Though they’d made a few movies in the early 1930s that could be considered horror, RKO never really carved out a niche in the genre until 1942 when producer Val Lewton’s B picture unit came up with Cat People. It offered something new in the realm of horror—and something that looked even newer in 1942 than it might have ten years earlier. Bear in mind that horror at the time Cat People came out was pretty much identified with those slick, but rather silly, Universal programmers that were coin of the realm in what is called their “silver era” of horror (tin seems a more apt metal). The mere fact that Lewton’s outfit was making serious horror was refreshing—that they managed to make it out of something called Cat People (RKO wanted a Wolf Man-like title) really took the world by surprise. It took RKO by surprise, too, when Lewton—with more than a little help from director Jacques Tourneur and screenwriter Dewitt Bodeen—handed them a movie that didn’t really have a monster in the traditional sense. They weren’t happy—that is until the movie turned out to be a massive hit for very little money.
Cat People tells the story Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a young Serbian woman with a haunted past from the legends of her homeland. She meets and falls in love with (no fooling) Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), a nice guy, who might best be described as six feet of homegrown corn. They get married and that’s when the trouble really starts, because Irena believes she’s descended from the “cat people” and that if her husband (or any man) so much as takes her in his arms and kisses her she’ll turn into a murderous cat (really a black panther). The assumption is naturally that this is a psychological condition, but as the film progresses it becomes more and more apparent that it isn’t. What it does not do is ever erupt into horror movie overkill. The closest Cat People gets to a transformation scene is a shot of Irena moving down into the frame—with star point lights in her eyes—as the image darkens and loses focus.
This isn’t to say that Tourneur made a film that was completely unlike other horror movies. It still breaks down into a series of set-pieces. When people discuss the movie, they invariably refer to the swimming pool scene, the bus scene, the office scene, etc. All of these are key horror sequences. They’re just handled more with shadow and suggestion than the outright statement found in the horror pictures that surrounded it. It’s certainly not a non-horrific film. Indeed, it gave the world a new kind of shock effect that became known a “bus,” because it originates in the scenes where the shock is delivered not by the attack we expect, but by the sound of the air-brakes on a bus stopping to pick up the pursued woman. This sort of thing—the false scare with a sudden sound or musical sting—is very much still with us today.
Of course, the film’s success generated more films—eight more in all—done in the same style. Some of them are good—Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) may even be better than Cat People—some of them are not so good. The inevitable problem is that the template for this “new” kind of horror picture quickly became just as formulaic in its own way as anything Universal was turning out with its werewolves and vampires and mummies. But for a time, it was remarkable, and the good films more than hold up 70-plus years later.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Cat People Thursday, Dec. 5, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.