31 Days of Hell: Cat People

The 31 Days of Hell now brings you a review the 1942 feature, Cat People.

"I'm not fully naked under this water."
Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 classic horror film Cat People is astonishingly ahead of its time that still manages to unnerve in unexpected ways and provides further proof that sometimes the best scares are created by what you hear as opposed to see.  Stylized as horror noir in glorious 40s black-and-white film, Cat People follows Irena (Simone Simon), a Serbian fashion designer who marries a marine engineer named Oliver (Kent Smith) who finds herself unable to love him back out of an irrational fear she may transform into a panther when her passions are aroused.  Subtle clues throughout the film seem to suggest this quirky femme may in fact be a feline, notably when she enters a pet store and the animals react violently.  She encounters a strange woman who calls her a ‘sister’ while being tormented by recurring thoughts of panthers.  Though Oliver tries to play it her way, the burden becomes too much to bear and he begins an affair with one of his co-workers, sparking Irena’s jealous rage and violent feral tendencies. 

The best horror films refrained from using music to inform the audience, and Cat People because of this approach.  Relying more heavily on natural sounds, dark shadows and characters walking down isolated hallways, the classic old dark house trope is exploited to delicious effect here.  Cat People even features a jump scare, rarely seen in films from that era, with the volume escalating to an ear piercing level as the protagonist is startled by something neither cat nor human in form.  Equally effective is the timing, drawing out the preamble to an attack to build tension and fear with many extended takes of uncomfortably dead air.  Part of the charm that is Cat People are the red herrings, teasing viewers with potential scares that never happen by depicting a character entering a room where terror surely should strike.  With almost all the tools of Hollywood melodrama at play, Cat People even provides an animated dream sequence, involving us in Irena’s surreal cat fantasies eating away at her stability. 

"I came here looking for crack
and all I found was two
male hookers and a rancid
bucket of chicken."
As with any film pushing the envelope, Cat People was derided by critics as nothing more than prurient exploitation.  From the presses, Cat People was deemed a failure until ticket sales prompted critics to rethink their reviews.  Not every point taken against Cat People was necessarily wrong however, as the leading male Oliver conveniently overlooks for the sake of the script what is painfully obvious to the audience regarding Irena’s ruse.  The stereotypical cigarette-smoking psychiatrist analyzing Irena’s peculiar behavior, speaking in hushed tones with a sense of prowess, unintentionally manages with his scenes to achieve a quiet hilarity.  Still, one is taken aback by how well the scares hold up today.  The sequence where the panther footprints on the pavement slowly morph back into high heel shoes is still as unnerving today as it was then.  While most filmgoers admit difficulty in taking elder thriller tactics with a straight face, it is telling and revelatory that Cat People’s code of silence as a tool of anticipation may in fact have preceded Alfred Hitchcock after all. 

-Andrew Kotwicki