“You fear the panther, yet you’re drawn to him again and again.”
Cat People may be one of the silliest movie titles I’ve ever heard. The movie isn’t even about “cat people”; there’s only one character who can turn into a cat. I think it’s a really funny indicator of the way horror movies operated in the 1940s. They were driven by this sensationalism where the concept of the movie was the title of the movie: The Wolf Man, The Mummy’s Curse, The House Of Dracula, and on and on. Fortunately, the most dated thing about Cat People is its title. While it certainly hasn’t aged well in some regards, Cat People is comparatively one of the greatest horror movies of the 1940s, and I had a really great time with this movie overall.
Simone Simon plays a mysterious Serbian woman who falls in love with the charming Oliver Reed (played by Kent Smith). The plot of this movie is actually one of my favorite things about it, and this is actually true for a lot of older horror movies. While they had to be marketed as these monster-driven scream fests, it seems like there was some real thought put into the script. Maybe the Production Codes of the time and a limited budget were to blame for this, but the plot focuses heavily on characterization and the mystery behind the story without showing much monster action at all. You get a splendid love triangle that is subtle and heartbreaking, along with some quirky characters that stand out against the stock character backdrop of the early days of horror. Smith’s character seems pretty one-dimensional, but both Simon and supporting actress Jane Randolph play really unique women that spice up the plot in a mysterious, chilling way.
A major legacy of Cat People is the “Lewton Bus,” named after the film’s producer Val Lewton who became a major name for his work with RKO. The Lewton Bus is when a tense moment of anticipated action is brought down by a sort of fake out. In this movie, it’s when Alice is walking alone at night while being trailed by Irena who is fired up and ready to pounce. You’re finally ready to see the cat transformation that the movie has been teasing, and you hear a startling hiss sound, only to find that the sound came from a bus pulling up on the street corner. It’s a technique that has become so dull today in the age of cheap jump scares, but it’s definitely neat to see this technique develop for the first time. Cat People almost seems to do it better than contemporary horror because it builds up tension for almost the entire movie, and the fake-out seems more rewarding because of this commitment to suspense.
When you look at other horror movies of the 30s and 40s, most of them seem to be sequels – reboots of the same handful of monsters that audiences had come to love. Some things never change I suppose, but Cat People does the impressive by bringing an entirely new concept and finding great success with it. Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, The Mummy – these are movies about a creature. Cat People is a movie about people. While the evil curse stuff is pretty prominent and honestly not that terrifying, the script doesn’t wallow in the horror in the way that these other movies might. It keeps it lingering as the characters are fleshed out and face personal conflicts of their own, until these two sides finally meet in a gratifying conclusion. The commercialization of horror movies today seems to do away with this sort of formula, focusing more on special effects and constant scares. You can’t really get invested in characters the same way anymore, and horror plots have often just become a framing device for jump scares. It’s probably the greatest lesson I learned from watching Cat People, and I’d love to see this slower approach brought to horror movies today. I think a movie like It Follows from 2015 was getting there, but this could definitely go further.
While it may have a silly title, Cat People shouldn’t be dismissed as an old campy horror flick. There are some really cool ideas about subtlety and suspense that could be polished off for a clever new script today. The characters are surprisingly complex, and I was really impressed at the depth achieved by a movie called Cat People. It’s not scary in the sense that you’ll be screaming; it’s more that you’ll be terribly uncomfortable for a really long time, and I think that’s much harder to achieve.
Films Left to Watch: 953