Cat People is one of the only films picked for Halloween Fifteen that is literally classic; the Val Lewton production was released in 1942, in black and white, that spawned a remake and, most recently, a Criterion Collection Blu-Ray commemorating it. But what makes director Jacques Tourneur’s film so alluring, even nearly 75 years later? It certainly isn’t as well known or idealized as Dracula or Frankenstein, not as remembered as Carnival of Souls or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And yet its appeal isn’t lost on audiences – not in 1982 when it was remade, and not even now with its new collector’s release. Here, we’ll take a look at what makes Cat People a classic in the figurative sense, and whether you should check it out this Halloween season.
What makes it a classic?
Its age. That’s a joke, in a way, but it’s also somewhat true. People tend to flock to older films simply because of their vintage qualities, and one could examine Cat People as a product of its time and unveil a wide range of thematic possibilities. But that’s not entirely why Cat People can be showcased as a solid oldie.
For many viewers, Cat People will be a slow watch at only 73 minutes, and I’m not about to argue that point. Tourneur’s direction is plodding but intentional, documenting the quick and visceral attraction between Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon); they’re two unlikely partners who find each other at the Central Park Zoo both admiring a panther, and from there Cat People jumps through time in fluid movements, from initial attraction to eventual wedding. Tourneur presents a drama, of two people in the throes of romance dealing with regular issues: people discussing their rather abrupt marriage behind their backs, the questioning that occurs after marriage of whether a mistake has been made. For the most part, Tourneur keeps the actual horror of Cat People to the sidelines, instead building up real human relationships.
And that’s primarily the point of the film, presenting humanity in a way that forces viewers to question inherent sin. Two quotations about sin bookend the film, and Irena begins to question the darkness within her, unsure of her goodness because of her Serbian history. Cat People begins as a romantic comedy, with Smith’s character Oliver Reed an attractive and good-spirited man and Irena a beautiful, alluring woman; but the film eventually morphs into tragedy, a deeply sad look at how self-doubt, jealousy, and even sexual repression can affect a person.
Tourneur’s cat people metaphor is simply a way to reflect on human problems. Irena, plagued by her jealousy over Oliver’s friend Alice (Jane Randolph), becomes consumed by it, to the point that she begins stalking Alice; more than that, though, is Irena’s fear about what’s inside herself, hidden deep down inside. Most of Cat People is psychological, with Tourneur giving hints but never explicitly unveiling Irena as anything other than human. In that regard, the film focuses more on the psychological aspects of horror rather than the physical, and it’s a strong point in horror history.
It’s hard to imagine that any viewer wouldn’t find Cat People‘s finale immensely saddening; there’s unrequited love, infidelity, an impending divorce. Eventually, there’s even a suicide by panther, the final act by Irena that involves her literally opening a cage to let a cat out. It’s the last acceptance of her nature, one that results in death, and Cat People wallows in that tragedy. No good feelings will come from the film, but one thing it does offer is an intense examination of human frailty, one that is entirely psychological rather than explicitly horrifying.
Is it good for Halloween?
That depends on if you think of older black-and-white films as good Halloween fare. I know that when I was a kid, black-and-white classics were always on in the background, and so I’ve come to identify them as Halloween-esque even if their subject matter doesn’t really fit. With that said, Cat People is probably not the best option for Halloween viewing, since it is often slow and lacking in any real scares. It’s actually better suited for winter viewing, since there’s a lot of snow in the film and its theme is quite cold as well. It’s probably best to skip Cat People and opt for something more related to the holiday, something with a mad scientist and test tubes or a Universal monster.
Where can I find it this Halloween (even though you told me it’s not great for Halloween viewing)?
As I said before, Criterion just released this film on Blu-Ray in a nice collector’s edition, so you should pick that up straightaway. But you can stream it on YouTube or iTunes or any number of other streaming services for $2.99 as well.