Sometimes you fall in love with a movie immediately, sometimes you have to sit with it for a while before its greatness hits you, and sometimes it takes multiple viewings and a change of venue. It took me multiple viewings and a change of venue with Cat People. When I first saw the movie on my laptop, I was shocked by how genuinely tense and explicit it was. When I watched it again a year later I found myself falling for it, and then I saw it on a big screen (huge shout out to the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts for making that possible). Seeing what was on its way to becoming one of my favorite films on the big screen so firmly cemented its place among my favorite horror movies that my “I think I might love this movie” feelings turned into “this is one of the greatest movies of all time and I need to share it with everyone I care about.”
To be fair, it truly is one of the greatest movies of all time, and certainly one of the most influential. Cat People was the first film producer Val Lewton made at RKO Pictures and it established his style of psychologically driven horror films that relied more on conceptual horrors and literal darkness than the lavishly costumed and set decorated monster films that Universal was churning out at the time. It was also the first major success for director Jacques Tourneur who went on to direct not only more iconic horror films (both with and without Lewton) but also canon films in the noir and western genres.
It’s worth noting also that the success of Cat People allowed Lewton the freedom to hire up and coming directors, including Mark Robson who directed cult classic Valley of the Dolls, and Robert Wise who went on to direct major films of the ‘60s like West Side Story and The Sound of Music. I’m not saying that without Cat People we wouldn’t have those movies, but they would likely have been directed by different people if it weren’t for the success of Lewton’s first film at RKO. What I definitely am saying though is that we likely wouldn’t have films like Carrie, Ginger Snaps, and Raw without Cat People.
Cat People is the first (as far as I know) commercially successful film to have the audience identify with its possibly monstrous female character. Irena (Simone Simon), the main character of the film, is a Serbian immigrant living in New York who falls in love with a sweet American man named Oliver (Kent Smith), but doesn’t trust herself to be physical with him lest she turn into a panther when she becomes too passionate. It’s a silly premise, and Oliver says as much when Irena divulges her concerns to him, but the film plays it straight and it never makes a joke of Irena’s fear. When Irena agrees to see a psychiatrist at Oliver’s urging, the doctor is an arrogant man who is convinced that Irena’s fears are merely a figment of her imagination born of past trauma (this begins a tradition of arrogant “rational men” in both Lewton and Tourneur’s filmographies that I love). And later in the film he forces a kiss on Irena to prove to her that her fears are unjustified, it doesn’t go well for him.
And then there’s Alice (Jane Randolph), Oliver’s co-worker who seems to be the perfect American girl next door, especially when contrasted with Irena and her difficulties, who would make the ideal wife. Over the course of the film, Oliver and Alice develop feelings for one another and eventually decide to be together. Of course, this doesn’t make Irena happy. In the film’s most iconic scene, Alice believes she is being followed by Irena and begins to walk more quickly down the dark street she is on. We hear footsteps that grow louder and faster. It seems as though Alice is about to be attacked, when suddenly a bus appears from the opposite direction. This false jump scare has been coined “the Lewton bus,” and has been used in what seems like every slasher ever made and a number of horror films in other genres too. It was even used again by Tourneur and Lewton in some of their later films.
The plot points and themes of fear of women’s sexuality, not believing women or their fears, and prizing women who are sweet and virginal over women who are “difficult” have become hallmarks of the horror genre but especially so in the monstrous feminine subgenre that aligns audiences with the women who may be monstrous. All of these films are rich with opportunities for allegorical interpretation and Cat People is no different. Already at surface level the film is incredibly progressive for its time (even with all of the veiled language regarding sex), emphasizing that demonization of a woman’s sexual desire is dangerous not only to her but also to those she cares for. And for those interested in reading more into the film, it’s ripe for understanding as a story about a lesbian and/or a person who is gender non-conforming.
All of this thematic brilliance hit me the first two times I saw the film, but it didn’t become one of my favorite horror movies until I was able to see it play in a theater. When I finally got to see the film in a dark room on a giant screen, I was blown away by how incredibly beautiful it is. Every shot is impeccably composed and the use of deep black darkness is striking both for how much it allows the film to hide (in a good way) its horrors and for how it contributes to the beautifully atmospheric look of the film.
Cat People is one of the few films whose aesthetic and thematic perfection meet to create (I’m gonna say it) a masterpiece. It’s one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen, one of the few movies that’s made me jump (that bus scare is iconic for a reason), and it hits on some of my favorite themes, so yeah Cat People is (one of) my favorite horror movie(s).
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