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With Halloween soon upon us, the lovely Maddy asked me to join her spooky blogathon. I decided to review the classic Cat People for my entry into this fine celebration of horror.

Film Title

Cat People

Director

Jacques Tourneur

Starring

  • Simone Simon as Irena
  • Kent Smith as Oliver Reed
  • Jane Randolph as Alice
  • Tom Conway as Dr. Louis Judd

A rightfully, highly regarded horror movie that champions lighting and atmosphere to create suspense, Cat People is much deserving of its classic status.

Serbian sketch artist Irena meets marine engineer Oliver Reed one day in Central Park Zoo while drawing a panther. The two enjoy a flirtation, yet Irena is hesitant to take events any further. Eventually, Oliver charms the shy Irena and after a courtship, they marry. Yet after they are married, she reveals a strange fear to Oliver. From childhood, she was aware of tales in her village of evil women who would turn into cats when feeling jealousy or experiencing passion. As a result, she is terrified to be intimate with Oliver and consummate their marriage. Oliver tries to support his wife, but her fears and sense of terror drive him away as he finds it harder to cope with the situation. He finds support in the form of work colleague Alice, who loves him more than just simply a friend. Irena is admitted to a psychologist, who tries to dispel her anxiety of what might happen if she is to be intimate with her husband. Yet even he is slightly curious as to why Irena has this fixation on the idea of her becoming a panther when jealousy or passion are about. But it may in fact be too late, as Irena becomes aware of Alice’s attraction to her husband. With jealousy aroused the results could be deadly. Or is it all just a delusion from the mind of Irena?

Jacques Tourneur is in the directing seat with the great producer Val Lewton also making a mark with this horror that’s all about the mind and what is hinted at rather than deliberately shown. Tourneur is an adept director whose expertise and ambiguity lend themself beautifully to this gorgeous and creepy exercise in spooky atmospherics and hidden horrors. At the heart of it, Cat People is just as much a mystery as it is suggestive horror. The main question of whether Irena is simply delusional or in fact in fear of a tainted curse she has no power over, provides Cat People with a really compulsive air and a tragic one too. On the visual front, the symbolism of all things feline and entrapment abound, much like how feels so caged and frightened of what may happen if she becomes intimate with her husband. Chiefly, it’s the shadows and sounds that are key to the eeriness of Cat People with many a moment being shrouded in darkness with just the right amount of light to back up the mystery of everything. There are two specific celebrated sequences that showcase just how effective suggestion can be. In the first, Alice is followed by something and is startled by a very loud noise, which is something else than what she thinks but still a jolt to the system and quite cunningly done. It’s a sly and very creative trick to use. The second sequence features Alice in a swimming pool, with light flickering about her as the noise of a panther stalks in the shadows around her. Both scenes wonderfully use the idea of what it could be, rather than what it is to generate the spooks and creeps within you. Cat People is more chilling than jump out of your skin frightening, but that’s the strength of it. It manages to tap into something subtly psycho sexual without being to overt about it, with regards to Irena’s fear of getting close to her husband in the physical sense. Rounding out things is the suspenseful music that knows exactly how to jangle nerves in this strange story.

Simone Simon, with her already feline features and slightly off kilter appeal, is sublimely cast as the terrified woman at the centre of this atmospheric film. Is she a pretty predator or a victim of a tainted curse? That’s the best part of Simon’s performance; the deep ambiguity and exotic mystery. Her eyes convey tragedy and can be simultaneously fragile and sensual in a great balancing act that keeps you guessing just what is the meaning of her fears and whether they have any validity. Kent Smith is the All-American guy who loves Irena deeply, but really can’t work her out as the movie goes on. Jane Randolph succeeds at not simply making her character a home wrecker, but a woman who actually wants to help and is assertive along with sympathetic. Then there is who is more than a little too interested in his patient’s condition and about to pay the ultimate price. Out of them all though, it is Simone Simon who makes the largest impact to this classic horror.

A masterwork of tension and mystery, Cat People is a horror that earns its stripes through its refusal to be over the top and the way it captures the imagination of the viewer with what it presents.