Blog Directory CineVerse: How Cat People still keeps us purring with excitement

How Cat People still keeps us purring with excitement

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Cat People proved to be a game-changer in the horror genre when it was released in late 1942. Eighty years later, it's easy to extol the virtues of this clever psychological thriller (or is it a monster movie)? For proof, listen to our CineVerse group discussion of this film recorded last week (click here to access the recording), check out the current episode of Cineversary that explores Cat People in depth (available here), and digest a summary of our discourse available below.

Why is this movie worth celebrating 80 years onward? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It’s deserving of celebration because it reinvented the horror genre in the early 1940s, making the horror more psychological; the danger is primarily suggested rather than shown, and that was groundbreaking for the time. The fear is primarily of the unknown and what may be lurking but is not clearly defined in the shadows or the periphery of the frame.
  • What has helped it transcend time is the fact that this is a female-driven story at a time when women were often the helpless damsels in distress and innocent protagonists in horror movies. In contrast, the female personalities in Cat People are fascinating, particularly Irena who is a tragic but well-illustrated figure but also an antagonist to Alice.
  • It still matters because it remains effective as an unsettling psychological horror film, thanks in large part to its simplistic design. It benefits from a streamlined plot, a small cast of characters, and only a handful of settings and locations, and it lets your imagination do much of the heavy lifting instead of emphasizing what would now be outmoded special effects.

What impact did Cat People have on the genre that inspired subsequent films?

  • It adopted a novel approach to horror movies for the time: Instead of showing a physical manifestation of a monster, as was the trademark of Universal horror films, it suggested that there can either be a supernatural explanation for what we see or a psychological explanation, with the latter insinuating that it’s all simply happening in the character’s mind. In short, Val Lewton introduced the psychological horror film, which is still with us today.
  • Cat People also proved that, with a lot of imagination and talent, you can overcome small budget limitations and create a memorable motion picture.
  • This movie kicked off the Val Lewton cycle of horror films at RKO comprised of B movies that played like A films; Lewton is also a rare early example of a producer who is considered the true author of his works instead of the director.
  • Cat People and the rest of the Lewton cycle also led to the emergence of a handful of other important filmmakers who collaborated with Lewton, including Robert Wise, who went on to helm The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, and others; Jacques Tourneur, director of one of the greatest film noirs in Out of the Past as well as horror classics like Curse of the Demon and I Walk With a Zombie; and Mark Robson, who became a talented director in his own right.
  • Lewton and company were instrumental in putting female characters first as the main protagonists in horror films. Today, many fans, film scholars, and critics would likely name among the very finest big screen horror works those that have one or more female actors at the top of the cast list. Before Cat People, few big-screen horror pictures gave top billing to females. The only two examples that spring to mind are Fay Wray in King Kong and Gloria Holden as Dracula’s Daughter.
    • According to Deep Focus Review author Brian Eggert, “The film remains exceptional because Lewton demanded its artistry and themes move away from what audiences were accustomed to seeing. In doing so, Lewton made the first supernatural horror story set in modern times, typifying a standard formula for today’s paranormal horror genre: It’s a real-world story whose characters have complex relationships, maintain unglamorous careers, and remain skeptical toward the prospect of anything fantastical.”
  • The Lewton unit also invented “the bus” – an audio technique, first introduced in Cat People, where a long silence or quiet scene is abruptly interrupted by a shrill, loud noise, nowadays called a “sting,” that is meant to startle the audience.
  • The success of Cat People also triggered a sequel, 1944’s Curse of the Cat People; 40 years later, a modern remake was helmed by Paul Schrader.

Can you identify any themes or messages within Cat People?

  • The film offers several sexual subtexts, including repressed desire, intimacy phobia, lesbianism, arousal by an exotic female, and sexual harassment (in this case perpetrated by Dr. Judd).
  • There are deep psychological themes at work, too, like corrosive jealousy, inherent evil within good people, isolation, and estrangement.
  • Another theme is the pressure on women to conform to patriarchal and marital expectations.
    • Slant Magazine critic Chuck Bowen wrote: “Irena might be the literal monster in “Cat People,” but she's also an immigrant woman who's manipulated and batted around by men of authority who're mostly concerned that she gentrify in accordance with American urban culture. Because Irena is afraid to have sex, given what she thinks she may be, the film is a coded tale of a frigid woman in need of conditioning. Irena faces a hypocrisy familiar to all women: She's relentlessly pressured by puritanical society to be chaste, yet resented when she doesn't sexually gratify men. Tom marries Irena, but strays toward his co-worker and friend, Alice (Jane Rudolph), who represents an ideal of the franker, more accommodatingly sexual and easygoing modern woman.”
  • Xenophobia and fear of foreigners.
  • Inescapable fate and doomed destiny.
  • Superstition and spirituality versus science and reason.
  • A love triangle that ends in tragic circumstances.

What is Cat People’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One could make a compelling case that its best gift is the audio-visual one-two-punch of an inspired sound design and brilliantly atmospheric lighting scheme.
  • Unsung genius cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca paints fear in deep pools of ebony and gray, employing a textbook palette of chiaroscuro contrast that encourages our eyes to conjure up feline demons from every inky corner. And whoever was responsible for the extraordinary sound design and effects is well deserving of kudos as well.
  • One standout portion that illustrates this suspenseful symmetry of sound and vision is the shuddersome nighttime scene where Irena stalks Alice.
  • But the very best example that demonstrates the efficacy of Cat People’s exemplary lighting and audio, which many would also nominate as the film’s best scene period, is the swimming pool sequence. Recall how they meticulously craft that scene for maximum effect. Let’s dissect it for a moment: We see Alice prepare to enter the indoor pool and hear echoey drips, splashes, and noises endemic to that watery environment. But she stops to notice a black cat, back arched and alarmed by something in the direction of the adjacent shadowy staircase. Alice first scoffs at the feline’s cries, but then takes a closer look and begins to hear the menacing snark of what sounds like a panther followed by a shadow descending the staircase toward her. Frightened, she runs to the water and punctuates the otherwise eerily quiet ambiance by jumping in with a loud splash. We view alternating shots of Alice doggy-paddling nervously and circularly in the deep end with darkly composed images of her dim surroundings, as shimmers of water-reflected light dance across the dusky walls and ceiling. The low drone of feral growling persists as Alice spins in terror, the camera juxtaposing medium shots of her treading water with eerie images of the pool room’s empty dark corners that increasingly suggest a panther’s shadow nearby. The growl intensifies to a threatening roar as we hear Alice’s shrieks and screams for help. Irena suddenly appears, flicking on a light switch, and the terror has subsided, although Alice discovers her robe ripped apart after Irena departs. It’s a masterclass in how to escalate tension and insinuate a monster with simple suggestive elements.

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