Sunday, 17 April 2011

Cat People

The first film in a series of moody, literate horror films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s, Cat People is an evocative example of how effective the ‘less is more’ approach to horror can be. Directed with effective restraint by Jacques Tourneur, the film is a masterpiece of mood and atmosphere. Choosing to suggest the horror rather than show it outright, Cat People remains a beautifully eerie and atmospheric chiller to this day. One of the first films to reference the work of Sigmund Freud, it plays out as a dark and unflinching study of sexual repression and anxiety.

Head over to the Classic Horror Campaign to read my full review.

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17 comments:

Greg said...

I LOVE this movie! Lewton is at the top of my list of favorite film-makers and his movies are such gems. It's sad not much people are aware of him, especially compared to films from Universal. I always credit the 30s-40s as my favorite era for horror films due in part to Lewton's films. He truly was a master at his craft, from Cat People to I Walked With a Zombie to Body Snatcher. Just a truly fantastic and gorgeous style that makes me proud to call myself a horror fan.

James said...

Couldn't agree more, Greg!

Mykal said...

James: Just read the review over at CHC - You've captured the essence of this great film; from the lullaby score to the "Lewton bus" (no one who has ever seen that bus scene; or the pool scene - can ever forget them). Cat People and my personal fav, I Walked With A Zombie, Puts the splashy gore of so much of today's intestine spillers to shame.

James said...

Thanks Mykal! I have such fond memories of watching this one on TV late at night when I was young and should have been fast asleep. The scenes you mentioned were imprinted on my brain instantly on watching and remain just as vivid today... Love Lewton. :)

maren said...

Your Val Lewton/ Karloff reviews were what brought me to this blog, I never mentioned this. Ca. 18 years ago we had only the Cat people + walked with a zombie VHS tapes,were completely fascinated and tried to invite all our friends to see them (who were usually just slightly bored) Now in Internet times there are MORE and they are NEW to me!My personal favourite now is Bedlam, "the greatest of them all"
I like to recommend the blog "sparksinelectricaljelly" to you .its the most detailed carefully observed analysis of Lewton´s films with lots of backgroud information I´ve ever seen -and like the films it should be more well known.

James said...

Thanks very much Maren! I am indeed aware of Sparks In Electrical Jelly - it's a great blog.
I too used to own only Cat People, Curse of the Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie on VHS. A few years back however I picked up a wonderful boxset of the films complete with special features, commentaries by various filmmakers and critics and a documentary on the work of Lewton. Well worth a look if you fancy treating yourself! :)

maren said...

Well, the question is not if I fancy treating myself but if I like to share ;) AFAIK its a RC1 set without german or any subtitles and for most people I know it will be difficult or impossible to understand.

I wonder how long it took RKO to find that completely untalented artist who painted that Cat People poster, just look at the panter´s face!
BTW some weeks ago I discovered Odd Man Out. R.Krasker was a genius!

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

CAT PEOPLE is one of the glaring 'classics' of horror cinema I believe to be overrated. I'd extend that to virtually all of the Val Lewton produced films with the exception of THE BODY SNATCHER, which is a minor masterpeice.

James said...

Shaun I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree with you on this. Cat People IS a classic. It was so influential and groundbreaking in terms of its impact on horror cinema. Considering it was intended as a low budget cash-in on Universal’s The Wolf Man, and the lyrical, literate, subtle and intelligent film Lewton and Tourneur actually produced, it completely defied expectations. The modern setting, the ambiguity, the stylish lighting and the strangely erotic subtext were all also unique for the time. A number of scenes are expertly staged and still manage to have quite an impact to this day. Sure, some of it has dated and it is far from perfect (show me a film that IS perfect) but it (and I Walked with a Zombie) damn near comes close!

I do however agree with you that The Body Snatchers is something of an underrated minor-masterpiece. There is a place in my heart for all Lewton’s horror productions.

Mykal said...

Shaun! My goodness!

Ditto what James said.

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

An excellent defence of CAT PEOPLE James, I'm always glad to read passionate defences of films I don't personally think cut the mustard. I'm actually in agreement with John Carpenter on the 'horror' productions of Val Lewton. I think a major weakness of CAT PEOPLE is that the monster/creature is never revealed. The build up is great and I agree with all your points, but this is supposed to be a horror film, at least have the decency to show what is causing all the horror...even if it is a brief shot at the end. I've always thought the Lewton films are Noir anyway, their classification as horror is arguable.

But at least I surprised Mykal! :-)

James said...

I can completely understand why you feel that way, Shaun. It could be argued that Lewton copped out by not showing a monster. However, given the low budget it probably would have looked terrible and ruined all that lovely build up! I know it could also be argued that by saying he wanted to let the audience use their imagination; a far more effective tool to scare themselves with than any imagery cinema could conjure at this time, Lewton was also copping out. I however, am a strong believer that Lewton wanted audiences to use their own imaginations to conjure up all sorts of nightmarish monsters and lurking things. Lewton actually referred to his horror films as ‘terror’ films. The desired reaction he sought to illicit was not to disgust or revolt – like the term ‘horror’ would imply - but to terrify. Stephen King discusses the difference between ‘horror’ (revulsion, disgust) and ‘terror’ (extreme fear) in 'Danse Macabre.' Lewton knew that by being suggestive, the audiences would do the rest.

:)

Mykal said...

Shaun and James: I think that simply leaving a scene to the imagination is much different than creating a scene that shapes the imagination in terrifying ways. Lewton and Tourneur very consciously did the latter. The pool scene leaps to mind. In that scene, far from allowing an imagination to wander on its own, the film leads the viewer brilliantly right into a festering, little skin crawl.

However, I am more often than not with you, Shaun, in wishing to see the monster. I always love it when a budget-strapped picture - like so many my beloved 50s sci-fi - gives it their best shot. “Leaving a scene to the imagination” actually takes supreme skill not to be just an artsy cop out. I would agree with Shaun, that the Lewton films are more noirs or perhaps psychological thrillers than traditional horror films (great explanation – via Stephen King - of the difference, James).

And surprise me you did, Shaun! I love it when someone argues well against the grain. What a crap world it would be if everyone loved the same things for the same reasons!

The mark of a good blog, James: gets folks thinking and talking.

James said...

Thank you Mykal! It is lovely to be able to chat and debate about such films with like-minded folk. I’m sure if I attempted to discuss the merits and influence of Val Lewton’s terror flicks with some of my non-horror loving friends, a few eyes would roll!
And you’re absolutely right about how Lewton and Tourneur crafted these scenes to shape the imagination. The use of shadow and light and the editing in the pool scene and the Central Park walk expertly guide us right to shuddery spine-tingles.

I can see your point about revealing the monster – and how even in budget-strapped pictures you feel they should give it a shot – but I still maintain that to do so in the likes of the lyrical Cat People would have eviscerated the mood. It’s what sets Cat People apart. As much as I love schlocky monsters and aliens with golf-balls for eyes, Cat People isn’t about that, and of course, there is the argument that there isn’t a monster at all – all this is in Irena’s mind. And yes, much of Lewton’s titles, especially The Seventh Victim and Isle of the Dead fall firmly into the psychological thriller genre; another place in cinema his work influenced, though probably doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

The problem with CAT PEOPLE though is that it is not just a scene that leaves everything to the imagination...it's the entire film. The reason for not revealing the monster is entirely due to the budget as you point out, but that didn't stop Universal. I think the Lewton films were appropriated by horror fans as a means of legitimising the genre. I think in this case James you're splitting heirs by highlighting the difference between horror and terror. Althoug CAT PEOPLE may have worked on the impulses you mentioned, it was totally marketed by RKO as a horror picture. In fact their promotional strategies were such that many people mistook the Lewton films for Universal productions. Perhaps I'm being stubborn, but the Lewton films for me just do not work as horror films. Psychological thrillers perhaps, film noir very much so..but horror, not quite. I think they merit an approach that doesn't restrict them to the horror genre.

James said...

I still don’t see that as a problem though, Shaun. I like ambiguity and suggestiveness in horror films; it can be really effective if handled right – and I really believe Lewton and Tourneur got it right. I’ve always seen this as one of Cat People’s strengths. Lewton was incredibly daring and subversive in his approach to making the film. He really put his own neck on the line to bring RKO something different, intelligent and evocative. They would’ve been happy with loads of scenes featuring ladies in nightdresses being chased up trees by were-cats. Had this been the case, we probably wouldn’t be having this exchange right now. And I still believe Cat People IS a horror film. It demonstrates how varied and far-reaching approaches to horror can be.
And sure, I guess much of the marketing etc could be attributed to Cat People’s ‘roaring’ success at the time (sorry), but word of mouth also drove audiences to check it out. You can’t really blame horror fans for ‘appropriating’ Cat People as it was marketed as nothing else but a horror flick. The whole idea behind it was to create a film that could exploit the success of Universal’s The Wolf Man – all the marketing was geared to emphasise the lurid quality of the story. Which is fantastic, because when you watch Cat People there’s really nothing ‘lurid’ or sordid about it! It is tasteful, atmospheric, creepy and elegant!

James said...

PS Lewton was one of the first filmmakers to approach horror from a distinctly 'psychological' viewpoint. Most of his work could be described as belonging to the genre of the 'psychological thriller.' Still horror though! ;)