“Is simplicity best
The narrowest path
Is always the holiest
So walk on barefoot for me
Suffer some misery
If you want my love”
- Martin L. Gore, “Judas”
It’s kind of nuts how well that opening verse from Depeche Mode’s 1993 album track “Judas” so fits what is going on with director Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past) and producer Val Lewton’s 1942 black-and-white horror film Cat People. It’s not just thematically accurate, but it’s also descriptive of the aesthetic technique. Cat People is about as unfussy a film as there has ever been. It’s the perfect example of how a filmmaker can effectively stoke the audience imagination by showing less, rather than more.
But it all starts with a script, and DeWitt Bodeen’s screenplay is itself spare. There isn’t much plot here. A young man meets a young woman at the zoo, and a romance is ignited. Oliver (Kent Smith) is intrigued by the pretty lass who is sketching cats outside the panther cage. Played by French movie star Simone Simon (La bête humaine [review], La ronde [review]), Irena is a strange girl, a Serbian immigrant who clings to folklore from the old country. Specifically, that once upon a time her people were vanquished by a righteous King, and those who escaped his wrath scattered across the world, their wickedness taking feline form. Even after they are married, Irena keeps Oliver at arm’s length, believing should they so much as kiss, she will transform into a leopard and tear her husband apart.
At first Oliver indulges these fantasies, but once he starts to worry she is taking these fables too seriously, he connects Irena with Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), who doesn’t believe these supernatural tales, but may not be on the up-and-up, either. And adding to this love quadrangle is Oliver’s co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph), that annoying sort of do-gooder who tamps down her own desires to make sure that the man she wants does what is right. Too bad she didn’t figure for the complicated, sociopathic emotional range of a jealous kitten.
Much of Cat People smolders slowly. In the early stages of their union, Irena’s wild stories don’t carry much threat. That’s because Tourneur withholds anything that would concretely suggest her claims are more than delusion. He ties the revelations of Irena’s truth to her jealousy. The more heated she gets about Alice, the closer we get to seeing her claws come out. In many ways, this little monster movie is a modern stalker story, the good guy unable to shake the troubled woman, and she strikes out at the one who would replace her.
Yet, that in itself is maybe too simple a reading. For as little as goes on above the surface, plenty can be gleaned from what lies underneath. Bubbling through all of this is a commentary on puritanical values, and particularly how they affect young women. Irena’s fear of her own sexuality is only warranted if her beliefs turn out to be true, but she has good reason to be scared of the masculine sex, and her fighting back against Dr. Judd is inarguably a justified defense. Here is a man in a position of trust who betrays the social contract. In the #metoo era, many might also gravitate to the fact that Irena is not believed, and that prevents her from finding a less deadly solution or obtaining real help. Wrapped up in all this, we can see a certain xenophobia, as well: Irena is different, and perhaps if she had embraced a more modern American lifestyle and been more like Alice, she’d be more comfortable in her own skin. Which is somewhat contrary to the beliefs of the time, but Hollywood was always progressive in its morals.
Good horror should be malleable in this way and stay relevant to contemporary issues, but I suspect Tourneur and Lewton were less high-minded than all that. Their primary focus was more likely just to scare filmgoers, and they seized upon relatable primal urges to create a vehicle for that. Most of the frights here are more unnerving than terrifying--though there is one pretty good jump scare, where the orchestra provides a screechy sound effect when the bus pulls in to pick up a nervous Alice*--but that’s okay. Tourneur is experimenting with the horror of the things that exist just beyond the reach of our senses--the things we can’t see, but think we do; the things we aren’t sure we hear. One of the most effective scenes is when Judd gets his comeuppance. Irena’s transformation happens entirely off-screen, but the doctor’s reaction tells us all we need to know--even if once again we only think we know what he is seeing. The tussle itself appears merely as shadows cast on walls, including one with a mural of a menacing panther (lest we forget, Irena is a cat!). We hear more than we see. Same with the earlier scene when Alice is at the pool. The echoes of her screams are more chilling than anything that might jump into the water with her.
It’s underkill, not overkill. It’s simplicity. Compare how light on its feet this Cat People is to Paul Schrader’s overdone, moronic 1980s remake for a quick object lesson in why less is more.
Or skip Schrader altogether and go with something more akin to a middle ground: the 1944 “sequel” The Curse of the Cat People, recently re-released on Blu-ray by Kino. In terms of follow-ups, Curse is in the vein of The Bride of Frankenstein for how it expands on the original and becomes its own weird thing. We can chalk some of that up to the movie originally being intended as a stand-alone feature with no connection to Cat People at all. It only morphed into a second entry in a series when Cat People became so successful.
Pretty much everyone except Tourneur returns for The Curse of the Cat People. Gunther V. Fritsch originally took charge of the director’s chair but himself was replaced by Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story). The new story features Jane and Oliver as the concerned parents of a young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), who lives more in her imagination than she does in the real world. There is further cause for worry when Amy befriends the disturbed neighborhood dowager (Julia Dean) and starts talking to an imaginary friend that just so happens to be Irena.
The “cat” aspect of Cat People is completely dropped for this realm of gothic childhood fantasy, but that doesn’t make The Curse of the Cat People any less compelling. The dilemma of a child who is at odds with the world around her being put into peril by both her fantastical indulgences and the adults who won’t believe her has an inherent tension that will keep you guessing what will happen, while also hoping it won’t all go wrong. Fritsch and Gunther have a more up-front style--does Elizabeth Russell chasing Amy up the staircase remind anyone else of Kathleen Byron coming unhinged in Black Narcissus [review]?--but that works here. This time, what is “unseen” is actually witnessed by the little girl, casting the doubters in a whole different light.
Criterion’s edition of Cat People features a great cover and interior poster by influential comics artist Bill Sienkiewicz. Fans of the TV show Legion tangentially know his work as he originally created the character with Chris Claremont. And their legendary run on the New Mutants comic series is an inspiration for the movie that should be out sometime in the next year or so. Sienkiewicz’s work changed how artists approached a comic book page, combining painting and digital in fascinating ways. Look for his Elektra: Assassin graphic novel with Frank Miller, his own Stay Toasters, or if you can find it, his Classics Illustrated version of Moby Dick.
* This effect of a scare coming from the arrival of an otherwise mundane object is known as a “Lewton bus,” and perhaps the most perfect use of it was in the episode of The Simpsons where the Psycho theme is being played by an orchestra riding public transport.