When I was a child my home didn’t have a cat. At some point we had dogs, birds, hamsters, turtles, and rabbits, but never were we allowed to bring a cat into our home. Whenever we went to the zoo and got to the large cats, my mother somehow found a reason to stay far away while the rest of us enjoyed trying to find them all hidden between the trees and in their caves. Once I became a teenager (and a movie fanatic) my mother finally told we why she was deathly afraid of cats: Val Lewton and his 1942 masterpiece, Cat People.
In 1942, when Val Lewton became the head of the horror division at RKO he knew exactly what was expected from his movies. They all needed to have titles approved by the studio, they had to run under 75 minutes and the budgets could never reach above $150,000. Universal was having enormous success with their horror series, but each one was costing a small fortune to make. With audiences screaming for more horror, the struggling RKO saw a quick way to capitalize by making cheaper movies that could scare up a quick profit.
For his first project he chose Cat People and teamed up with director Jacques Tourneur on the first of three films they would make together. Lewton carefully planned out all the details before he began. He decided to make “terror” films rather than “horror” films focusing on cheap thrills, with the firm belief that less is always more. His films were filled with a reflective mood where his characters always appear to be searching for something. His characters also were made to be easily identifiable for a 1940’s audience. They were seen doing everyday normal activities, and always were seen in their workplace. This was in direct contrast with the Universal horror movies where the main characters were “unusual” and specialized people. It is hard to identify with Dr. Frankenstein or Erique Claudin (Phantom Of The Opera) because we have very little in common with these men, but in Cat People, Kent Smith and Alice Moore both play characters that could be any one of us.
Cat People tells the story of Irena (Simone Simon) and the mystery of a terrible curse that is upon her. In the opening scene she is seen watching the black leopards in the Central Park Zoo. She is sketching clothing designs that will be made to look cats-like when she is noticed by Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). They feel an instant connection toward each other and Oliver wants nothing more than to be with her. She is attracted to him also, but explains that where she was raised, in Serbia, her village had once turned to witchcraft and devil worship. King John had come in to destroy the evil “cat people” but the smartest and most evil of them escaped to the mountains. Irena believes that she is a descendant from these cat people, and is afraid that when she is angry or sexually aroused she may become violent. They are married anyway and during the reception at a local Serbian restaurant, a strange woman (Elizabeth Russell immensely resembling a cat) walks up to Irena and says “Moya Sestra”. She walks away and everyone wants to know what the woman said. Irena reveals that the woman simple called her sister.
Irena no longer feels comfortable putting Oliver in danger, and he agrees to wait for her patiently. As the months go by Oliver becomes increasingly frustrated and eventually turns to his co-worker, Jane (Alice Moore), who in turn admits that she is in love with him. Irena seems to have control over herself, but now that another woman is trying to steal her husband, her claws are coming out to defend what is rightfully hers.
Out of all of Val Lewton’s movies, Cat People is my favorite. It is so original and creative that every time I watch the film I find myself smiling at the simplicity in which it was crafted. Lewton and Tourneur understood the fears that people had of darkness and fully took that fear, turned it around and used to be the best filmmaking tool at their disposal. I am not afraid to say that I think Val Lewton was a genius producer and his filming of these “B” movies made a lasting impression of the filmmaking world. When it was done, Cat People had been filmed over 24 days in the summer of 1942, and cost a grand total of $141,659. Lewton followed all of the guidelines that had been set before him, and thanks to his ingenuity and creative, inexpensive style, he was able to make a film that would continue to scare and haunt audiences for decades to come. Including my mother.