Cat People has one of those sensationalized B-picture premises and there are moments when its meager aspects let slip that this is a low-budget effort, but within those restrictions, it moves with a certain purpose and chilliness. It’s true that producer Val Lewton had a B-movie renaissance going on at RKO Studios and Cat People is one of his treasures.
At its core is a streamlined love story between a Serbian artist/fashion designer and the local New Yorker who falls smitten for her in a whirlwind. Simon Simon is simultaneously sweet and bewitching as Irena Dubrovna who intrigues Oliver (Kent Smith) as much for her exotic mystery and feline figure as she does for her genial demeanor.
In several candid moments, Irena explains to her new admirer that she is a descendant from a long lineage of cursed individuals. The stories she tells of immense evil and witchcraft have the ring of gothic horror stories to Oliver and the audience. Certainly nothing to be taken seriously. They’re legends, after all, except for Irena they are strikingly real. And her palpable apprehension about such things allows an impending dread to set in and reach us.
With these strategic bits of exposition and foreshadowing, Cat People sets its story up well, revealing just enough to give some teeth to the impending doom as the narrative slowly descends deeper and deeper into the haunting darkness hinted at early on. But it’s the very fact, that that is not where it dwells all the time. It finds its plot in very mundane and ordinary things. The romance between two individuals. A young woman who is taken with walking through the Central Park Zoo to observe the animals.
At Oliver’s work, talk around the water cooler is made compelling in that his best pal and colleague is the sensible Alice (Jane Alexander) always ready to lend a listening ear. She’s genuine in accepting Irena for who she is because she can tell that Oliver earnestly loves her. But at the same time, she serves as a contrasting figure — someone who is completely different than this enigmatic creature.
But another thread involves Irena’s time spent in the counsel of the psychiatrist Dr. Judd at the behest of her love. And when she comes to him with her personal troubles it becomes evident that there is a great deal of trauma buried deep within her as there is with many of us I can imagine. The doctor rightly extrapolates that “childhood tragedies corrode the soul and leave a canker in the mind.”
It’s this that becomes the source of the horror. Because certainly, this is a fantasy on more levels than one– the man’s never been unhappy in his life until now (That’s a laugh) and the woman has unnatural impulses (You fear the panther, yet you’re drawn to him again and again). But it’s rooted in some sort of fact, whether personal, mental, or spiritual. And, ultimately, it is a harrowing amalgamation of psychological duress, sexuality, and spirituality that makes for a spooky outcome indeed.
It even taps into the apocalyptic biblical literature (Revelation 13:2) to lend a certain amount of ethos to its story. And even if the interpretation of the texts is broadened and pulled completely at of context, as a narrative device, it works wonders.
One of the film’s greatest and perhaps most obvious assets is its aesthetic with a crepuscular atmosphere courtesy of cinematographer Nicholas Musurasca. He would partner with Jacques Tourneur later on in the decade with the much-revered film noir Out of the Past. And what it truly adds is character, making the fears of these individuals actually legitimate and heightening the tension. Cat People does not pop out at you or repulse with gratuitous gore but it’s a completely unnerving picture all the same.