An absolute classic horror film that uses subtle techniques, lighting, and sound to make for a very effective early terror ride.
A Serbian woman is haunted by the dark history of her ancestors as she struggles with love and a new marriage in New York City. Let’s dig into 1942’s CAT PEOPLE, directed by Jacques Tourneur!
As I See It
It’s hard to call a film that makes every “…must see before you die” list hidden. Getting the Criterion treatment also should be a trait that eliminates a film from my purview, at least regarding this column. I’m going to break those rules, however, for an old film that maybe you’ve heard of but never bothered to search out and watch.
Not every eighty-year-old film will translate for a contemporary audience. But this film, much like a timeless literary tale, stands up thanks to clever filmmakers and a studio taking a chance (albeit begrudgingly) on a “horror” to compete with the Universal monsters.
What we end up with, thanks to the prowess of director Jacques Tourneur and the skill of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, is nothing short of genre-defining.
Tricks were used here that set a standard for future genre filmmakers to rely on.
Not enough money to show the monster? Keep it in the shadows. This technique, born of necessity, ends up being more effective anyway, as the audience’s imagination is darker and scarier than any monster you could put on the screen.
There is actually quite a bit of depth to the story as well.
We have grown out of the simple romance tale that is the beat line through the film, and none of the ancient lore discussed would stand up to any type of research or a basic google search. But it shows a lot of imagination, and I can appreciate the foreshadowing and commitment to the character.
A dear friend suggested I revisit this film, and I’m glad I listened because it reaffirmed my love for a genre outside of my normal proclivity to choose some eighties gore.
Kent Smith (Oliver) played Dr. Thorne in the 1978 horror Die, Sister, Die! which features one of my favorite posters.
Jane Randolph (Alice) starred in the classic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Tom Conway (Dr. Judd) starred in a few other early genre films, including another Tourneur film, I Walked With A Zombie, and a couple of Edward L. Cahn films: The She-Creature and Voodoo Woman.
Of Gratuitous Nature
I imagine the bath scene was provocative for the time period. Showing some nude back? Oh, my. I think the most gratuitous of aspects, though, is using a romantic tryst as the catalyst for the story. It’s too much “low-hanging fruit” for me, but I understand the boundaries filmmakers were operating within during that era.
There is a dedication to sound and sound design in this film that is unique for film in general.
The other technique used with expert execution is lighting and darkness. Darkness is usually the enemy of a cinematographer, but Nicholas Musurasca is able to play with it in such a beautiful and terrifying way.
Shadows are usually averted, but here they are embraced. Especially in the pool scene. The dancing of light and shadow with the panther lurking is incredibly effective.
Ripe for a Remake
It was remade in 1982 by Paul Schrader (the writer of Taxi Driver) and starred Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell.
But perhaps the most famous element of that remake is the theme song “Putting out the Fire” — a David Bowie track featured in the climax of Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus, Inglourious Basterds, and was written by french legend Giorgio Moroder.
The financial success of this film, which RKO executives had no faith in originally, created space for not only a sequel (The Curse of the Cat People) but a prequel (The Seventh Victim), which featured the Doctor Judd character once again portrayed by Tom Conway.
Where to Watch
As part of the Criterion Collection you know there are going to be some solid extras included. A feature-length documentary of producer Val Lewton. Old interviews with director Jacques Tourneur and a new interview with the cinematographer as well as a fresh 2k scan. Cat People is currently streaming on HBO Max.