Cat People, 1942, 73 minutes, B/W, RKO Radio Pictures, Directed by Jacques Tourneur, produced by Val Lewton, Starring Simone Simon as Irena Dubrovna, Kent Smith as Oliver Reed, Tom Conway as Dr. Louis Judd and Jane Randolph as Alice Moore. Schlock-Meter rating: 8 and 1/2 stars out of 10.
Val Lewton's Cat People is a horror film that only works if a viewer uses his or her imagination. Those who are too lazy to think while watching a film will go away unimpressed with Cat People. Others, who use their intellect, will be pleased. The scare scenes are deliberately underplayed, and mood, tension and film noir is used to create a creepy sensation of dread and terror in this tale of a young beauty who turns deadly beast when her passion, or anger, is aroused.
Here's the plot: A bachelor architect named Oliver (Smith) becomes infatuated with a shy Serbian-born beauty named Irena (Simon). They first meet at a zoo, where she's sketching a panther. They fall in love and are married. There's just one hitch. His young bride refuses to make love with him, or even kiss him. Also, animals seems to hate her. At first, Oliver bears this with the patience of a saint. However, the lack of intimacy leads him to a romance with Alice (Randolph) a co-worker and longtime friend. In an effort to help Irena overcome her fear of intimacy, a semi-creepy psychiatrist (Conway) is hired to help treat her.
Simon as Irena is a talented actress who manages to convey helplessness with her fate with a sinister malice when aroused by anger. In what is definitely the most chilling scene, Irena -- angry at seeing Alice and Oliver together, follows Alice to an indoor pool. In the dark natatorium, Alice hears the growls of a panther. She dives into the pool, and eventually shrieks in terror as snarls and ripping sounds are heard. When others come to help and the lights are turned on, there is only the petite Irena, with a look of satisfied menace on her face. Also, when the psychiatrist Dr. Judd tries to seduce Irena, it leads to fatal results.
Cat People is not a perfect film. The extramarital romance between Oliver and Alice seems rushed and forced. If these two have worked together for years, why didn't the sparks fly earlier? Also, Oliver doesn't seem to try very hard to enjoy conjugal pleasures with his pretty bride, despite her protests. Not enough background is provided to Irena's previous life in a Serbian village which supposedly led to her present state of woman/animal.
Still, this is a must see for cult film fans. It's strength is what it leaves to the imagination, rather than what it provides on the screen. It's far superior to a 1980s re-make-in-name-only that bathed viewers in sex and gore. A sequel, Curse of the Cat People, was released in 1948.
-- Doug Gibson