EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Val Lewton’s birthday, so we had to bring back our review on the film that he is most often associated with. This originally ran on the site on August 24, 2020.
The Lewton Bus is also known as the Cat Scare. You may also know it as the Jump Scare. It’s that moment in so many horror movies where tension is raised and built and then, when it seems like the heroine is about to be attacked, a cat will hiss or the brakes of a bus will loudly intrude into your senses. It’s the sound and fury of tension being released. It is pretty much everything horror has that takes the anxiety of the outside world and releases it.
Speaking of tension, Cat People is a movie packed with it. For 1942, it’s an incredibly prurient film. Serbian-born fashion illustrator Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is so convinced that she’s descended from werecats that she holds back the passion that her husband and marriage demands, pushing him into the arms of another woman.
It’s the first movie that producer Val Lewton — just leaving his deal with producer David Selznick — would make for RKO pictures. While these movies were modestly budgeted, Lewton was able to assemble a team to make the films that he wanted to make. With director Jacques Tourneur, writer DeWitt Bodeen, screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen and editor Mark Robson — the creator of the aforementioned Lewis Bus — he would go on to make deeply personal tales hidden in the guise of the B picture.
The studio had come up with the title and told Lewton to make a movie of it. He told Bodeen that he was unhappy with the title already and “”if you want to get out now, I won’t hold it against you.” But the writer dug into the history of cats within horror and worked to make a movie less about vampires and monsters, more about psychological terror and the unseen. Yet Lewton also told his team, “if you’re going to have horror, the audience must be able to identify with the characters in order to be frightened.”
Irena is first glimpsed sketching the panthers in a New York City zoo. There, she meets and falls for Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). Over tea, she explains to him how she is descended from a village that turned to witchcraft and devil-worship after being enslaved by the Mameluks. While King John would drive the Mameluks out, when he learned that villagers had gone wild, he had them killed. Yet only the wisest and most evil of them escaped. Oliver laughs it off, but Irena believes this legend.
Despite the fact that cats hiss in her presence and just her touch kills a bird, Oliver marries Irena. But soon, the fact that she will not consummate their marriage — that passion would awaken the beast within — he’s pushed into the arms of Alice Moore (Jane Randolph). This is where the Lewton jump scares come from in the film, as Irena continues to stalk Alice through the streets and, even more famously, the claustrophobic pool of the Royal Palms Hotel.
Despite costing $135,000, Cat People made $1 million back in rentals, leading to RKO asking for a sequel. We’ll get to The Curse of the Cat People later this week, a side story in a way that is superior to this film. The Seventh Victim would also bring back Tom Conway’s Dr. Judd character — despite him being seemingly killed in this movie — as he tries to help another woman who seeks the embrace of death.
The shadowy tone of this film and the idea of a woman who is filled with animalistic passion — and the ability to become an animal — became a trope of its own in other films released in the wake of this movie. They include Cry of the Werewolf, Jungle Woman, The Soul of a Monster, Cult of the Cobra, The She-Creature, She-Wolf of London and more.
The driven Lewton would go on to make ten more movies for RKO in four years, including I Walked With a Zombie, Isle of the Dead and Ghost Ship. The dark tones of his films led to two of them — the Tourneur-directed The Seventh Victim and The Leopard Man — ending up on the list of the Church of Satan’s approved films. As for Tourneur, he would go on to create another landmark black and white horror epic, Night of the Demon (which also appears on the above list).
Cat People’s influenced every horror movie that would come after. Perhaps the most obvious devotee was Curtis Harrington, whose Night Tide takes the idea of a woman convinced she is from another world to the boardwalk carnival, and his TV movie The Cat Creature, a tribute that even features Kent Smith in its cast.
You can get this movie from the Criterion collection.