47 Years of Student Run Cinema
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Jacquees Tourneur | USA | 1942 | 74 mins
USA | 1943 | 70 mins
You could almost learn all you needed to about the early history of the horror genre by selecting a studio and a key auteur for each decade. If the 1930s were Universal and James Whale and the 1950s Hammer and Terence Fisher, then the 1940s would be RKO and Val Lewton. Lewton is however unique in the horror pantheon.
Rather than being a director, he was a producer. Yet it is his personal stamp that we see across RKO's 11 horror films, not those of directors Jacques Tourneur (Cat People) Robert Wise (Curse of the Cat People) and Mark Robson. Unusually intelligent and literate (the inauspiciously titled I Walked with a Zombie is actually a transposition of Jane Eyre to a voodoo context) these little B' movies brilliantly relocated horror from the hokey Ruritania of the Universal films into an entirely credible modern world. Horror staples like witchcraft and lycanthropy became subjects for Freudian analysis rather than things to be taken at face value. In this and other respects, Lewton's films - particularly, perhaps, The Leopard Man - form a bridge between 30s horror and late 40s film noir. They also exerted an influence on Hitchcock, with Psycho borrowing from The Seventh Victim and The Birds from Cat People.
Cat People centres on young New York fashion designer Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon, whose feline beauty made her perfect for the part). Irena falls in love with and marries architect Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). But, troubled by fears that she is the descendant of a sect of evil Serbian witches who transform into giant cats when sexually aroused, Irena is reluctant to consummate their marriage. Understandably, Oliver says it's all in her mind and suggests that she should seek professional help. He also starts spending more and more time with his colleague Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) prompting Irena to think that he is having an affair and adding further fuel to fire her paranoia...
Cat People makes brilliant use of the power of suggestion. Except for one unequivocal shot of a black panther we are never quite sure if Irena is a victim of lycanthropy or simply of a mental illness that eventually brings about her death. (This commercial need to show the monster often plagued director Tourneur. In Curse of the Demon (1957) the titular demon's appearance in the opening sequence of the film means that we cannot but interpret the remaining 80 minutes - in which a sceptic who steadfastly refuses to believe in the curse placed upon him - as a race against time thriller rather than the interesting examination of belief and reaity it could have been.) Curse of the Cat People picks up the story a few years after Irena's death. Oliver has married Alice. They have a young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter). She is an awkward, socially isolated child who starts to create a fantasy world, in which Irena is her friend and protector and witches inhabit the old dark house next door. Needless to say, Oliver and Alice are concerned that Amy too has fallen victim to the Cat People's curse... As Henry James put it in The Turn of the Screw "No one will ever know whether children are monsters or monsters are children."
Often unjustly neglected in favour of its predecessor, The Curse of the Cat People is a great film in its own right, perhaps second only to the magical realist The Spirit of the Beehive as an evocation of the horrors of childhood.
Review by Keith H Brown
Taken from EUFS programme spring 2000