Horror with a Light Touch - Cat People 1942

I just finished watching the original Cat People, made in 1942 by Val Lewton. I didn't know anything about it, or about Mr. Lewton beforehand, only that I love the 1982 version for it's eroticism, intriguiging story, and the reluctant (and oh-so-sexy) monster that is the protagonist.

I was expecting something campy, full of melodrama and bad makeup but with a good story at the core. I've seen plenty of early horror films, and I didn't know that Cat People was different.

Cat People used classic noir cinematography to give a basic love story plot with conflicted and interesting characters a dark edge. Much of it could have gone over wrong and ended up being comical and amusing, but the scenes were just restrained enough to remain compelling.

It's a seductive film. It draws you in with a simple story, elegantly told, and plays with you - like the kittenish lead actress.

One of the things in it's favor, of course, is that lovely old black and white film stock. The "silver screen" that simply feels like you've walked into another world.

The cinematography is careful: lighting, contrast, framing, positioning of the actors, the architecture of the sets. There is a marvelous moment when the "other woman," Alice, is working late in the drafting office. Two large square tables are lit, but the overhead lights are off. The only other light comes from the street, through the window across the room, centered in the picture. Light streams upward, emphasizing the vertical elements in the room, and the line of the ceiling. The effect is to create boxes within boxes. Alice sits at the closest table, in the lower right corner.

The cat woman, beginning to be suspicious and jealous, calls the office. Alice stands up, turning off the light on the table as she does, and walks around it as the phone rings. She walks around the second table, and crosses the window to reach the phone. This makes her appear to move into those boxes, framed tighter and tighter, trapped - but not yet aware of it.

And then there's the pool scene - much like the one in the re-make. Alice sees a shadow on the steps - very briefly. Blink and you'd miss it. She dives into the pool. A tiny box of a room barely bigger than the pool, the light reflecting on the walls, echoing like the voice of the woman in the pool echoes when she screams... an eerie confusion which might make her doubt the shadow she saw moments before.

Items on the sets help reinforce the story. As Irena (the cat woman) tells the story of the evil cat people of her village in Serbia, a large painting looms over her, the corner just visible over her shoulder - featuring, of course, cats - their glowing eyes watchful. A beautiful art deco screen with a panther dominates the room. In one scene, as Irena stalks Alice and her husband - she passes the window of a florist's, which is filled with a display of tiger lilies.

Costuming is no less intentional - and sometimes witty. Irena has a black fur coat which she wears more and more often as the story progresses. It shimmers much like the panther's coat in the zoo. In the final scene, before her death, she has it draped over one shoulder - emphasizing her dual nature.

The costuming element I most enjoyed was Alice's hats. Irena has a pet bird, given to her by her husband. She accidentally frightens it to death, and then takes it to the zoo and feeds it to the panther. When she returns to the apartment, Alice is there - wearing a hat with a great feather. It's later that evening, in the same hat, that Irena stalks her for the first time. On that night, Irena kills some sheep. The next time Irena follows Alice, Alice has a pillbox had made from lambswool (the curly texture of the fur is distinctive.) Then, in the final stalking and confrontation scene, Alice has on another feathered hat.

All of this attention to detail is impressive, considering the film had a limited budget and was shot in 18 days. Val Lewton had been put in charge of RKO's new horror division, and was expected to crank out B-grade commercial schlock that would bring in cash to make up for that disaster from the previous year - Citizen Kane. The studio was angry when they saw the film, fearing it was too subtle and intelligent and would be a flop - but it was a huge success, with audiences sometimes so frightened that there was near-hysteria.

Now I'm going to have to watch some more Val Lewton films. Good thing the Curse of the Cat People is also on the same DVD.