I've been hearing for years that I should check it out, and it was never my intention to avoid it, but it was never a priority. After mentioning it the other day, I put in a request at the local library and they came through in what must be record time.
I'm not even sure where to start with this movie. Plot summary, I guess, and we'll come back to my mystification later.
The film concerns Irena, a young, Serbian fashion designer who is drawing in the park when she meets an attractive, well-mannered architect named Oliver. She invites him home for tea, and Oliver asks her about a statue on her coffee table of a warrior on horseback holding aloft a cat which he has impaled on his sword.
"OMG WTF", he says.
"LOL IKR", she responds.
Kidding. She explains that it's King John, who rescued Serbia from the clutches of witches and satanists. The cat, she explains, represents evil. Most of the cultists were killed during John's cleansing rampage, but a few of them escaped into the mountains...
John and Irena conceive a great fondness for each other, and the two are eventually wed. In the meantime, it becomes clear that Irena is living with a lot of anxiety, particularly over the idea of cats. When John brings her a kitten, it hisses at her, and when they go to exchange it for a different pet, all of the animals in the shop become agitated. Privately, the shopkeeper tells John that the animals "seem to know who's not right, if you know what I mean." Irena takes this as proof that she is one of the "cat people", descended from the evil, Serbian cultists. Her anxiety prevents her from sleeping with her husband, so he suggests that she see a psychiatrist, but she takes little solace in the doctor's assistance. John develops his own anxieties about the marriage, and by the time Irena has overcome her issues, John is more interested in his assistant Alice.
I make this sound like mundane human drama, and it's almost presented that way, but soon Alice is being terrorized by unseen forces, and there always seems to be some large animal slinking around in the shadows. When Irena's doctor confesses his inappropriate feelings for her, the movie makes good on its poster tagline, "Kiss me and I'll claw you to death!"
This is a strange, dark movie which works unspools so carefully and so masterfully that we are plunged deep into nightmare long before we notice. It's a very quiet, suggestive film and works very slowly to build its atmosphere of dread. You could spend a long time analyzing its many layers of sexual imagery, and director Jacques Tourneur's careful manipulation of light and shadows (and people have). In my experience, however, the better a movie is, the more likely these things are to be unconscious choices. A quick look at Tourneur's resume (mostly low-budget B-pictures) suggests that he was less an auteur and more just a hack with a really good eye for visual composition. I don't mean to disparage Tourneur at all; Cat People deserves its reputation as a brilliant film.
The same goes for producer Val Lewton who wrote the story (but not the screenplay). Lewton worked as an uncredited screenwriter on Gone with the Wind, but generally his resume consists of horror movies with names like The Leopard Man and Isle of the Dead. Cat People managed to jump start Lewton's career at a time when he had fallen somewhat into disfavor in Hollywood. It also gave us the term "Lewton Bus", which I'd never heard before but have seen thousands of times: in one of the most suspenseful scenes of the movie, the silence is broken by the hiss of a panther which turns out instead to be an arriving bus. These days most people call this a "cat scare". Cat scares have a reputation for being cheap and manipulative, but done well--as in the scene I just described--they can be quite effective.
The actors also deserve a lot of credit. Simone Simon does a nice job of turning Irena's initial caution into a dangerous paranoia over the course of the movie, and Kent Smith shifts Oliver very gradually from optimism to unease.
There's a sequel which (apparently) is not a horror film, and a remake from 1982 which garnered good reviews. I'm curious, but not excited about either one of them; those movies were trying to be good, but Cat People is a rare happy accident that's much better than the movie the studio paid for.
Here's the trailer: