By Bob Deakin
Do you like cats? A lot of people do, but not many are cat people, especially not like those in the 1942 film.
If you’ve never seen or heard of it, don’t feel bad. It’s obscure, although it did well at theaters in its day. It was a low-budget production by RKO Radio Pictures and re-released in the 50s. Distributed again on video in the 80s, it gained a cult following and continues to do so.
It’s referred to as a horror film, but it’s the anti-horror film, at least as the term is known today.
The film tells the story of Irena, a young, pretty woman from Serbia, who learns that she descends from a bloodline of “cat people,” who transform into black panthers when agitated.
Imagine the possibilities.
She immediately becomes jealous when her new husband, Oliver - who she doesn’t seem interested in anyway - falls in love with his co-worker, Alice. Irena is not happy and begins to stalk her.
You can figure where this goes but what makes the film special is the implied violence. It’s in black and white and shadows are used to optimum effect. You know when something bad is about to happen and it does, but it happens in the shadows, and your imagination can be a lot scarier than what you’re seeing on screen.
Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, they give you glimpses of horror with light and shadows. It is brilliantly captured by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and beautifully underscored by Roy Webb. Lewton was largely responsible for everything behind the project.
Even when the action is peaceful you can never relax. This is most evident in a scene where Irena and Oliver are celebrating with friends at a restaurant and Irena is confronted by another woman (Elizabeth Russell) who exposes her as a fellow cat-woman and says so in Serbian “Moia sestra” (my sister) with a frightening stare before storming off.
The woman’s laser-beam gaze is as scary as anything in the film (not the pic below but close).
The most suspenseful scene is when Alice is walking home one night through Central Park and is stalked by Irena. She walks faster and faster, hearing footsteps behind her, letting fear get the best of her. When the footsteps subside we hear a panther growl and hissing sound (movie-goers must have been on the edge of their seats) that simultaneously occurs with the jarring arrival of a city bus, on which Alice quickly jumps.
The bus driver looks at her and says “You look as if you'd seen a ghost!”
“Did you see it?” she replies.
The bus drives away and the audience is left with a shot of swaying branches in the dark.
Irena later turns into a panther and kills her psychiatrist when he makes a pass at her. We see giant shadows of the horrible struggle between the panther and the doctor projected onto the walls, and the details are left to your imagination.
It goes downhill from there for Irena and it doesn’t end well for the cat woman, although we never really know what happened. Once again, it’s left to your imagination.
Had this film been made in 2021 Irena would kill her psychiatrist with an ax, throw his body in an SUV filled with dynamite, roll it off a cliff as it explodes then calmly walk away with a blank look as we see the flames behind her, underscored by an electronic beat.
You have to kill them a bit more these days.
If you ever watch Cat People, turn down the lights and turn up your imagination. It moves quick so be ready for the action when it happens, and be ready to figure out what you just saw, or didn't see.