Val Lewton was born in Russia in 1904, emigrating after the revolution. He worked as an assistant to producer David O. Selznick for some years, then was hired by RKO to make low budget horror films.
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Cat People was his first production, and his most famous. A spooky but cerebral 'film noir' thriller, its feel would be replicated for Lewton's next ten or so films. The best of these was I Walked with a Zombie (1943), which, like Cat People, was directed by Jacques Tourneur.
The promotions for Cat People were far more lurid than was the film itself. One garish poster blared, "A kiss could change her into a monstrous fang and claw killer!" Although a real panther was used for some scenes, low budgets prevented elaborate special effects. Horror was implied primarily using shadows, helped by the score and animal sound effects (especially panther growls).
The story is much more tame than would be the case for the 1982 remake. Irena (Simone Simon) is a beautiful young immigrant from Serbia, with a fascination for big cats. Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) quickly falls for her. She agrees to marry, but only if its consummation is delayed. Irena believes that there is evil inside of her, which will come out when provoked by passion.
Naturally, Oliver (who is no relation to the late British actor) believes none of this. He brings in psychiatrist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), but he is unable to cure Irena of her phobias. Oliver decides to dump his newlywed wife, in favor of attractive co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph). When Irena learns of this, she becomes very angry indeed. Hell hath no fury like a scorned catwoman.
The first half of this very short film (only 73 minutes in length) focuses on Irena. Later, as her 'dark side' becomes apparent, the story shifts to her would-be victims. Lust and jealousy bring out the evil in Irena, just as they have done in others for all of human existence. One difference here is that the sanctity of marriage doesn't help solve any of Irena's sexual problems.
The biggest weakness of Cat People is that the characters are somewhat simplistic. Irena is a good girl who can go bad, Oliver is a swell guy who wants to do the right thing, Alice is a swell girl who wants her man. This leaves creepy Dr. Judd as the most interesting character. He has a dark side as well, but will the predator become the prey?
Lewton would make a 1944 sequel, Curse of the Cat People. This film would prove less successful than the original. (78/100)