Hollywood producer Val Lewton was known for taking B-grade movie concepts handed to him by studio executives and elevating them to become more than the sum of their parts. Being both a taut psychological melodrama and highly effective chiller, Cat People is arguably Lewton’s best known and most lauded film. Its masterstroke lies in a constant awareness of its audience, using their expectations of its B-movie horror title to draw out the film’s tension.
The self-conscious foreshadowing, for example, when young Serbian fashion designer Irena (Simone Simon) sketches a caged panther, alerts audiences to her as the film’s villain, just as surely as Lon Chaney Jr. is doomed to become a werewolf in The Wolfman. But where The Wolfman invariably shows its hand to remove any ambiguity over Chaney’s lycanthropy, Cat People wilfully denies its audience the catharsis of seeing the monster, retaining the mystery of Irena’s supernatural feline nature. This ambiguity is played to marvellous effect in the film’s two standout set pieces.
The first, in which Alice (Jane Randolph), love rival to Irena, walks alone down a deserted lamp-lit street, is surely one of the greatest uses of sound in cinema, scored only by her high heels on the pavement. Coming in at around the halfway-point, both the audience and Alice are becoming seduced by Irena’s old-country superstitions, infusing an otherwise mundane scene with intangible menace. The combination of editing, clever framing and diegetic sound play on the audience’s nerves like over-tightened piano strings; the release comes with the terrifying roar, not of a panther, but of Lewton’s famed bus, lurching into frame with a sickening quickness that momentarily convinces us that Alice really has met her end in the claws of a monstrous feline.
The second sequence, set in a swimming pool, is not as iconic but is no less effective, using the reflected light of the water to distort Alice’s surroundings, culminating in Irena’s sinister appearance by the pool’s edge. Her costume and isolation in the pool effectively underscore her vulnerability, surely influencing, amongst others, the swimming motif of 2014’s It Follows.Cat People uses many of the tropes of the era’s horror cinema: the supernatural, fear of superstition and a fascination with the sophomoric field of early twentieth-century psychology.
Indeed, its similarities to Universal Picture’s more famous The Wolfman are obvious: both films raise questions over whether their transforming monsters are real or imagined, and both exploit fears and prejudice over Eastern European folklore. But where The Wolfman is a a fairgound ghost train, entertaining but ultimately shallow, Cat People is a true journey into the power of fear and belief, at once frightening, disturbing and psychologically complex.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell