CAT PEOPLE (1942) Reviews of Val Lewton’s horror classic

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‘She was marked with the curse of those who slink and court and kill by night!’

Cat People is a 1942 American horror film produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur (I Walked with a ZombieNight of the Demon; The Comedy of Terrors). DeWitt Bodeen wrote the original screenplay which was based on Val Lewton’s short story The Bagheeta published in 1930.

The RKO Radio Pictures production stars Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Tom Conway and Jack Holt.

On September 20, 2016, the Criterion Collection issued Cat People on Blu-ray and DVD with the following extras:

New, restored 2K digital transfer, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Audio commentary from 2005 featuring film historian Gregory Mank, with excerpts from an audio interview with actor Simone Simon
Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, a 2008 feature-length documentary that explores the life and career of the legendary Hollywood producer
Interview with director Jacques Tourneur from 1977
New interview with cinematographer John Bailey about the look of the film
Trailer
An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien

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Plot:

A young Serbian woman, Irena, believes herself to be a descendant of a race of people who turn into cats when aroused…

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Cat People was the first production for producer Val Lewton, who was a journalist, novelist and poet turned story editor for David O. Selznick. RKO hired Lewton to make horror films on a budget of under $150,000 to titles provided by the studio.

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Cat People was the first collaboration of director Tourneur with notable cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Lewton accepted the assignment of producing a follow-up film called The Curse of the Cat People in 1944, which retained Kent Smith and Jane Randolph’s characters, and showed Simone Simon either as a ghost or else as the imaginary friend of the couple’s young daughter.

Cat Girl (1957) was a belated British imitation. An eroticised Paul Schrader remake followed in 1982 with Nastassja Kinski (daughter of Klaus Kinski) playing Irena.

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Lewton and his production are credited for inventing or popularising the horror film technique called the ‘Lewton Bus’. The term derives from the scene in which Irena is following Alice. The audience expects Irena to turn into a panther at any moment and attack. At the tensest point, when the camera focuses on Alice’s confused and terrified face, the silence is shattered by what sounds like a hissing panther—but is just a bus pulling up. This technique has been used many times since. Any scene in which tension is dissipated by a mere moment of startlement, a boo!, is a ‘Lewton Bus’.

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Reviews:

“The film suggests much but shows little, leaving its monster in the shadows, and letting the question of whether there’s even a monster at all hang in the air. The horror is fueled by sexual frustration, repressed passion, and the everyday anxieties of marriage and urban life, and it plays out in a noir-lit New York filled with everyday people.” Keith Phipps, The Onion AV Club

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Cat People is an amazing achievement with a distinct sense of classic horror and a good dose of suspense. If you like horror–or if you don’t–this is a must-see film, and it is certainly one of the most memorable cult horror classics of all time, led by some great performances and a very talented director behind the camera. What a treat.” DeWitt Bodeen, Movie Vault

“Greatly overrated Luton film whose script is diffuse and wordy: the cinematography and art direction remain the most interesting features.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook

Fearing the Dark Val Lewton

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“The idea of horror as an act of political or cultural subversion may have gained traction in the ’70s, but it’s been there all along: what is Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ if not a satire on class? The message in Jacques Tourneur’s eerily beautiful Cat People may be more subtle, but it’s equally persuasive: this is a study of the innate power of female sexuality, and how suppressing that power can force it to burst forth in unexpected and dangerous ways.” Time Out

“An inconsistent story with a very thin plot, but the frightening moments are strong.” Hoffman’s Guide to SF, Horror and Fantasy Movies

Cat People 1942 Simone Simon promo shot

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Poster for 1976 Italian reissue

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