Released in a stunning 2K digital restoration print the Criterion Collection Blu-ray of the 1942 horror classic Cat People is the perfect package for this brilliant tale of a tortured soul and her ancient bestial beliefs which threaten to destroy her chance at love and a new life.
The wonderful Simone Simon plays Irena, a young Serbian woman who catches the eye of all American Oliver (Kent Smith) while sketching at the black panther cage in Central Park Zoo. Oliver is drawn to her exotic looks and mysterious manner and the two enter into a whirlwind romance ending in marriage a few months later.
Married life is not bliss however as Irena is troubled by her past and the folk lore of her home which many years ago feel into Satanism after being enslaved by the Mameluks. With witchcraft and sin running rampart the people where saved by King John of Serbia who slayed the vile villagers however the “the wisest and the most wicked” escaped his wrath and still exist as cat people.
Believing herself to be cursed unable to be physically close to Oliver the couple are slowly driven apart made all the worse by Oliver’s work college Alice (Jane Randolph) who is in love with her friend getting closer to him as he confides his worries and woes about Irena to her.
With over confident psychologist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) telling her that the scourge of the cat women and their sinister powers are simply a trick of her mind and Oliver drifting further towards Alice’s arms Irena is driven deep into her fantasy by jealousy however when Alice is followed by something seemingly supernatural everyone starts to second guess whether Irena really is telling the truth about her terrible powers of transformation.
A masterpiece of minimal horror director Jacques Tourneur does a magnificent job of creating an atmosphere of dread that permeates the black and white picture building to the suspense filled stalking scenes on the lamp lit street and in a hotel swimming pool. All done with sound and shadows the viewer feels the pure fear felt by Alice who becomes convinced that Irena is out to get her in her feline form.
What is best of all is that the film never really confirms if there is something otherworldly going on or if it’s all in the collected characters minds. The script by DeWitt Bodeen is full of hints from the start at Irena’s bizarre beliefs and the film constantly flirts with the idea that she is possessed by evil spirits and doomed to destroy those she loves but avoids showing anything outright making for a much more unnerving experience.
Working perfectly as a horror thriller with its excellent plot and well executed scares, including the invention of the shock technique dubbed the Lewton Bus a mainstay of all scare movies even now, it is a film which still seems fresh considering its age as there is so much more to Cat People once you scratch under the surface of the story.
As an essay on desire and sexuality, gender politics of the 40’s or the conflicts of views in the new world of America versus the ancient attitudes of Europe it says volumes. Overtly interested in psychology and the split between the mind and the soul demonstrated in the difference in attitudes from the Dr. and Irena, Cat People keeps us guessing until its tragic ending where her unstoppable death urge effects all the characters involved.
Overflowing with extras the Criterion Collection Blu-ray includes an audio commentary from film historian Gregory Mank as well as interviews with Simone Simon, Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer John Bailey plus a feature-length documentary that explores the life and career of the legendary Hollywood producer Val Lewton.
A creeping and expertly crafted chiller Cat People is a true horror classic and landmark in the genre which has inspired not only remakes and reinterpretations from its story but dozens of imitations of its distinct style and cinematography.
Most importantly it dares to leave many questions it raises unanswered forcing the audience to examine their own beliefs and ideals to find a conclusion to its creepy conundrum.