Title: Cat PeopleDirector: Jacques Tourneur
Starring: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph, Jack Holt
Plot: Irena (Simon) is a Serbian fashion artist currently living in New York City, who soon finds herself caught up in a whirlwind romance with marine engineer Oliver (Smith). However Irena believes that if she intimate with her new husband that an ancient curse from her homeland will turn her into a panther.
Review: Based on the short story “The Bagheeta” by the producer Val Lewton, the film is a very different experience than I expected going into this one expecting a straightforward shape shifter horror. Instead I what this film gives us instead is a much more of a psychological thriller. The film would also be the first of three low budget horror films which director Tourneur made for RKO Studios and despite the limited budget of a paltry $150,000 Tourneur still manages to produce a visually stylish and effective film, whose style has been frequently imitated making it unsurprising that Tourneur would soon be moved onto directing more mainstream projects like “Out of the Past” and “Berlin Express”.
The film moves at a pretty brisk pace when it comes to setting the scene, with Irena and Oliver meeting and getting married seemingly only days after they initially meet. However during their brief courting period it soon becomes clear that something might not be right about Irena as she shares her bizarre beliefs about her hometown, who took up devil worship and witchcraft after their village was enslaved by the Mameluks. The villagers soon being slaughtered by King John of Serbia though despite telling Oliver that she believes that cats represents evil, he still offers to buy her a kitten, a trip which soon results in the pet shop animals becoming frenzied when Irena enters the shop. Personally for myself that would have been a major warning sign that perhaps something isn’t right about her, but then the fact that she is played by the French vixen that is Simon makes me believe that I too would be willing to overlook such things.
Despite the warning signs being there, Oliver still chooses to marry Irena and even with the threat of any sign of sexual arousal threatening to turn her into a panther. To Torneur’s credit he keeps a strong focus on the triggers for her curse so much so that Oliver and Irena never even kiss or have any kind of contact throughout the film. Still its around this point the film splits off into two main threads with Irena entering into therapy with Dr. Judd (Conway) who attempts to figure out the root of her beliefs which at the same time a number of strange events begin to happen in the local area with a number or sheep being found killed with bloody paw prints turning into a woman shoe prints aswell as the most discussed scene in the film in which Oliver’s co-worker Alice believes she is being stalked by a panther at her apartment swimming pool, all the while being able to hear the animal but never being able to see it and finding her robe shredded when the lights come back on but no sign of the mystery big cat.
Despite a short run time of 73 minutes this film did kind of drag for me, perhaps because I was expecting something different than the study of female sexuality which I got instead. At the same time the film manages to pull out a few great moments of tension throughout the film, as the limited budget limits what Tourneur was able to show especially when it came to the panther whose appearances were also limited to due to the budget restrictions which also means that this is far from the most action packed of horror films. These budget limitations would also lead to the creation of the jump scare or “Lewton bus” if you wanted to be technical which would take its name from producer Lewton and in particular a scene were Alice believes that she is being stalked by a panther only to have the tension of the scene suddenly broken by the surprise arrival of a bus.
One of the main gripes I have with this is how unengaging Kent Smith is here leaving it up to the ladies to carry the film with the best scenes often happening when Simon and Randolph confront each other with their being some great scenes of tension as Irena believes (quite rightfully) that Alice is attempting to steal her husband. This of course is only heightened by mystery surround Irena’s curse. At the same time Conway as Dr. Judd seems to have come from the Vincent Price School of psychotherapy as he spends most of his time hamming thing up, while at the same time it would go a way to explaining why he also has a cane sword.
While visually and stylistically a very influential film I couldn’t help but feel that the films it inspired only improved on the formula for scares and dread here, especially when I struggled to get into it, meaning that many of the film’s most noteworthy scenes didn’t perhaps play as effectively as they could have. Still for horror historians this remains an important film in how it would shape future films in the genre and its influence is hard to fault, its just a shame that the plotting didn't grab me as much as I would have liked.