Halloween fast approaches us and so it’s time for another holiday themed “Lil Kitten Classic” review… this time out it’s the spooky 1942 classic “Cat People”.
Now I know you are all wondering… “Miyuki? You really mean you haven’t ever done a review for this one? How is that even possible?” It does sound somewhat silly for your Favorite horror movie lovin’ Catgirl Princess to have somehow missed this particular classic film here at the ol’ Litterbox, but we can fix that up right now, now can’t we!
Our synopsis goes like this: “Architect Oliver Reed falls in love with beautiful Irena Dubrovna and they duly marry. But Irena refuses to give herself to Oliver, believing that there is something evil inside herself. She tells him of her Serbian ancestors who were reputed to be able to transform into cats when angered.
As Oliver’s frustration and unhappiness grows, he seeks consolation in the arms of co-worker Alice Moore. But a series of near-attacks on the two of them leave him wondering if Irena has not become jealously deranged or if maybe her Serbian legends are true and that she is turning into a cat person to avenge herself on them.”
Oooooh! Mysterious girls from the Balkans that can turn themselves into man eating panthers!! I don’t remember exactly when lil’ Miyuki first encountered this one, but I do remember it was a truly creepy, truly different sort of horror movie and that I liked it a lot even way back then.
Does it still hold up today? I guess we’ll have to give it another watch and find out. Let’s go!
When I was a girl, it was still possible if you were so inclined, to spend quite a few precious hours watching oodles of classic black & white horror and scifi movies on Saturdays and Sundays…… one of the things that obviously helped to shape my fertile imagination and let me grow up into the somewhat quirky woman that I am today. It’s a shame that 500 channels and an almost pathological dislike of anything not in color, or inspired by a video game, or anything made over 20 years ago that prevents the current generation from the simple joy of many of these films not shown except on rare occasion anymore on mainstream TV. That’s a shame…. especially when you realize that today’s kids miss such wonderful gems like… “The Cat People”.
Made in 1942 by producer Val Lewton for RKO studios and directed by Jacques Tourneur, the film stars Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, and Tom Conway in a smart sophisticated tale of psychological horror with surprisingly adult sexual undertones for a film of it’s genre and era. Made for a tiny budget of only $141,659, it amazingly brought in nearly $4 million over the next two years and is credited with saving the studio from near financial disaster. Not bad for a little movie like this….. certainly good enough to spawn a sequel, “Curse of the Cat People” in 1944 as well as a more forgettable remake in 1982 starring Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell.
This one starts out in the ordinary everyday familiarity of the city zoo, as Serbian-born fashion designer Irena Dubrovna (played by french actress Simone Simon) spends her lunch hour making sketches of the zoo’s black panther. Pretty… and talented, she easily catches the eye of construction designer Oliver Reed (played by Kent Smith). Despite his attempts at witty small talk, he nearly blows it…. as Irena seems disinterested in his overtures. But eventually he lucks out when Irena reluctantly invites him back to her apartment for tea. But, ominously, as they walk away, one of Irena’s discarded sketches is shown to be of a panther impaled on a sword, a macabre foreshadowing of the things to come.
Back at her apartment, Oliver sees an antique statue, a crowned medieval figure on horseback impaling a cat upon a sword. Irena tells Oliver that the figure is of King John of Serbia and then tells him the folklore behind the image. According to her story, her ancestral village was located in a region once reputed to be the last hideout of a group of terrible Satan worshipers that were eventually wiped out by King John for their evil ways. However, “the wisest and the most wicked” of them managed to escape this fate, fleeing into the mountains where they are still supposed to be hiding today, modern bogeymen for Serbian children to fear. Something about this tale tells you Irena feels some secret shame for her ancestry which is tainted by the legends of these evil people, and it obviously makes her shy away from Oliver… but despite her feelings, she falls deeply in love with him, and he with her, leading to a whirlwind marriage….. but Oliver doesn’t know the true depths of her fear.
It eventually becomes clear that Irena really and truly believes herself to be descended from these wicked evil cultists, and that her greatest fear is that she will be transformed into a murderous black panther if ever deeply aroused by the emotions of passion, anger, or jealousy and kill any foolish enough to be near her. Not wanting to risk his life, she pathologically avoids sleeping with her new husband. Desperate to free her from this delusion, Oliver persuades her to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd, (played by Tom Conway). Rationally, the doctor tries to convince her that all those fears she has are less about old folk stories and more about the perfectly natural everyday fears of a sexually repressed and timid young woman confused about the desires she feels for the first time in her life.
Unfortunately, the whole situation is complicated when Oliver confides these sensitive marital problems to his attractive fellow co-worker, Alice Moore (played by Jane Randolph). Hurt and jealous of Alice, who obviously also has romantic feelings for Oliver, she feels betrayed…. provoking the curse to surface. Or does it? Alice feels threatened by an ominous presence while swimming alone in a pool. In the darkness, she seems to be stalked by a large animal, shown only by its lurking shadow. Only the safety of the water seems to keep the creature at bay and saves her life. After it leaves, Alice climbs out, beginning to wonder if she had imagined the whole thing. That is, until she finds her robe torn to shreds.
Eventually the stresses of all this tear the two apart, and Oliver tells her he wants a divorce. This is more than Irena can stand and she loses all control of the curse. Later on, while at work, Oliver and Alice are cornered by the terrible panther that is Irena. Thinking quickly, Oliver grabs his trusty T-square and wields it as a cross warding them from the evil that has possessed Irena and forces her to flee. After the panther leaves, they call Dr. Judd to try to warn him to avoid Irena, but he hangs up on them when she shows up seeking help. Attracted to her, the doctor makes the fatal mistake of trying to kiss her. She transforms into a panther before his very eyes and kills him, although he does manage to wound her first. When Oliver and Alice arrive a few minutes later, she slips away, having regained her control and regained her human form as well, and goes to the zoo. There, she opens the panther’s cage and lets it kill her to end the terror once and for all.
With it’s understated themes of repressed sexual desire expressing itself as a tangible and deadly destructive spirit, “Cat People” was pretty well ahead of it’s time in 1942… Lil’ Miyuki never picked up on any of that stuff….. it was just a neat variation on the old werewolf movie for me back then, but now I can say I really admire the clever way the whole plot is woven around that idea without once getting gratuitous or scandalous about it. It’s also a film that understands the idea of keeping much of the scary stuff just out of sight…. to great effect. I can definitely say it uses every one of it’s 73 minute running time, making it an easy film to watch and yet feel like it was complete and unhurried. Neko gives it 4 “Meows” out of 5 and if you’ve somehow missed it in the deluge of junk on your 500 cable channels or never once picked it up at the video store, you really, really ought to. They honestly don’t make them like this anymore……
Oooohhh!! There’s even a nifty Trailer available for this one too…. and here it is!