Movie of the Week: Cat People (1942)

I don’t know when it started, or for how long they will have them, but the good folks at Shudder have added a selection of classic Val Lewton films to their streaming line-up. Included in the collection is the granddaddy of the jump scare, Cat People. In the words of Randy “Macho Man” Savage– “Oooh yeah!” 

According to legend, when the Mameluks occupied Serbia, the locals turned from their Christian ways to more demonic worship practices. Once the invading armies were expelled, King John of Serbia looked upon his kinsmen’s sacrilege and slaughtered the heathens. Some escaped death to live in the mountains as cat people where they practiced witchcraft and worshipped the devil.

The legend is fanciful, if not morbid, but it’s a just a load of mythical nonsense to All-American Oliver Reed. He doesn’t believe a word of it, unlike his new lady friend, Irena Dubrovna, a fashion illustrator, whom he met at the Central Park Zoo. She is Serbian and believes the legend very much. Despite their differences in belief, the two are instantly attracted to each other.

Their courtship is a weird one. Oliver is the first friend Irena has made since arriving in the States, and she’s reluctant to begin a romantic relationship. It doesn’t deter her American suitor, though. He’s head over heels for Irena. As a show of friendship, he buys Irena a kitten since she seems to be so interested in cats (she was sketching a panther at the zoo when they met). The kitten hisses at her, and wants nothing to do with her. It seems to be downright frightened of the woman, actually. Irena’s response is, “Cats don’t like me.” An incident at a pet shop reveals no animals can really tolerate the poor woman.

The relationship endures. Even with Irena believing she is descended from the mountain dwelling cat people of Serbian folklore, Oliver still proposes marriage to her. And she accepts. In their defense, love makes you do crazy things. Love Goggles are something else.

After their wedding, they attend a dinner at a Serbian restaurant with Oliver’s coworkers (Alice, his assistant is there, and she is truly in love with Oliver, but she’s cool about this whole thing of him marrying another woman). During the course of the evening, a rather feline-looking lady, also Serbian, approaches Irena and says, rather cryptically, “Moya sestra.” Translation: “My sister.” Quite odd, but Oliver dismisses it– he just married the love of his life, he doesn’t have a care in the world.

Believing herself to be a cat person, Irena slaps a chastity belt on any ideas Oliver had for the boudoir. If she experiences any strong, extreme passionate feelings, she will transform into a panther and maul her new husband to death. A lot of people expect that on their wedding night, but Oliver indulges his new bride. He continues to indulge her for a considerable time until he runs into the arms of Alice. That’s when Irena gives into her more feral side.

Cat People was intended as a B-movie, but it is superior in every manner to the poverty row shockers of the time period and some its prestige picture competition. There’s a lot to be said for subtlety and suggestion which is where this classic’s 1982 remake derailed.