Sunday, 30 October 2016

CAT PEOPLE (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)

My local rep house had a screening of the Val Lewton-Jacques Tourneur horror classic Cat People. I've never seen it, so I went along.

This movie is very well known, so I'll keep the plot synopsis short: An all-American guy Oliver (Kent Smith) meets a repressed European woman, Irena (Simone Simon) at the zoo. About 5 minutes later they fall in love. And 5 minutes after that they get married. The young woman refuses to sleep with or even kiss her husband, for fear that she will turn into a panther and kill him. Hubby gets frustrated and seeks help from his female friend Alice (Jane Randolph) who is in love with him. Then shit goes bad.

This is a low budget movie with a 72 minute running time, so I'll try to cut it some slack. The acting is pretty bad -- ranging from comatose (lead Kent Smith is about as appealing as a tree stump) to solid (Jane Randolph is the best thing in the movie).

Putting all that aside, this movie's reputation is based on its two main set pieces -- Irena tailing Alice through Central Park, and the pool sequence, in which Alice is trapped by an unseen feline who stalks around the pool.

These scenes are terrific, and remain as terrifying today as they did over 70 years ago. Relying almost entirely on lighting and sound design, Tourneur makes Irena's supernatural alter ego feel like a genuine threat without ever resorting to the crude creature effects which mar his otherwise excellent Night/Curse of the Demon (1957).

They save the rest of the movie, which, despite its short running time, drags in places. The rapid blast through the plot also means the emotional beats don't have a chance to land. And while the set pieces are great, the ending is strangely underwhelming -- it may have something to do with the fact that these latter scenes feature a real panther, and lack Tourneur's usual subtlety.

 I didn't like it as much as Night of the Demon, but flaws aside, Cat People is definitely worth a look. Make sure you see it on the biggest screen you can with a great sound system.

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