Monday, 11 October 2010

Cat People (1942)

Image Copyright RKO Pictures
Created from a focus group title, it would have been easy for this film to be a low-budget schlock horror, but thanks to the combined efforts of writers DeWitte Bodeen and Val Lewton, along with director Jack Tornuer, the finished movie is a complex psychodrama, full of ambiguities and complex motivations.
The basic premise of the film, that serbian born Irena Dubrovna either is, or believes that she is, cursed to turn into a panther if she becomes aroused, is used to slowly build tension throughout the picture, with the audience being kept unclear on the actual extent of the reality of Irena's curse.
The film makes extensive use of light and shadow, and the interplay between lighting and black and white film.  In a particularly memorable scene, set in the basement swimming pool of an apartment block, involves Irena's romantic rival, Alice Moore, seeing the shadow of a big cat descending the stairs towards her, and then being menaced by noises from the shadows.
Image copyright RKO Pictures
As Robert Ebert says in his review of the film, "(the film isn't)...frightening like a slasher movie, using shocks and gore, but frightening in an eerie, mysterious way that was hard to define; the screen harbored unseen threats"
At the time of the films release, however, the critical reception was more ambivilent, with the New York Times film correspondent Bosley Crowther describing it as a "...a labored and obvious attempt to induce shock." and was particularly critical of Simone Simon's performance as Irena.

Image copyright RKO Pictures
The influence of this this film is hard to overstate - it introduced many of the staple setpieces of horror films, such as menacing shadows, suggesting the presence of the monster by showing only the aftermath, and using silence to build the suspense.  All of these ingredients combine to produce what describes as "The classiest of B movie horrors"

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