Cat People (1942) is a fine entry into the tradition of films that cause modernity—and gaslighting—some trouble by having a woman turn into an actual panther. Well, not as much a tradition as I might like, but it’s a start. Based on, Val Lewton’s short story “The Bagheet,” and adapted for the screen by DeWitt Bodeen, Cat People was produced by Lewton, directed by Jacques Tourneur and shot by RKO noir superstar cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca during the war at an extremely low-budget. There is no gore or on-screen transformation effects. There are only the shadows, a woman’s fear of herself and her own sexuality.
Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is an illustrator whose work is published in fashion magazines, highlighting the most modern of clothes. She is from Serbia, perhaps a refugee fleeing the Nazis and the war in Europe. She is definitely fleeing her home town, a village she and her fellow townsfolk believe was settled by devil worshippers who escaped execution in the 16th Century. And Irena is definitely trying to escape her fear that there is something evil inside her. Big cats fascinate Irena and her favorite subject is a black leopard at the Central Park Zoo. It’s an animal that an old maintenance man considers a killer. One day, Oliver Reed (no relation) approaches Irena as she draws. She tells Oliver (Kent Smith) she is fascinated by the big cats. And really, who wouldn’t be?
Click through to read more and make sure to check out all the spooktacular contributions, including one by my fellow Gutter writer Angela Englert and my former colleague from the Toronto International Film Festival Vanguard and Midnight Madness Programme Blogs, Leslie Hatton!