — enjoyable films that tended to concentrate on the unsubtle thrills generated by the Wolf Man, Dracula, the Mummy and the Frankenstein Monster, but hardly cerebral excursions into the supernatural.
Cat People took an equally preposterous idea — that of a woman who would turn into a were-cat — and approached it in a deadly serious manner, using suggestion and shadow, and completely eschewing the actual depiction of the monster. They also imbued the film with a rather adult subtext, since it’s obvious (even if somewhat danced around) that this evil will be unleashed only if the were-cat in question, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), becomes sexually aroused. The impact was enormous. Film critics who were normally condescending toward horror films suddenly found something to praise and a series of nine films was born.
This first one is in many ways the best. It’s certainly the freshest and has the most famous horror set-pieces — the famous swimming pool scene, the encounter in a dark office, the pursuit down a deserted street (and the landmark false scare caused by the sound of a bus’ air-brakes). What works the best, though, is the compelling sense of conviction — something missing from most 1940s horror films. A true genre classic.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke