Cat People

Day Ten of the 2010 Silver Shamrock Happy Halloween Countdown!

Happy Halloween Countdown Day Ten Cat People:
When I was a boy, I didn’t think much of RKO’s Cat People.  I know that makes me sound like a total philistine.  I preferred Universal’s The Wolf  Man, which is less talking and more monster time.  I wasn’t able to see the parallels between The Wolf Man’s Larry Talbot and Cat People’s Irena Dubrovna at the time,  because I was a kid and kids generally don’t make those sort of connections.  All I wanted to see was monsters.  Later, as a young adult, I would revisit the classic horror films of the 1930s and 1940’s with fresh eyes.  What made The Wolf Man compelling to me as an adult wasn’t the fur-covered mayhem, but rather the inevitable doom of Larry Talbot, skillfully played by Lon Chaney Jr.  That theme of Talbot’s curse and his increasing desperation to escape, even at the cost of his own life, is the most gripping plot line  running through Universal’s classic monster cycle.  It’s that melancholy flavor that made Universal’s werewolf movies great instead of merely good.

Cat People takes the idea of a sympathetic but cursed shape-shifter and ups the ante by dispensing with  brute physical horror and complex make-up, and focuses instead on the idea of evil coming into inevitable and unstoppable bloom, devouring an innocent young woman.  Cat People is filled to the brim with subtext, none of it the sort of thing I would have picked up on as a kid.  Subtle horror films rarely get made and Cat People is subtle; it’s a horror film for grownups.

The story revolves around Irena, an immigrant from Serbia, who meets Oliver, a marine engineer, while sketching a panther at the zoo.  Irena, a very lonely woman, is delighted by Oliver, who feels drawn to her, but she is also afraid.  She carries a dreadful curse handed down through the generations in her native village stemming from a horrible evil, perpetrated long ago.  Oliver, having none of that, reassures her that everything will be fine.  Irena is not so sure.

Though Cat People is a slow, continuous burn, there is no feeling that you are waiting for a pay off.    The first ingredient is good writing.  Consider Pulp Fiction, a movie about mobsters in LA driving around town talking about hamburgers and foot massages.   It works because Quentin Tarantino populates his films with interesting characters and gives them interesting dialogue; even incidental characters are fleshed out.    The same is true of  Cat People, even incidental characters such as the waitress in the coffee shop, the zoo keeper sweeping the sidewalk, the lady who cleans the office building where  Oliver works, are all given personality.

The characters draw you into the story and the actors are all up to the challenge, especially Simone Simon as Irena.  Her performance might very well be the strongest performance by any woman in a horror film – ever.     While rest of the cast is great, this is totally Simon’s film.  I could watch her all day long. I’d point out examples, but that would be spoilery.

The final component is visual.  Instead of worrying about showing monsters, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur created a film where each scene is visually interesting, filled with subtle touches ranging from interesting objects stashed about the sets that echo the storyline (look for the painting with cats in Irena’s apartment) to the use of shadow and light to create scenes of horror (the pool scene, for example).

It’s not that I’m suggesting that the Val Lewton way of making a horror film is the necessarily the best way but I do feel that it’s incredibly effective when done well. A critical and popular success in its day, sixty years later, it still gets people talking.

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