A landmark in the horror genre, ‘Cat People’ took off in popularity way beyond what was expected of it on its release in 1942.
Originally a ‘B’ movie, its cinematography, lighting and shock techniques employed by director Jacques Tourneur have since carried it beyond ‘B’ movie status and into the U.S. Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
‘Cat People’ tells the story of a young Serbian woman, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), who believes she’s descended from a race of people who turn into cats when passionately aroused, a fear which arises when she meets and falls in love with Oliver Reed (Kent Smith).
She explains that the belief stems from residents of her home village turning to witchcraft and devil worship after being enslaved by the Mameluks. Although they’re wiped out in a purge by the king, some escaped to the mountains.
Despite her odd beliefs the two marry, but Irena avoids sleeping with her husband who persuades her to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway). On her return, however, she discovers that Oliver has confided their marital problems to his assistant, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) whom she begins to regard as a love rival. Subsequently, Alice feels she’s being stalked by someone or something unseen.
A masterpiece of creeping horror rather than all-out shocks, much of the menace is confined to the shadows and conveyed through implication with several scenes particularly effective - Irena following Alice along a dark street, two sets of women’s footsteps suddenly changing to one as Alice’s unease grows over something unseen behind her; and again when she’s stalked by an animal, shown only by its shadow, in the dimly lit swimming pool of her apartment building.
At just 73 minutes, it’s a perfect gem of a film that packs in more atmosphere more effectively than some twice its length.