REPOST: Cat People (1942)

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 WerewolfJungle WomanThe Soul of a MonsterCult of the CobraThe She-CreatureShe-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 ZombieIsle 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.

Cat People (1942)

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 WerewolfJungle WomanThe Soul of a MonsterCult of the CobraThe She-CreatureShe-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 ZombieIsle 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.

2019 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 13: Lucky Ghost (1942)

DAY 13. DO YOU FEEL LUCKY, PUNK?: A film about luck; good, bad or ugly.

William Beaudine — as we discussed back when we watched Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter — came back from England in 1937 and had a rough time re-establishing himself with American studios. He ended up directing all-black films, realizing that when he did, he’d never reach the heights of fame he was at before.

Lucky Ghost was made a half-decade later, a sequel to Mr. Washington Goes to Town. It concerns the continuing adventures of Washington Delaware Jones (Mantan Moreland, the messenger in Spider Baby and a man considered to take over for Shemp in The Three Stooges in 1955), who has been such a strain on his hometown that a judge banishes him. As he travels to find a new place to live, he brings along Jefferson (F.E. Miller, who made several all black movies like Harlem on the Prairie, Harlem Rides the Range and The Bronze Buckaroo).

Neither man has any experience nor do they much like to work, so they decide to be food tasters. Their career path starts with impersonating food inspectors and stealing chickens, which gets them shot at.

The two then play craps with a rich man named Brown and two of his friends, cleaning them all out and getting a fancy car out of the deal. They travel to the country club of Dr. Brutus Blake, a con artist who wants to steal their money and keep Washington away from the club’s hostess.

That’s when we learn that Blake’s relatives haunt the joint and they’re none too happy about how he is turning out. But even when our heroes defeat Blake and win his club, the place is just as sinful and decadent as it’s ever been. So the ghosts en masse begin to haunt the club, sending the twosome of Washington and Jefferson running for their lives as the ghosts bemoan all of the “jitterbugging, jiving, and hullaballooing” and begins slamming doors and even playing the drums.

Race films — as they were called — featured parts for actors that never really got the chance to be anything other than servants.

Moreland is a great example, as he was mostly known for his role as chauffeur Birmingham Brown in the Charlie Chan films. He also worked with Ben Carter (who was replaced by Nipsey Russell in the 1950’s) and was inducted into the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame in 2004.

F.E. Miller is considered one of the seminal figures in the development of African American musical theater on Broadway and was posthumously nominated for a Tony Award in 1979 for his contributions.

You can watch the whole movie below, at the Internet Archive or on Amazon Prime.