Famed RKO Radio Pictures producer Val Lewton managed to single-handedly redefine the horror genre in the 1940s, cranking out low-budget, high-volume box office hits that rarely disappointed audiences — or studio execs. This double feature of Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944) — Lewton’s first film and its subsequent sequel starring Simone Simon — is the first installment of a five-DVD collection of Lewton’s work available on Netflix.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Jacques Tourneur directed this atmospheric 1942 psychological thriller for RKO Pictures under the supervision of producer Lewton, who was renowned in many circles as a film maker who could produce them fast and produce them good. He did have an uncanny ability to use mood, shadow and that most alluring of cinematic manipulations, the subtext, to tell a good story. And boy is “Cat People” a story that oozes with dark, fairytale melodrama.
With the great writing by DeWitt Bodeen and the eerie, suggestive cinematography, Lewton and Tourneur most likely started the genre of what will one day become the psychological, thinking-person’s film. Shadows, lines and what we do not see in the darkness makes “Cat People” a sublime and ethereal classic.
Simone Simon, a slender, attractive and very stoic actress, plays Irena, a Serbian fashion artist. She harbors deep desires and secrets that Lewton and Tournuer bring forth with lean visual passion. Oh and she turns into a mean bitch of a Panther when aroused or jealous. The film gets bogged down in some melodrama which almost emulates soap operatic tendencies and at times has a cheap, staged atmosphere. Butthe film rises above these shortcomings and dissects the core material – the female psyche and sexuality – by using the Black Panther/Irena as a great metaphor to explore this provocative theme.
Cat People is chock full of noir style and may not be for everyone. Especially if you like your suspense films fast and furious. Many actually favor the sequel “Curse of the Cat People” to the first film. Lewton’s original classic does succeed in bending light and shadow while facing deep, dark themes of sexuality and animal tendencies.