The Not Spoopy, Actually Amazingly Spooky, Cat People
This Halloween, give yourself a trick and a treat. No, really. All you have to do is watch Cat People (1942).
Cat People, starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph and Tom Conway, and directed by Jacques Tourneur, sounds like a fun, so-bad-it’s-good spoopy movie. In reality, Cat People is a suspenseful horror flick about mental illness (in the 1940s?!) and it invented the jump-scare.
The movie is about Irena (Simon), a Serbian immigrant who believes she descends from a group of people who turn into deadly cats after sex. After emigrating to the U.S., she apprehensively agrees to marry marine engineer Oliver (Smith), but still refuses to have sex with him because of her supposed werecat heritage. Oliver suggests she visit a psychiatrist, Dr Judd (Conway), because these feline-fueled intimacy fears couldn’t possibly be real… right?
Throughout the entire film, it is unclear if Irena is delusional or is really a cat person. We never see her transform, and when it appears a panther is terrorizing the town, an escaped black panther from the zoo is blamed. Given it takes place in 1942, Cat People depicts mental illness fairly well. The psychiatrist Dr Judd is a bit unethical, but otherwise Irena is never mocked or made out to be a schizophrenic female Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde type. She seems to almost be cured of her delusions up until she begins to worry Oliver has an affair with a coworker, at which point the mental illness commentary derails. Overall, the representation and discussion of mental illness is a very understanding one — especially in the 1940s when lobotomies and electrotherapy were still common “treatments.”
Honestly, the only spoopy thing about Cat People is the title. Studio RKO came up with the title, and gave producer Val Lewton as little money as possible to make it. (The same thing happened with Lewton and director Tourneur with their second film, I Walked With A Zombie in 1943.) Cat People was made with $141,659, about $2.3 million with inflation. (I know that sounds like a lot, but keep in mind Casablanca came out the same year costing just over $1 million, which is $16.8 million with inflation!) Because of Cat People’s mediocre budget, Tourneur relied on shadows and implied danger to spook audiences. Two examples are notable: the bus scene, and the pool scene.
The bus scene is the first-ever use of noise and implied danger creating a jump-scare: Irena becomes jealous of Oliver’s coworker Alice (Randolph). One foggy night, Alice is walking down a street only lit by lamp spotlights. We see and hear Alice’s footsteps on the concrete, as well as a following set of heels. The suspense rises as Alice walks faster down the street, looking behind her and seeing nothing; meanwhile the following heels have stopped, but we start hearing panther growls in the distance. Alice becomes more and more distraught, and as we close in on her terrified face, the panther growl becomes a loud roar— oh, nope, it was just the bus engine coming to a sudden stop to pick up Alice.
The use of sound, light and shadow made a very cheap (and cost effective) scary moment in the film. It’s also incredibly ambiguous whether Alice was imagining things — we’ve all been there, scaring ourselves to death over seemingly nothing — or if she really was being stalked by a panther.
The other notable scene happens in a pool, again between Alice and Irena. Irena is convinced she’s caught Oliver having an affair with Alice, and Alice again feels stalked as she runs into her apartment building. This time, we see a panther’s shadow and growls, but only when Alice’s back is turned as she walks to the building’s gym area. After more shadowy stalking, Alice jumps into the pool to escape the panther, and we see a moving, snarling shadow with glowing eyes prowling along the pool’s edge. Finally, other residents come into the pool area after hearing Alice’s screams, and they turn on the lights — yet the panther is gone. Again, the ambiguity causes Alice to doubt herself, until she finds her bathrobe torn to shreds.
If you’re looking for a Halloween movie that’s more than just a laughable, gore-filled mess, take a chance on Cat People. Its style, social commentary, and acting are all sights to behold. Plus, you’ll impress your more film-hipster friends by suggesting such a deep-cut film. Just please, please, don’t watch the 1982 remake — unless you do want a so-bad-it’s-good, but-not-actually-good, actually-a-terribly-upsetting movie.