“You see, the Mameluks came to Serbia long ago and they made the people slaves. Well, at first, the people were good and worshipped God in a true Christian way. But, eh, little by little, the people changed. When King John drove out the Mameluks and came to our village, he found dreadful things. The people bowed down to Satan and said their masses to him. They had become witches and were evil. Well, King John put some of them to the sword, but some, the wisest and the most wicked, escaped into the mountains. Now do you understand?”
‘Cat People’, directed by Val Lewton in 1942, is an American noir horror movie. Irena Dubrovna, played by Simone Simon, is a Serbian fashion designer who, when sketching a panther at the zoo, happens to meet an engineer called Oliver Reed, played by Kent Smith. The pair start a relationship that leads to a marriage, but Dubrovna is reluctant to have sex and seems preoccupied by a legend from her childhood. She believes that she is a shapeshifter, and that this placed Reed in danger. When Reed’s business colleague reveals her love for him, he is torn between the two, but this leads to Dubrovna to unleash her inner-beast to try to keep him. This is the first of Lewton’s RKO directed movies, low budget, creepy, economical and dark. The simplicity of the narrative gives this an edge over his later ‘The Seventh Victim’, the story builds perfectly with Dubrovna’s affliction slowly, painfully being revealed. The horror is not visceral or explicit, two famous scenes involve Dubrovna’s love rival Alice Moore being pursued by an unseen creature on the streets or in a swimming pool. The creepiness comes from a subtle use of sound and shadow, both dictated by the budget and by Lewton’s sense of cinematography and coherent filmmaking. This film has influenced countless horror movies, the one that sprang to mind watching it was the climax to David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 supernatural thriller ‘It Follows’. ‘Cat People’ is almost like a style sheet for horror movie direction, outlining techniques to create tension and dread without presenting anything explicitly horrific on screen.
Would I recommend it? It’s short, punchy and influential. Genuinely unnerving in parts, the craft of Lewton is evident in every scene. Watch in a double bill with Babak Anvari’s 2016 Iranian horror ‘Under the Shadow’, another movie with touched of Lewton’s subtlety.