Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Microreview [Film]: Cat People (1942)

Val Lewton was in charge of the "horror unit" at RKO Studios in the early 1940s. He produced nearly a dozen genre-defining movies, saving the studio from financial collapse, launching the careers of several directors, and resurrecting (pun intended) the career of Boris Karloff in the process.

The Meat

If you are a fan of psychological horror movies that leave most of the scares where they are the most frightening (in your brain) than I cannot recommend highly enough the movies Val Lewton produced for RKO Studios -- the "Little Engine that (Sometimes) Could" among movie studios. The first of these films was Cat People.

Born in czarist Russia and emigrating to the States as a child, Lewton had been a newspaper reporter and pulp novelist before getting into the picture business. At RKO, he was given meagre budgets, salacious titles, and permission to use sets left over from other films, then mostly left alone. So one day, the studio handed him a Ziploc bag full of nickles and a title -- Cat People! -- and told him to go off and make something that would keep the studio out of the looming bankruptcy brought on by Orson Welles rolling cigars in $100 bills from the RKO coffers, and smoking as many as he could while down in Brazil and laughing maniacally. By rights, the result of this gamble on Lewton should've been utterly asinine (it's called Cat People, for God's sake. Cat. People.), but instead, it is an unsettling, and almost heartbreaking parable about the fear of commitment and sex, drenched in atmosphere and Eastern European folklore.

The film tells the story of Irena, a Serbian woman living in New York, played by the utterly feline Simone Simon, who believes herself descended from a cursed race of outcasts that developed the power to transform into giant cats through witchcraft and idolatry. She falls in love with a guy named Oliver, but is terrified of what she'll do to her new husband if she allows herself to lose control. This aloofness unwittingly drives Oliver into the arms of Alice, a woman he works with, and boy, if Irena thinks its hard to stay on top of lust, it turns out it might be even harder to stay on top of watch out, Alice.

The Math
Objective Quality: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for overcoming its B-movie budget through the moody and evocative direction of Jacques Tourneur, who later directed the ultimate film noir, Out of the Past; +1 for its pioneering use of jump scares; +1 for introducing psychological horror to the movies; +1 for forming the basis of the Kirk Douglas character, based on Lewton and the Cat People production, in The Bad and the Beautiful.

Penalties: -1 for what is essentially a soap opera plotline; -1 for a relatively show start, given its 73-minute runtime.

Cult Movie Coefficient: 9/10, for an impossible-to-quantify influence on the genre and remaining an effective horror movie even after 70 years

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]