Cat People is a movie that it better than it has any right to be, but is also kind of disappointing, all at the same time. On one hand, the plot has you looking forward to a cheesefest of epic porportions, and on the other, you appreciate the work of Tourneur and want it put towards a better use. Either way, at only 73 minutes, Cat People is worth a watch.
Cat People is the story of Irina (Simone Simon) a Serbian woman who has just immigrated to America but is worried by the legends of her native village. Legend has it that the women of a certain family turn into panthers when they are sexually aroused, and unwittingly devour the men they love. Irina becomes more anxious as she falls in love with Oliver (Kent Smith). They marry, but there is trouble in paradise as Oliver thinks Irina is being a bit ridiculous (and possibly insane) with the whole cat people story. He turns more and more to his coworker, Alice (Jane Randolph), for companionship, which only fuels Irina’s jealously and makes it more likely she’ll devour somebody. Added to this mix is her psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), who is probably the only person in this story who actually deserves to be devoured.
From the plot summary, you can see why I would be going into this movie prepared for a lot of cheese. Yes, this is a forties low budget horror film with a laughable premise, and I kind of wish they had played into that more. They were taking it seriously enough, even with the questionable acting, and Tourneur’s direction was good enough that it doesn’t come across as awesomely bad as it perhaps should have with the plot that it has. It’s kind of weird to think of a film being too good for it’s own good, but that’s the situation we have here with Cat People.
The film is mostly known for its innovative use of shadows, and really that’s what it deserves to be known for. There are several masterfully crafted scenes, and the two most impressive scenes involve Alice being stalked by the cat version of Irina, or at least that’s what we’re supposed to infer. One is when Alice is walking home at night on a deserted street, with the wind creaking the trees and creepy shadows cast everywhere. Another is when Alice is swimming, and a similar strategy is used. This scene effectiveness arguably lies in its ending; it has you doubting what exactly took place before.
Cat People is not a great movie, but it is an interesting example of a 40s B horror movie that is a lot better than it should be. It taps into fears of the dark, large animals, and sex, ties them altogether and wraps them in uncertainty. But it still is more than a bit dated, and not cheesy enough just to be watched on that level. It needs to go in one direction or the other to satisfy completely, but it’s still more than worth the watch.
“A cat just walked over my grave.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars