Wednesday, October 31, 2007

X-Ray Spex Horror Movie Marathon: CAT PEOPLE

It isn't as scary as THE SHINING. It's not as groundbreaking as PSYCHO. It's not as epic as DAWN OF THE DEAD, as transgressive as LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET or as startling as FREAKS. But I'd pick CAT PEOPLE -- the 1943 Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur version, of course -- as my favorite horror movie of all time. And I'd be the first to admit that it's deeply personal, not necessarily logical choice -- mostly because I'm not even sure if it's really a horror film.

In fact, on one level, it's a very human (and, for 1943, very adult) drama: An All-American guy (Kent Smith, playing a character named, oddly enough, Oliver Reed) meets an attractive young Serbian fashion designer at the Central Park Zoo (Simone Simon as Irena Dubrovna). Irena tells him a strange little bit of folklore about her homeland, involving villagers who turned into cats. Oliver laughs it off, but it's obvious Irena takes this story very seriously. In fact, though they fall in love and get married, Irena's fear of what might be unleashed during a moment of passion keeps them apart, even on their wedding night. Before they retire for the night -- to separate bedrooms -- Irena says "I want to be Mrs. Reed, really. I want to be everything that name means to me. And I can't. I can't. Oliver, be kind, be patient. Let me have time. Time to get over that feeling there's something evil in me."

Pretty mature material for a 1943 film, but one of the strengths of CAT PEOPLE is that it treats its characters with intelligence and maturity. Irena's not some monster, and Oliver's not some villager with a pitchfork. The script (by Dewitt Bodeen) has enough sensitivity to make you care about both characters, and shows that they care about each other. There's a haunting shot of Irena kneeling next to her door, ready to claw through it as the snow falls outside -- but knowing she can't. Because if she lost control, the next thing she'd claw through would be Oliver.

CAT PEOPLE isn't all subdued drama, though. There are some genuine scares in this movie -- two of them involving Irena and "the other woman," Oliver's All-American co-worker, Alice (Jane Randolph). In the most famous one, Alice walks home alone past Central Park, followed by Irena. Alice gets more and more nervous as she hear footsteps behind her. The tension continues to build until, in a brilliant bit of sound editing, we think we hear the hiss of a cat -- but no, it's just a city bus pulling up to the curb. (The moment was so effective that producer Val Lewton referred to the technique as "a bus" and used variations of it in other movies.)

It's a great scene -- one of the best in horror film history, in fact -- and it ends on a genuinely disturbing note. We see quick cuts of the cats in the zoo (still caged) then some sheep, with three of them lying on the ground, dead. Cut to shots of muddy panther tracks slowly turning into high-heel prints on the sidewalk, then pan up to Irena, standing under a streetlight, slightly dazed, a handkerchief pressed to her lips.

The second bit of suggested terror comes when Alice heads down to a basement pool for a late-night swim. She hears the roar of a cat, so she dives into the pool, obviously hoping it's true that cats don't like water. As she treads water and tries to remain calm, we see -- well, we don't really see anything -- just some ominous shadows mixed with the reflection of the water on the walls. It's still nerve-wrackingly tense, though, and when Alice screams, we're relieved when the lights come on. Relief vanishes when we see who flipped on the lights: Irena, looking as innocent as can be. (Once she leaves, Alice discovers her robe has been slashed to ribbons.)

At this point, when a lesser movie would dive headfirst into horror territory, CAT PEOPLE still maintains its essential humanity. Even with a pair of not-so-veiled threats on her life, Alice doesn't want Irena hunted down. She and Oliver (now admitting they're in love) want Irena to get the psychiatric help they believe she needs. In fact, Oliver is willing to have her committed even knowing it means he can't divorce her and be with Alice.

Throughout its short running time (it's only 73 minutes long), CAT PEOPLE continues to focus on characters who seem to live in the real world where people aren't monsters to be destroyed but human beings with genuine, sometimes tragic problems. There's little doubt that Irena's stories are true, that she really does become a deadly panther when she loses control of her emotions. But to Oliver, a nice guy who's too levelheaded to believe in that sort of superstitious nonsense, Irena is a woman who needs medical help. The fact that he's wrong -- almost fatally wrong, as it turns out -- doesn't mean he's a bad guy.

The movie's third great scene of tension (one that's talked about a lot less than the previous two) comes when Oliver and Alice are working late at the ship construction company. When the phone rings but no one answers, Alice realizes it's probably Irena and suggests they leave before she arrives. But it's too late. The door is locked and something is in the room with them. In a beautifully shot sequence, with the light coming from the drafting tables, Oliver and Alice are backed into a corner by a snarling panther. Finally realizing it really is his wife, Oliver begs "Leave us, Irena," but the cat keeps stalking them. Then, proving he is willing to cling to some old beliefs after all, he pulls down a T-square and says "In the name of God, leave us, Irena." And she does.

Come to think of it, there is one monster in CAT PEOPLE, but it's not Irena. It's Dr. Louis Judd (played by Tom Conway, who played a much nicer character with the same name in Val Lewton's THE SEVENTH VICTIM.) An arrogant, somewhat cruel man, he thinks he can bully Irena into acting normal, and even tries to force himself on her sexually. And that's when we finally see Irena let down her guard and allow her emotions to run loose. She knows what sort of person Dr. Judd is, and she knows exactly what she'll do to him. And that pleases her. It even seems to turns her on...

Judd gets what's coming to him, and Irena succumbs to her fate, too. It's a sad ending, but an inevitable one, and all the characters are true to themselves as the final scene fades out. I've written several times this month about how shocking it can be to see an old movie that's bolder, or more terrifying, or more explicit than you ever would've expected. I've seen CAT PEOPLE at least a dozen times (I just watched it again Tuesday, in fact) and what amazes me is how smart it is. I wish all movies -- not just horror movies -- could be more like this truly great little film.

Watch it: Thankfully, CAT PEOPLE was released two years ago as part of Warner Bros. excellent Val Lewton collection. The disc includes not only the original trailer, interview excerpts with Simone Simon and commentary from horror expert Greg Mank, but it also includes CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, the excellent 1944 sequel. It's a completely different sort of movie, but has the same intelligence and humanity as the original. Plus, Irena finally seems to have achieved some sort of peace.

Trivia note: The actor who plays Oliver's co-worker Doc Carver is Alan Napier, better known as Alfred on the 1960s BATMAN TV show.

Coming tomorrow: I take a day or two break from blogging -- because, after 31 days and 31 horror movies, this is, at long last ...


Alonzo the Armless said...

Great series, Will. Thanks for taking the time for it.

And great movie to end it with.

By the way, I recently watched THE FOUNTAINHEAD for the first time and was pleasantly surprised to see Kent Smith in that too, and doing a decent job too.

Anonymous said...

Will, great series of pieces this past month; i've enjoyed reading them all. Great writing on some interesting films. It's good to see a writer discuss a subject with interest and knowledge. I definitely think you've got a non-fiction book on film in you.


Mack said...

This was a great series, Will. Thanks for taking the time and energy to make it as great as it was.

I agree with your thoughts on "Cat People" as its pretty damned great. Another scene I enjoyed was when the woman walked up to the dinner table and had that weird moment with Irena. Great stuff.

David López said...


I like this film too, but what I liked the most was that the bad guys were her husband and his lover... it's that classic "She wasn't the real monster", I liked the hipocresy background to the incestuous couple, really advanced for its time and is something too brave for our times...


rob! said...

great series, will, i enjoyed it very much. and those stills from Sh! The Octopus will haunt my dreams.

and i can't believe i guessed (partly) right yesterday!

Chris Sims said...

You know, for some reason I already had the idea that you liked this movie.

Seriously, though: What a great month's worth of posts! Excellent job, sir, and a Happy Halloween to you.

Shon Richards said...

Thank you very much for this marathon. It's been a busy month and these reviews have turned me on to a few films I wouldn't have made time for.

Will Pfeifer said...

Hey gang, thanks for all the kind comments. Even though, sometimes when finishing one of these entries was all that stood between me and finally hitting the sack I'd wonder why I agreed to a movie a day, in the end I'm glad I did it,and I'm even more glad you kids enjoyed reading it. Happy Halloween to one and all, and tune in sometime in mid December -- when I'm considering doing a (shorter) version of this all over again.

Tom the Dog said...

On a previous recommendation from you (and that of many others -- including the Val Lewton strip in Ivan Brunetti's last issue of Schizo), I made a point of watching this film when it was on TCM a few weeks ago. And you're absolutely right -- so smart, so chilling, so well crafted. You pretty much never see anything explicitly horrific, but it still sent shivers down my spine. What a treat.