RKO studios had had a huge hit with KING KONG in 1933, but had otherwise mostly left the monster business to other studios.
Then, in the early 1940s, RKO writer-producer Val Lewton was charged with giving Universal some competition by producing a series of modestly budgeted chillers, with fairly sensational audience-tested titles like CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.
But Lewton, who set about polishing scripts and hiring directors, was a man of taste and deep literary sensibility. His RKO horrors have earned a special place in the history of the genre. Lurid titles aside, the films deal with sophisticated, real-world characters with real-world emotional problems, whose lives are touched by the dark and fantastic.
Horror expert Greg Mank quotes one of Lewton’s directors, Mark Robson, as likening Universal’s more full-blooded horror aesthetic to the image of “a werewolf chasing a girl in a nightgown up a tree.”
In contrast, Lewton wanted to produce films in which the monsters seldom showed themselves. Shadow and suggestion would prevail, along with a kind of moody fatalism, which seem to put Lewton’s films in company with film noir. Literate dialogue would abound.
CAT PEOPLE, directed with great mood and sensitivity by Jacques Tourneur, was Lewton’s first chiller and possibly his best. It starts off as a touching Manhattan romance between shy Serbian artist Irena (Simone Simone) and architect Oliver (Kent Smith).
The two fall in love and marry, but something prevents Irena from consummating their relationship. She’s haunted by dark myths from her native land, fearing that an ancestral curse will unleash something lethal in her if she allows her passions to be aroused.
Despite the fairy tale trappings, we’re presented with a rather adult subject for a 40s horror film, as much about failed trust and communication in a troubled marriage as it is about monsters. Oliver tries to be patient, but soon turns for solace to his coworker, Alice (Jane Randolph), who can’t hide the fact that she loves him.
Irena becomes jealous, and her unspoken desire to rid herself of her romantic rival leads to the film’s most chilling scenes, in which an unseen predator stalks Alice. Director Tourneur uses modern settings to stage his eerie scenes. In one famous sequence, Alice takes refuge in a swimming pool, as we sense and hear a feline menace lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce.
Perhaps we’re meant to make up our own minds as to whether Irena actually transforms into a cat creature, or whether her trouble is all in her mind, although a few literal shots of a prowling panther seem to support the former hypothesis.
Irena is a sad and touching figure, and her story ends tragically, as do so many horror tales, but Oliver and Alice survive to remember her.
Melancholy as the ending is, the film was a huge success for RKO. Val Lewton and his imaginative team would continue to turn out subtly gripping shockers for the next few years. “Lewtonesque” remains a term used by cinema enthusiasts to describe any film or scene that achieves a frightening effect via shadow, mood and suggestion.
“Now, you’ve told me something of the past, about King John and the witches in the village and the Cat People who descended from them. They’re fairy tales, Irena, fairy tales heard in your childhood, nothing more than that. They have nothing to do with you, really. You’re Irena, you’re here in America. You’re so normal you’re even in love with me, Oliver Reed, a good plain Americano. You’re so normal you’re gonna marry me, and those fairy-tales, you can tell ’em to our children. They’ll love ’em.” — Oliver
“She never lied to us.” — Oliver’s mournful elegy for Irena
- Director Jacque Tourneur would go on to direct the noir classic, OUT OF THE PAST, as well as the 50s supernatural thriller, CURSE OF THE DEMON.
- Today’s “jump scares” in horror films may be said to descend from a scene in CAT PEOPLE in which Alice is startled by the hiss of a bus’s brakes. This sudden scare technique was long known as a “bus” in tribute to CAT PEOPLE.
- In the poetic but less frightening follow up, 1944’s CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, Irena appears either as a ghost or the imaginary friend of Amy, the little girl who’s the daughter of Oliver and Alice, who ended up getting married.
“If only it was the picture who was to grow old, and I remain young. There’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t give for that. Yes, I would give even my soul for it.”