When it comes to film and horror in general, more often than not, it is better to allude to something than to show anything at all if you are unable to do so convincingly. Val Lewton knew this or he at least knew enough to give it a shot when he made this movie. Tasked with creating a film on a miniscule budget, what else could the man have done except make the best use of what he had which was a few actors, a few animals and a couple regurgitated sets. Suffice it to say, the story of a woman who believes she is descended from a long line of cat people works quite well simply due to the fact that the tension and suspense are built up naturally and quite masterfully over the course of the film and the horror taking place primarily off-screen. This would be the first film that Val Lewton would make for RKO and due to its success, he would go on to make many more using variations of the same formula.
At the heart of the film is a tragic love story, one that finds Irena as played by Simone Simon, unable to fully be with her husband for fear of her ancient bloodline that would see her take the form of a cat if she were to feel any sort of passion or arousal. Such as it is, what she is afraid of still takes place and things only get worse when she becomes jealous of Oliver’s friend Alice, who coincidentally is in love with Irena’s husband. Written by DeWitt Bodeen and directed by Jacques Tourneur, they weave between the dramatic and the horrific, building up the dread as tensions rise between the players of the picture. Simone Simon may not have been the most talented actress one could find, but she did a fair job and was believable as the Serbian girl who thought she could transform into a cat like her ancestors supposedly did. Despite Kent Smith and Jane Randolph being as good as they are, Simone was the draw of the film if only for the mystery of her and the way everything was centered on her moral or psychological inadequacies, whichever they happened to be.
Budget aside, the film itself looked great with an exceptional use of shadow used to accentuate those moments when the drama was at its highest and the creeping realization that something was hunting the characters down for sins committed, real or not. Even when darkness did not come into play, the filmmakers were able to convey a little discord throughout the film through the use of the zoo animals or various props like the strange statue in Irena’s house or the figure of Anubis at the museum. Whether Lewton and the crew felt hampered by the finances used to make the movie, they made the most of it with the results proving their various skills.
While Cat People is not exactly a movie that will frighten anyone easily, especially in this day and age and featuring none of the tropes more commonly seen, it is still a horror film through and through. The scares felt by the characters, the unease and the terror that they experience is something one can relate to quite easily. It is not due to the fact that they actually see a giant cat coming at them, it is because they do not see the were-cat coming for them. It is the darkness and the unknown terrors that it could be hiding which is more frightening than anything else could possibly be. The mind likes to play tricks, making things worse than they are and that is why the films by Val Lewton work so well. The viewer gets to decide just how horrific the picture they are watching can be which is a novel idea and copied in many films for decades after. Cat People might be closing in on the eighty year mark soon, but it is just as good now as it was when first released.
4 out of 5