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1942 film directed by Jacques Tourneur

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Them Serbians...

  • Aug 17, 2012
**** out of ****

As much as I love a good movie monster; I really do miss the days when producers either didn't have the money to show their grotesque creations of the imagination in full or just decided not to, as it was a semi-popular trend amongst less financially fortunate or creative filmmakers to keep the monster in the darkness, waiting to pounce. I've always and always will be strongly opinionated on the matter; I think what we conjure up in our own minds is often scarier than anything we may actually see. This applies to the Val Lewton produced "Cat People", a 1942 horror film that never actually shows its cat people until the end, where we get a glimpse of what it might be like to be one. I'm not sure why they didn't show the titular beasts, but I'm glad they didn't; these days, they would have at any chance. Because the American movie-going public has since been trained to believe that to show the beast lurking in the shadows is payoff, and proves that you aren't cheap.

But ah, that's where we come to the success of films like "Cat People". It's a prime example of early trend-setting and silver screen tension. Beautifully shot in black and white and brilliantly lit for maximum effect; it is not so much a film about its monsters but more about the attitudes that they carry. Aside from being genuinely chilling and moody, it has a strong intellectual and emotional core, just as all the best horror films tend to; a stark and provocative meditation on the sexual pretensions and misconceptions of the 40's. It evades the classification of a cautionary tale and a feminist film alike; but remains existent within those boundaries - although not limited to them - nonetheless. So they are possibilities, although not clearly intentions.

The Serbian-born Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon, in an outstanding performance that provokes pity, sorrow, and fear) is sketching black panthers at the Central Park Zoo in New York City when she is spotted by a handsome young man named Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), who walks her back to her apartment that day and spends some quality time in her presence. It is clear that Oliver is looking for a girlfriend, although it would seem that the shy and docile Irena would not be the perfect match for his suave sensibilities; although before we know it, they're engaged in a relationship and married. Oliver is able to put aside Irena's strange beliefs, involving superstitions surrounding ancient Serbian curses, for the sake of love.

They're happy for a while, although Irena does not want the relationship to become intimate. She doesn't even want to kiss her new husband. Oliver is only able to talk about these things with his assistant at work, a pretty girl named Alice (Jane Randolph), who he may also use to fulfill the desires that his timid wife cannot. Irena is instantly suspicious and even follows the two on a night out. It is on these nightly conquests that she discovers that there is something rather animalistic living inside her; something that makes aggressive hissing noises much like that of a cat. There might indeed be a reason for her inability to make physical contact with her lover.

Yeah, I'm thinking these "cat people" would look rather silly if the film had decided to show any more of them than it did. It gets its point across find through the element of implication; we see shadows, hear noises, and feel the isolation of the characters as they are in the same room as this dark creature, which again, goes mostly unseen. But the monster is most importantly the creation of the sexual insecurities of the time. In that sense, maybe it is a sort of cautionary tale, but what is it cautioning against? As far as I know, women do not become great hairy beasts with the ability to maul your face off mid-coitus. But
"Cat People" is a great fantasy; a great fantasy that is unable to disregard the fact that it should rightfully be grounded entirely in reality. There's no black magic here, merely a cultural curse that could, more or less, be real if one was superstitious enough. After all, superstition is like religion. Although superstitions such as these have not been proven; that is why they are called superstitions in the first place.

This was one of the first films to employ the technique known as "The Lewton Bus". This refers to the bus that appears in the famous scene where Irena stalks her husband and his supposed mistress. A bus pretty much interrupts the best part of the scene, as a sort of early jump scare (that isn't really effective in that way anymore). But regardless, you get a Lewton Bus in essentially every horror movie these days, because people like to jump out of their seats and be surprised (I know I do, unless it's cheap and not particularly well-timed). The film is an important landmark horror film that tackles issues that were prevalent and important at the time of its production (it took just 18 days to shoot, with two teams divided to get the material). But the craft of its director, Jacques Tourneur, still remains in-tact today along with the film's overall relevance. It is an essential film for any respectable horror buff.

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More Cat People (1942 movie) reviews
review by . August 15, 2009
Cat People was the original film that was made forty years later into a sleazy remake filled with more issues than Time magazine. This is the original horror film filled with many expressionism influenced imagery and film noir overtones.  A young woman from Serbia named Irena a fashion designer who comes to America to fulfill her career. She meets a nice man named Oliver who falls for her hard and marries her. But the young lady has so many strange quirks that they drive Oliver up the wall.  …
About the reviewer
Ryan J. Marshall ()
Ranked #11
It's very likely that the only kind of reviews I'll ever post here are movie reviews. I'm very passionate about film; and at this point, it pretty much controls my life. Film gives us a purpose; … more
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About this movie


The original 1942 film.

Followed by the sequel Curse of the Cat People.

Was remade 40 years later by Paul Schrader.
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Genre: Horror
Release Date: December 6, 1942
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Runtime: 73 minutes
Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
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