Val Lewton‘s steamy thriller Cat People details the fast-moving romance between all-American ship builder Oliver (Kent Smith) and the sexy-but-shy Serbian fashion designer Irena (Simone Simon). They meet at a zoo, where Irena often visits the deadly panther, and are soon married. Unfortunately, Irena is haunted by a curse drawn from her homeland – an old story concerning her female ancestors who were known to turn into ferocious big cats whenever they were intimate with men. She’s too terrified to even kiss her new husband, convinced there’s something evil inside her that will claw its way out. Oliver encourages her to seek psychiatric help, and leans on his coworker Alice (Jane Randolph) for support. Irena’s jealousy over the closeness between Alice and Oliver awakens the vengeful cat within.
This film isn’t too hard to figure out, really: Irena is a lady, and ladies aren’t allowed to have sexual desires, and those who do are basically “whores” and/or “sluts”. This poor woman has all this pent-up evil sexual emotion and she has to fight to keep it from turning her into a homicidal panther-being. She is also Serbian, which makes her “exotic,” and we all know those non-American women are the worst when it comes to sexy sex. They don’t even wear bras half the time! Irena tries to be a good American girl so she can fit in, and she totally keeps it in her pants. But of course, her exotic ways seduce the American men around her, who can’t help but want to sleep with her, which means she can’t help but want to retaliate with her own brand of sexuality…one that kills people. All she wants is to be able to be intimate with her husband without killing him! Is that so much to ask? Can’t she just lie there and let him do all the work?
Cat People is an interesting atmospheric horror movie that feels ahead of its time, and while I may have been a bit facetious in the previous paragraph I did legitimately enjoy it! The premise is sound, playing on the perceived “otherness” of Eastern Europe (especially in the ’4os) by seriously positing the existence of Serbian women cursed to become ferocious felines when engaged in sexual activity. The pacing is slow and deliberate, escalating from slightly off-kilter domestic drama to tense, uncertain horror. There are several memorable thrilling scenes, most notably that at the pool, with its expert play of shadow and sound.
As played by the lovely Simone Simon, Irena is a sweet, reserved young woman who lives in such fear of herself that she chooses a lonely lifestyle. She is beautiful, but also somewhat childlike: the opposite of the seductive vixen I might have expected from the poster. Kent Smith is almost alarmingly stereotypical as your “average joe”, but the funny thing is he knows it and even brings it up at the beginning, calling himself as American as it gets. Randolph’s Alice is interesting, the sarcastic but dependable ”guy’s girl”, as it were, the best friend who gets the guy in the end as opposed to the sexy popular lady.
I was unsure about Cat People at the beginning, finding it slow and unconvincing, but as it picks up and director Jacques Tourneur cleverly keeps viewers in the dark
about the veracity of Irena’s story, I became more and more absorbed. It’s also interesting as a snapshot of the time period, rooted in the psychological and sexual politics of the ’40s, and surely somewhat scandalous for the era.
Alex Kittle is an art, movie, and comic geek with a penchant for nonsensical jokes and exaggerated claims. Her blog Film Forager explores movies of every genre, from weird high-concept sci-fi to classic brooding romance.