The classic era of horror was largely dominated by Universal Studios and for good reason. From The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) through The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) Universal introduced us to such icons of fright as The Invisible Man, Dracula, The Mummy, The Phantom of the Opera and Frankenstein’s Monster (not to mention his terrifying bride).
While it may have seemed that there was no competing with Universal when it came to horror films at the time, there was a studio that accepted the challenge and managed to create a series of lucrative and critically acclaimed low budget scary movies, sometimes featuring Universal’s own biggest stars. That studio was RKO Radio Pictures, and the credit mostly goes to one man, an almost accidental genius by the name of Val Lewton. Lewton was a poet, novelist and journalist who took a job as a story editor for David O. Selznick when he was given the unenviable (for most) task of producing profitable films for the studio that brought us King Kong (1933). Remarkably, the 38-year-old had never actually produced a film before.
The very first of these productions was, in fact, Lewton’s first ever produced film. Cat People (1942) also stands to this day as one of the best, most atmospheric and influential horror films of all time, worthy of its immortality in The Criterion Collection. Considering the fact that this was a risky enterprise from an inexperienced producer (who based it on his own 1930 short story “The Bagheeta”), it’s noteworthy not only for its critical success but for its box office of approximately 60 times its $134k budget.
The story centers around Serbian American fashion designer Irena Dubrovna (French-born Simone Simon), who believes herself to be part of an ancient people who turn into vicious big cats at the point of sexual arousal. This presents no real issue for Irena, who has embraced her celibate life. That is until a chance meeting with Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), an engineer whose interest in her is quickly proven to be mutual.
This leads to a loving but (by necessity, she believes) sexless marriage that, needless to say, frustrates them both. Thus, Irena begins to confide in a psychiatrist (Tom Conway), while Oliver puts his own confidence in his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph). Things come to a head when Irena begins to suspect that the relationship between Oliver and Alice is not merely professional in nature. Considering that Irena believes that she is (and just might be) a vicious were-cat capable of tearing apart and consuming humans she isn’t terribly fond of, one can only imagine what she might be capable of doing when confronted by the green-eyed demon of jealousy.
“Imagine” might well be the key to all of Cat People. As with many of the best horror films, writer DeWitt Bodeen and director Jacques Tourneur hide much more than they show and trust the audience to fill in the terrifying blanks for themselves. This works well for Cat People, as the suspense is as pervasive as the near omnipresent fog of the final act. When will Irena change and strike? What form will she take? Who will be her victims? And more importantly, is this all in her head?
At the same time, we’re worrying about what havoc the cat woman might wreak upon her victims, Lewton and his crew never let us forget that Irena herself is a victim; not only is she afflicted with a curse that she never chose, but it’s her own very human emotions that are prompting her change. Lewton, Bodeen and Tourneur exploit the very relatable concept of jealousy within relationships and manage to turn that very thing into the focus of a complex tale of terror. Sure we are frightened by the idea that every New Yorker with an address near Central Park might soon become Purina Cat Chow, but at the same time we feel for Irena and her familiar plight. Rarely has the “villain” in a horror film been treated with such complex sympathy.
Such is the storytelling mastery of Val Lewton. The multiple layers mesh together like gears in a well-oiled machine. Lewton is also credited with breaking new ground in visual storytelling. The “Lewton Bus” got both its name and its first appearance in Cat People. This bait-and-switch technique of suspense is seen when the audience expects Irena to become a panther at any second and attack. When the hiss and growl takes over the soundtrack, the air is seemingly let out of the room when the audience sees that this hiss and growl came from the normal workings of a bus — not Irena. Hence, the oft-imitated horror technique of the Lewton Bus was born.
Those sounds and visuals make Cat People so engrossing. This is not a film to half-watch while playing around on a mobile device. Naturally, the Criterion Collection exploits these amazing sounds and images, providing a Blu-ray of superior quality with a new 2K digital restoration and uncompressed monaural soundtrack. As is common, the Blu-ray also includes a virtual film class to the attentive viewer. The fold-out inlay paper gives us the essay “Darkness Betrayed” by Geoffrey O’Brien on one side and a new and darkly beautiful painting by comic book great Bill Sienkiewicz (worthy of framing) on the other.
Bonus features include a 2005 audio commentary from historian Gregory Mank with selections from a Simone Simon interview interspersed in the commentary itself. The feature-length documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2008) is also presented here in its entirety and makes one’s knowledge of the legend of Lewton even deeper. A new interview with cinematographer John Bailey is coupled with a 1979 interview with Tourneur to enhance the experience.
As with most Criterion Collection releases, Cat People proves to be worth every cent of the purchase price. However, this one has the added potential of creating new Val Lewton devotees with each new viewer. As a Lewton fan myself, I would recommend to both you the reader and the Criterion Collection to focus next on 1945’s The Body Snatcher, a true classic of the genre that helps to prove that there no one quite like Val Lewton. In that Lewton died at 46, only nine years after the release of Cat People, there’s not enough of his work out there. Luckily his work is being recognized and immortalized with deluxe releases such as this one.