The Val Lewton Collection: Cat People (1942)

Cat People (1942)


A Serbian artist living in New York, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon, The Devil and Daniel Webster), falls in love with a mild-mannered engineer, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith, The Fountainhead). They get married, but the marriage goes unconsummated for months because Irena is convinced that sexual arousal will transform her into a wild cat. Oliver thinks his wife is simply having psychological problems, but …

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Oliver, be kind. Be patient. Let me have time. Time to get over that feeling there’s something evil in me.” – Simone Simon as Irena

If you consider the time it was filmed, Cat People is a mightily gutsy, extremely frank and surprisingly scary horror movie — this multi-layered “monster flick” is characterized by both an incredibly ominous atmosphere and tantalizing sexual tension.

A masterful meditation on love, religion, sexual desire and female psyche, Cat People is the first movie of legendary producer Val Lewton. In the early 1940s, RKO hired Lewton to head the studio’s horror unit and he was pretty much left alone to work on small-budget chillers. Lewton soon became famous for emphasizing atmosphere and psychological terror over rabid pandemonium. Cat People is perhaps the best of Lewton’s minimalist horror movies — an extraordinarily clever, frightful, fascinating little movie that has influenced countless of filmmakers.

Producer Lewton, director Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past) and writer DeWitt Bodeen (I Remember Mama), all team up to create a movie loaded with sex. They also come up with a few magnificently crafted jump-out-of-your-seat moments. Because Cat People combines sex and horror so well, the censors of the era didn’t notice that this is a hit job on puritan values in American society.

Our protagonist is turned into a fiendish creature because she dares to think about sex, but she’s really the only person in the film that acts remotely normal — you wonder what she sees in dull & sexless Oliver. Irena’s superstitious mumbo-jumbo is a stand-in for Christianity, which demands that she restrains herself from acting in a way contrary to Christian morality. That repression of feeling leads to chaos, mayhem. This idea of the “Id” running amok in physical form is dramatized in such a clear and concise manner that I’m shocked the censors of the era allowed this movie to be made; what the movie says about (sexual) repression in society is not pretty.

Actress Simone Simon is a stunningly beautiful woman with an unmistakable sensual persona, yet she’s poised and very proper. In other words, Simon is the prototypical “icy lady with fire under her ice.” Simon’s Irena is an extremely complex character and the actress evokes the perfect mixture of carnal desire and propriety. She’s the main reason this is such a good movie. The small, but talented cast also includes Tom Conway (Whistle Stop), Jane Randolph (T-Men), Jack Holt (They Were Expendable), and Alan Napier (Alfred in TV’s Batman).

Nicholas Musuraca’s (The Spiral Staircase) expressionist, black-and-white cinematography is a revelation. One can’t praise his technical innovations enough. Partially because of the film’s low-budget, Musuraca was given the difficult task of suggesting things that couldn’t be possibly shown at the time the movie was made. You really believe there is some odious thing hidden in the dark shadows. The baleful music score is by Roy Webb (Notorious and Crossfire).

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Cat People is a must-see, almost poetic horror movie. It’s heavy on symbolism. Sex has always been an integral part of horror, but very few chillers weave elements of passion and horror as well as this movie. It manages to evoke dread and fear without resorting to obvious shock tactics — a thinking person’s horror movie. Remade in 1982. B&W, 73 minutes, Not Rated.

Followed by The Curse of the Cat People (1944)


4 responses to “The Val Lewton Collection: Cat People (1942)

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