In 1942, the new RKO production head Charles Koerner launched a B-unit devoted exclusively to horror films. To run the unit he hired Val Lewton, a writer working for David O. Selznick, who would go on to produce consistently cheap and profitable films during a particularly rocky period in the studio’s history. The first and best remembered of these films was Cat People, shot quickly in 24 days for a mere $147,000. Koerner remarked to Lewton that in horror films “nobody has done much with cats,” and said he had audience tested the title Cat People to positive results. “Let’s see what you two can do with that,” he told Lewton and writer DeWitt Bodeen.1
From that title the two—along with director Jacques Tourneur and editor Mark Robson2—developed a story of a Serbian woman (Simone Simon) terrified of intimacy with her new American husband (Kent Smith). She fears not for herself but him; she believes a legend that her family is descended from a race of cat people, who turn into violent animals when aroused.
The filmmakers wring a lot of tension—both sexual and violent—out of the premise in a brief 73 minutes, and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca helps distract from the cheap sets and actors with compellingly moody cinematography. Tourneur and Musuraca cleverly hid most appearances of their monster in the shadows, causing an effect similar to that of Jaws. “I’ll tell you a secret,” Lewton would later explain to the LA Times, “if you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want!”3 There are several standout sequences where that technique is exploited, but the buildup to them struggles more with very talky scenes that rely too heavily on the subpar cast. While the themes aren’t as risky and interesting as those in Cat People, Tourneur and Musuraca would collaborate again later that decade with the noir classic Out of the Past, ultimately a far better showcase of their talents. Despite its flaws Cat People still feels like a minor miracle—the peaks may be limited, but they’re higher than anything on such a tiny budget should be.
Despite executives’ dissatisfaction with it, the film was a surprise hit, one of the few to save RKO from bankruptcy at the end of a difficult few years for the studio.4 The success led to both a sequel in 1944 and a remake in 1982, but neither would come to eclipse the power of the original Cat People.
Where to Watch
Stream it on Warner Archive
For More on Cat People
Watch the Trailer
References [ + ]
|1.||^||Joel E. Siegel, Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror (New York: Viking Press, 1973), 27.|
|2.||^||Chris Fujiwara, Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (New York: McFarland, 1998), 72.|
|3.||^||Joel E. Siegel, Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror (New York: Viking Press, 1973), 32.|
|4.||^||Joel E. Siegel, Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror (New York: Viking Press, 1973), 38.|