My interest in Val Lewton’s Cat People has always stemmed from seeing Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake back in the day, and until last night I had never seen the original all the way through. Every so often I would catch portions of it on TCM and I had always thought it was a psychological horror film. I thought it was about this chick who thought she was one of these cat people, because I always caught those scenes with the psychiatrist and that scene at the end when she let the panther out of its cage. It was a pleasant surprise to finally see it was a movie about a chick that actually does shape-shift into a black panther. I’ve never been into Val Lewton so that could be why I never really stayed with the movie when I saw it on TCM. Learning Criterion was finally releasing it on blu-ray is what spurned me to finally get my shit together and watch it all way through. I enjoyed it too, so, yes, this will be added to my collection now.
The Irena (Simone Simon) from Lewton’s flick is Siberian and I get the impression she’s newly arrived in New York. She comes from a region of Siberia that has a lot of supernatural history with people worshipping Satan and the like. When she was a kid her father disappeared under odd circumstances and the villagers used to call her mother a witch. Some of these “witches” are known to be cat people, beings who when jealous or angered, or even turned on, can’t help but shift into the form of a black panther and kill. Irena has always believed she had this power within her, and because of that has never gotten close to anyone until Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) comes along, bumping into him at the zoo while she sketched the panther.
Both of these characters are “odd.” Clearly Irena for believing she’s one of the cat people and Oliver for revealing at one point in the film he’s never been unhappy, not even as a kid, which is why he’s at a loss as to how to deal with Irena’s seeming “psychological” obsession with the legends of her childhood village. Which is starting to create a rift in their relationship. And then he reveals how he has to watch her whenever she’s in a room with him and has to touch her whenever she’s near. They’re made for each other. Their romance is a whirlwind one, a short time after meeting they’re in love, engaged then married.
However, real problems arise when Alice (Jane Randolph) enters the picture. She’s Oliver’s co-worker and one he’s known for a long time. She’s the one who suggested to him Irena might want to see a psychiatrist, and Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) might be that person who can help her. He’s a smarmy son of a bitch too, who clearly finds Irena attractive, and who ends up trying to shove his tongue down her throat, but all he gets in return is a fatal mauling by the panther side of her personality.
To make matters worse Oliver finally realizes he’s more in love with Alice than with Irena. Before he hits her with that piece of devastating news, Irena finds herself blacking out and stalking Alice a couple of times throughout the film. Once he tells her he’s no longer in love with her, she makes it a point now to try and kill the both of them while they’re at work one night. This mythos of the Cat People seems more reliant on them being evil and because of that Oliver’s “petition to God” to protect them while holding up an industrial sized ruler (he and Alice are architects) whose shadow looks like a cross as Irena corners them in the office works in driving her away.
In the beginning one of her drawings is revealed to an unconscious omen as to how she would inevitably die. She drew the panther with a sword through it and as she attacked Judd in the final moments of the film he was able to fatally wound her with his sword cane, part of which can be seen sticking out of the back of her shoulder as she dies in front of the panther cage. Her body reverting back to its panther form and showing Oliver and Alice she was indeed one of the dreaded Siberian cat people. But by that point they were already firm believers, believe you me.
A sequel was made in 1944 called, The Curse Of The Cat People, and to date I have not seen it yet. I understand it’s a strange little film that’s very different from the first one.
Cat People has had several DVD releases in the past, mostly doubled up with it’s sequel and added to a collection of Val Lewton films, this blu-ray, release, however, from the Criterion Collection (back on September 20th) is the first time it’s gotten a high definition upgrade. Criterion also released it on DVD the same day, for those not blu-ray compatible.
Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 1.37:1 high definition widescreen—English LPCM Mono—English SDH subs only
Extras included . . .
- Audio Commentary With Film Historian Gregory Mank (ported over from the 2005 DVD)
- John Bailey (16:36)
- Cine Regards (26:37)
- Val Lewton: The Man In The Shadows (2008) (1:16:40)