The march of classic horror/sci-fi movies continues here at the Insomniac Cult Movie Theater for once again another week, as I continue to enjoy the notion of watching these films not at 2am after tossing & turning for hours, but instead at normal times during the regular day.
However, I will say in watching this week’s movie, I might as well have been watching it at 2am, because I was so god damn exhausted. Since NYCC earlier this month, I’ve been going full tilt trying to capitalize on all the good will and connections we made with comic creators, pop culture folks, and assorted podcasts that I have barely got a moments rest.
Sure, I haven’t decided to complain about it before now because this kind of “Busy” is usually a good thing, but I will say that I was on the struggle bus a few nights ago when I started watching this week’s entry, and even at 9:30 pm I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open.
But luckily for me, today’s movie was probably the best one I’ve watched since I started this little mini film festival. God knows what would have been the result if I decided to watch the Old Dark House instead…sheesh. Anyways, it’s a movie I’ve been wanting to review here for a really long time, so without further ado, here’s a classic tale of forbidden lust, ancient curses, and cat scratch fever: Val Lewton’s immortal classic, Cat People!
Cat People is a 1942 horror movie produced by Val Lewton for RKO Pictures based on his previously released short story from 1930 entitled The Bagheeta.
The story revolves around a young beautiful Serbia immigrant named Irena who falls for a handsome marine engineer named Oliver, after the two meet at a nearby zoo while she is sketching a black panther kept there. Despite Irena being somewhat of a shut in that avoids making relationships with people, Oliver is mesmerized by her exotic beauty and mysterious “heat” and becomes helplessly infatuated with her. Irena wants to return his affections fully as she too is in love with him, but is fearful because of a folk story from her native village.
It was said long ago that the villagers of her home had turned to witchcraft and devil worship after being enslaved by foreign invaders. After King John repelled the invaders, he saw what terrible and wicked folk the villagers had become and put them all to death, except for some of the wisest and most wicked that fled into the hills to become the Cat People of legend.
Throughout her childhood, Irena had been teased and bullied by the other children of her village who called her a Cat Person given her father died under mysterious circumstances and it was believed her mother was involved. Irena now fears being intimate with Oliver because in giving into her passions, she might transform into a savage cat and kill him.
However, despite this, Oliver does go ahead and marry Irena albeit over the objections of his co worker, Alice, who also loves Oliver, and feels Irena’s inability to consummate the marriage or provide normal supportive compassion is something that will wreck the marriage over time. To this end, she suggests that Oliver get Irena to see a psychiatrist about her irrational cat people fears in Dr. Louis Judd, who also shows great “personal” interest in the overwhelming allure Irena seems to radiate.
As the marriage does indeed break down over a lack of physical and emotional intimacy, Oliver does turn more and more to Alice, which makes Irena more and more jealous. She first starts having dreams about returning the the panther cage and releasing the beast to hunt down her enemies. But things soon take a more drastic turn when she starts “hunting” Alice, following her back to her apartment building, menacing her from the shadows, all the while Alice swears she hears cat sounds, footprints, and finds her clothes slashed to ribbons as if by gigantic claws.
After Oliver makes it clear that he is going to divorce Irena and marry Alice instead, the pair are also then menaced by what can only be described as a human sized panther stalking them from the shadows. In response, Dr. Judd recommends instead to have Irena committed to an insane asylum instead, and decides to wait for her. Only to our surprise, when Irena finally shows, Dr. Judd gives into his feelings of lust for Irena and passionately kisses her.
The result is Irena giving into her passions and killing Dr. Judd in the form of giant cat. Dr. Judd does manage to stab her with his sword cane before he dies, and Irena crawls back to the panther cage where she first met Oliver, where she dies as well…still in the form of the cat.
The first of the RKO pictures made by Lewton, this one is somewhat credited for saving the entire production company of RKO as it was made under budget for only $141,659, yet made nearly 4 million dollars in revenue in its first 2 years, becoming one of their biggest successes ever.
Modern fans of film noir also point out that this movie was the first pairing of director Jacques Tourneur with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who I already discussed in my previous review of “Five Came Back”. Together they created an intensely dramatic shadowy visage of the world which heightened every suspenseful scene, especially those that seem to mask the silent pent up rage and anger that permeate a world ruled by jealousy and deception. They would later bring this same feeling back in another of their collaborations entitled “Out of the Past”, a often overlooked Humphrey Bogart gem which has similar themes.
In addition, the horror movie term “Lewton Bus” aka “The Jump Scare” also comes from some of the pioneering work done in terms of horror film making by Cat People. Referring to the scene where Irena is stalking Alice from the shadows, the movie builds to a fever pitch when suddenly the sound of a Panther’s roar seems to be made and Alice screams in horror. However, the sound is actually just one made by a nearby bus’s brakes, and Alice as well as the audience all breathe out in a final relieved exhale.
This film technique has been used so often in horror movies since as a way to playfully scream “BOO!” at the audience and thus temporarily relieve the built up tension that I’m sure you can probably think of a thousand other times you have been “Lewton Bus”ed over the years.
In closing, Cat People did spawn a sequel entitled “Curse of the Cat People” in 1944, which sees Oliver and Alice’s young daughter being threatened by the ghost of Irena and her evil Cat powers. There was also a remake done in 1982 starring then super model sex symbol Nastassja Kinski, as well as Malcolm McDowell and John Heard. All played heavily on the notions of linking sex and horror which is a hallmark of this film I’ll discuss in a moment.
2am Thoughts and Reflections:
If there’s one thing I’ve said over and over again, it’s that you can’t go wrong mixing sex and death together in terms of storytelling. There’s a reason why the great Sigmund Freud said that there were only two main drivers for all humanity, Eros & Thanatos aka the drive deliver life and the drive to deliver death, because in the end, at it’s base form, these are the only constants.
Things are born and things die.
It’s the only story which is so universal that everyone can relate to it and everyone is affected by it. And as Freud would point out, the drives are so interconnected that they often overlap. Thus, the self destructive, thrill seeking “death drive” can be in fact exciting and as titillating as sex itself. However, when you also mix in the real deal into that pot, then you got a lot of extremely powerful base instincts all bombarding the viewer all at once, which can cause somewhat of a frenzy inside the brain.
It’s why horror often casts beautiful scantily clad women as protagonists being chased down by the homicidal maniacs or why it’s always the non virgins that get the axe first. They realize the unique power that horror movies have in linking sex and death together, and Cat People is one of the best early examples of this.
As you might realize, I often highlight Pre Hays code movies on this blog simply because they did have the freedom to indulge in much more risque behavior in their movie making than those ones that happened just a few years later. However, whether this was a Post Hays code movie or not, this is one of the most sensual movies I have watched here at the Theater, as everything drips with sex and female empowerment.
I mean the whole driving point of the picture is a female that is obsessed with the fear of losing control and giving into her sinful desires. Base animal desires. The desire to kill and the desire to screw. But she also lives in fear of something else…becoming powerful. Sure, it’s portrayed that in embracing her inner “cat” as it were she would become evil, but like the social norms of that era, it’s only evil because it upsets the apple cart of the traditional patriarchal view of the world.
These cat people. They are females. They seem to mate and kill their lovers afterwards. They have the power in the relationship and it’s the ultimate power in that it’s the one of life and death. It’s similar to more recent views of the role of the witch in that they were feared because they represented free thinking women that refused to coward to men. Yet both are looked at as things of the devil, and thus evil.
In this movie, Irena marries somewhat of a milksop of a guy, that really doesn’t understand the power that she has nor does he want to, because the truth would be too terrible for him. And eventually even the little that he does know becomes too much for him to handle so he runs to Alice who offers him more of the supportive/subordinate woman. Of course although we get these great suspenseful scenes of Irena tormenting Alice for creating extramarital stress, honestly I thought she should have been tormenting Oliver instead given he never really accepted her for who she was and left her the moment things got “miserable” for him.
Although in the end I was happy to see that Dr. Judd, this smarmy know it all of a douche got his when he underestimated Irena as well, in that he thought he could tame her with his big psychiatric…ummm…theories only to see him ripped to shreds. Unfortunately she’s killed in the process, but I gotta say it was gratifying that among horror films, this was one where the female had the power of sex and death.
Final Grade: A-
After watching this film, I can see why it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 1993. Everything from the slow build tension of script, the shadowy visual direction, the superb acting from Simone Simon as Irena in what is one of the best on screen performances of a “villain” from that era. It just all clicks and although some might discount it as being too “talky” or not in line with modern sensibilities aka not enough bare skin/blood/gore, I think they are missing the point.
This is a perfect example of why in horror you don’t always have to have those things. You don’t have to see a man getting his throat torn out by a woman that just transformed into a huge cat monster, to understand that’s what just happened. Shadows and Intense stares work just fine. You don’t have to have Irena rolling around on the bed naked to understand she’s struggling with her inner desires to let loose her power and take what she wants. Instead we just have a simple scene of her sobbing in a bathtub.
And the scenes this movie does do “right” by modern sensibilities, they are pretty pronounced as well. I mean take the “swimming pool” scene for example. If that scene wasn’t in black and white, I would have had a hard time not picturing that in any number of modern day slasher films that have been released in the past 20 years. You watch it yourself and you tell me I’m wrong on that account.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This is an incredible horror movie that really does so much to elevate the type of storytelling these pictures are capable of other than teenage campers getting disemboweled by chainsaws. These are the horror movies I like. Thought provoking, genuinely suspenseful, with deep complex characters.
They are definitely the Cat’s meow!