When I first heard of Cat People, I laughed at the ridiculous sounding synopsis: A woman fears turning into a cat when she becomes sexually aroused. How could I take that seriously? It sounded like the birth of those horrible Halloween costumes, where all a girl needs is a short skirt and cat ears. I passed it up for a while, but learned that it is considered a landmark in horror films. How could I let it go any longer?
The story focuses on Irena (Simone Simon), a young Serbian immigrant in America. While visiting the big cats at the zoo, she meets a young man, Oliver (Kent Smith). The two become friends and a restrained romance blooms. She shares stories of her village, and legends of the cat people, Oliver writes them off as silly folklore and superstition. After they marry, Irena makes it clear that she is still not ready to be intimate. Oliver is kind and patient, but a man can only hold his passions for so long. As he grows closer to his co-worker, Alice (Jane Randolph), jealousy grows in Irena and she sees a psychiatrist. Soon, her jealousy and passion will manifest and we see the legend of cat people take its true form.
What makes this a good classic horror film, is the rising mood and suspense the film creates. We see the signs that Irena is one of the cat people; animals can sense it, she is drawn to the panthers at the zoo. Perhaps she came to America trying to escape a fate she already knew. Whether she knows it or just can’t accept it, we wait in anticipation for her cat form to come out.
When her feline side comes out, the film lets our imaginations run wild. There is no Wolf Man like transformation, but things are more obscure and hidden by shadows keeping some mystery. A great scene that shows this is when Irena is following Alice down the sidewalk. Everyone clearly hear two sets of heels clacking along as the women walk in and out of the shadows. We can tell Alice is getting frightened as the steps grow closer, but suddenly, the second pair of heels fade away. Then the bus arrives, obscuring a loud roar, but delivering just as much fright. Later, we are shown big muddy paw prints that deform and turn into heel prints that lead to Irena.
Don’t let yourself be fooled by the silly synopsis, Cat People is a good classic horror film. Simon’s performance perfectly builds up her inner dread for all of us. Jacques Tourneur’s excellent direction creates a perfect mood for suspense, romance and horror. That pool scene sets a perfect tone of trapped helplessness. And the use of shadows is always where the action is.
“I like the dark. It’s friendly.”