It’s always a great pleasure to revisit the true classics of the horror genre through twenty first century eyes. There is something quaint and truly endearing about rekindling the flame of pre-CGI, pre-gorno terror that in many ways will never be surpassed, no matter how much blood Eli Roth and his contemporaries might like to throw at us. As such, sitting down to watch Jacques Tourner’s classic, Cat People, itself based on Val Lewton’s short story The Bagheeta, is akin to settling down to a fine dinner in an old fashioned French bistro, complete with the almost mandatory trenchcoats and silver-gilt canes.
Opening with a chance meeting in the local zoo between Kent Smith’s “good plain Americano” Oliver Reed (no, not THAT Oliver Reed) and mysterious yet charming Serbian immigrant Irena (Simone Simon), Cat People sees the young pair falling in love, only for their relationship to be torn apart by Irena’s obsession with childhood stories of King John of Serbia battling with a cult of cat-worshipping witches. Truly believing that any source of emotional arousal will cause her to turn into a hideous cat beast, Irena spirals into a state of madness, pushing away those around her and destroying her marriage with Reed.
To a modern audience, Cat People, much like many of the horror films of its time, feels sadly dated; this is not your typical jump-scare fare. Indeed, at times, the slow build, synonymous with the era, can be somewhat dreary, but, as with therianthrope flicks such as the previous year’s The Wolfman and the much earlier Werewolf of London, the atmospheric air of doubt throughout creates a fantastic sense of unease and building forboding.
Performances are strong throughout; Smith is effortlessly likeable as our romantic lead, and Simon oozes mystery and sensuality as the terrified yet terrifying Irena, though her hand-to-the-head melodrama at times does echo an over-acting Vivian Leigh. Tom Conway, meanwhile, traverses a beautifully blurred line between seediness and sincerity as psychiatrist Dr Judd, whose malpractice culminates in his untimely slaughter. The real star, however, is Jane Randolph in one of her earlier starring roles as Reed’s lovelorn secretary Alice, wonderfully progressing from supportive friend to unlikely lover. The infamous swimming pool scene, in which Alice is stalked by an unseen adversary still stands out as one of the film’s most memorable moments.
Though certainly not one for the slasher fans of today’s youth, Cat People remains a true delight for classic horror aficionados. Tense, mysterious, and at time utterly over the top, this is the perfect blend of Universal horror and Edgar Allen Poe. Complete with dead canaries.
Dir: Jacques Tourner
Scr: DeWitt Bodeen
Starring: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph
Prd: Val Lewton
DOP: Nicholas Muscuraca
Music: Roy Webb
Runtime: 73 mins
Cat People is out now on Blu-ray and DVD