Last year filmmakers, film historians, film critics and hardcore cinephiles across the world celebrated the 75th Diamond Anniversary of the film the American Film Institute calls the “greatest motion picture ever made”: Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Lead actor, director, co-writer and co-producer Welles brought the film to life when he was only in his mid 20’s following his legendary War of the Worlds broadcast for the Mercury Radio Theatre. Citizen Kane, a fictionalized portrait of a newspaper magnate and playboy modeled after William Randolph Hearst, helped to set the prototype for the modern 20th Century film. It has served as a model for countless aspiring filmmakers. Welles’ was unique at the time in the fact that he appeared on both sides of the camera, had total control of the project and used cinema as an art form to open up new conceptual and visual frontiers. Yes, the film was a commercial failure when released by its parent studio RKO Radio Pictures, but it would eventually be recognized as one of the crowning achievements of Welles’ career, and a monumental achievement in the Golden Age of Hollywood.
What fewer people will know is that the same studio that produced Citizen Kane, released another film in the following year, equally worthy of admiration. That film is Cat People (1942), a beautiful, poetic vintage horror film which marked the Hollywood debut of two great foreigner-turned-American filmmakers, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, along with a brilliant, psychosexual twist on the shapeshifter theme so popular in world mythology. Here, in the year of the film’s Diamond Anniversary, this film should be recognized for lending sophistication to a Hollywood genre that at the was becoming kiddie fare in the wake of World War II.
RKO, desperate for a way to recoup the expensive costs of Kane’s budget, found exactly what it was looking for in Val Lewton (1904-1951). Born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in Yalta, a Russian city that is now part of the Ukraine, Lewton immigrated to Berlin with his mother Nina (who left his original father, a moneylender) and siblings, and arrived in New York in 1909, growing up in the suburban section of Port Chester. His aunt was the legendary silent movie actress and producer Alla Nazimova. He followed his mother’s profession in writing letters, eventually going on to write eighteen volumes of poetry, fiction (including erotica) and non-fiction. Eventually, he landed a job as a writer in MGM’s New York-based publicity office, writing serialized novelizations of popular films for magazines.
One of Lewton’s original novels was a 1932 pulp noir called No Man of Her Own, quickly and loosely adapted for a film starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. The success of this film led to Lewton quitting his writing job in New York and moving to Hollywood. With a recommendation written by his mother, Lewton went to work for Hollywood mogul David Selznick at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, as a writer for a project based on Nikolai Gogol’s novel Taras Bulba. Although the film never materialized, Lewton continued to work for Selznick as an assistant, story editor, a scout for literary sources to be adapted for film, and a publicist. After years of uncredited work as a writer, Lewton eventually received his first credit (“revolutionary sequences arranged by”) in Selznick’s 1935 version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
Finally, in 1942, Lewton became leading producer of RKO’s horror unit at a time when the studio was looking to the horror genre as a viable way to earn back quick bucks, just as Universal Pictures had been doing quite successfully at the time. Lewton, paid $250 a week in his new position, had to follow three main rules: each film had to be budgeted at $150,000 or less, run no more than 75 minutes, and the film titles had to be supplied by his executive supervisors. His first film would be Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur (1904-1977), son of French director Maurice Tourneur, who had begun a filmmaking career as an extra while still in high school and worked his way up to a script clerk, editor, and assistant director at MGM. Jacques had also directed quite a substantial number of shorts, worked as a second unit director on Selznick’s A Tale of Two Cities, and had already directed several features for MGM including 1939’s They All Come Out, before leaving MGM and joining Lewton’s unit, which included screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen.
Starting with Cat People, Lewton, Tourneur and Bodeen became a crack unit responsible for crafting a new type of horror film in which the ultimate horror was to be implied rather than seen, and which usually focused on psychoanalytical themes relating to conscious and subconscious fears. Although Cat People was intended to be a B-movie, it would eventually turn out to be a masterpiece. Rather than use the tacky cat monster-suits offered to him by the studio designers in the mold of the iconic Universal creations of makeup artist Jack Pierce (e.g Frankenstein , The Mummy  and The Wolf Man ), the film took another direction. This was in large part due to Lewton’s philosophy (both thrifty and creative), along with Bodeen’s writing and Tourneur’s unique handling of cinematographic and lighting techniques similar to contemporary film noir. Lewton makes his vision clear, here:
“Now there are two kinds of horror films, in my opinion. One is the monster-type, where they shoot the works in the first reel and from then on it’s all downhill. And the other is a very carefully built-up mood picture of terror where you never see the monster, the monster is all in the minds of the people. They’re all obsessed with fears, and there are certain basic fears in everybody that can be dramatized.”
Believe it or not, Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer had fashioned a similar approach a decade ago with his one and only straight horror picture Vampyr (1932), another genre masterpiece in which the usual monster approach was abandoned for a minimalist approach that would befit a low budget while allowing for imagination of an original and un-paralleled sort. Or, in Dreyer’s words:
“Imagine that we are sitting in a very ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. Instantly, the room we are sitting in is completely altered… everything in it has taken on another look. The light and the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed and the objects are as we conceive them.”
There are differences between the two, however. Whereas Dreyer’s Vampyr was more abstract and experimental with the cinematic form, Cat People seemed pretty mainstream in 1942 with its conventional narrative. Cat People was also an original concept by Bodeen, whereas Dreyer’s film was a loose adaptation of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla. And while Vampyr was a box-office failure, Cat People, at only $141,659, grossed $4 million, making it 1942’s top sleeper blockbuster, and also putting RKO back on track as an economically solvent rival to horror film giants MGM, Paramount and Universal. There are some who argue that Cat People actually grossed far less during its initial release, but in any case it was an unprecedented blockbuster. It would also earn future accolades, eventually being selected as part of the National Film Registry by the Nation Film Preservation Board in 1993.
Cat People follows the story of Irene Dubrovna, a fashion designer of Serbian origin, played by the sultry Simone Simon in a performance that is as vulnerable and tragic as it is intense and seductive. Dubrovna has fallen in love with a New Yorker and marine engineer (Kent Smith) named Oliver Reed (yes, it’s true!). Although they hit it off quickly and are married a short while afterward, bad things start to happen: a pet bird given by Oliver to Irene as an engagement present dies of fright, a cat given to Irene as a replacement pet hisses at her (“Cats just don’t like me”), and their wedding reception is interrupted by another Serbian woman who walks up to Irene and addresses her as moya sestra (“my sister”). Worst of all, profound feelings of repression dominate Irene when she tries to consummate her marriage with Oliver.
As the plot progresses, we learn that Irene is descended from a race of Balkan witches, formerly Christian women who turned to witchcraft following enslavement by the Mameluks (or Mamluks, Muslim rulers formerly of slave origin themselves). Most of her race was destroyed by King John of Serbia, or Jovan Nenad, the military commander of the Kingdom of Hungary who founded his own state in the southern Pannonian Plain. He killed most of the witches after driving out the Mameluks in an attempt to pacify his kingdom. However, according to what we hear from Irene, the “wisest and the most wicked” of these witches escaped into the Balkan mountains along with their magic.
Irene believes that, as a direct descendent of these surviving witches, she has inherited their curse as revenge for the witches that were killed. If she opens up passionately to Oliver, a Christian man, she will herself be transformed against her own will into a vicious panther that will maul him. Although she wants to be open with Oliver, he is at first dismissive of the story, and when she consults a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), we learn that even her own mother was nastily called a cat person as a child, and that her own father died mysteriously. To make matters worse, Oliver begins turning to another for help, his own assistant Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), a more “confident and liberated” woman, in order to try and relieve his own frustrations, which eventually results in Alice confessing her love to Oliver and Irene eyeing her as a threat to their marriage. Eventually both Oliver and Alice are stalked, sheep in a local zoo are killed, and strange cat sounds and shadows are heard. All hell is about to break loose…
Although this was only their first venture together, Lewton, Tourneur and Bodeen surpassed all the expectations of the studio and public. Cat People still remains as scary as it was when it was released, a black-and-white masterpiece of atmosphere and unrequited love. Working with sets left over from Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, and using angled shots combined with a mixture of foreground lighting and silhouetted shadows thanks to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (some of which were made by Tourneur’s hands against barely lit walls), Lewton was able to fashion a fable of beauty and horror that hit the psyche of audiences reeling from the arrival of World War II the year before.
Cat People is particularly famous for introducing the fake scare effect that would be frequently used in films ever since: the “Lewton Bus.” Alice and Oliver leave work and go their own separate ways. Alice walks along a sidewalk unaware at first that another woman, who we presume is Irene, is stalking her. The camera eyes their feet, cutting back to a full shot of Alice going past lamp posts that make each frame look like a chiaroscuro painting. Suddenly the female stalker’s footsteps disappear, and Alice becomes aware of the sudden absence of sound, as one might notice a new sound. She picks up speed, stops in front of a lamppost, and hears growling panther sounds. Then out of nowhere, a piercing shriek is heard that cuts right down to nerve central… just less than a second before a city bus comes into full view that Alice boards in growing apprehension. This fake scare made history long before the trendsetting shower scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and countless filmmakers have applied this technique in their own productions.
Another often-discussed moment is the swimming pool scene. Alice, now certain that she’s being stalked and seeking refuge along with a refreshing swim, enters a pool room, lit only by the light from underwater. Hearing the same cat sounds, the one-piece clad Alice dives headfirst into the water, then emerges, only to find that the panther growls haven’t stopped, but are escalating in volume, with cat shadows briefly cutting across the rippling light reflections against the wall. After they build to what sound like roars, Alice lets out a scream. It echoes, drawing attention from the outside as it is repeated… then the scene cuts to a hand flicking a dimly-lit switch, revealing Irene with a cool smile as she looks down on Alice with hidden scorn and a playful girlish gesture. This alone is unsettling enough, but concludes with a zoom-in as Alice, coming out of the pool to dry herself off shortly after Irene departs, is handed back her own bathrobe by the desk clerk… the robe has been slashed to ribbons.
Of course, what makes Cat People valid for study, even for non-horror “civilians”, is its study of romantic relationships, repressed sexuality, and psychoanalysis within the context of the shapeshifter theme. After we see that the sheep in the zoo have been butchered, we follow Irene back to her apartment – she has blood on her hands, she shrugs off Oliver on her way to the bathroom, and while bathing in a four-pawed tub she cries, as drops of water roll down her bare back like the sheep’s blood that has been shed. This was a pretty daring reveal nearly a decade after the initiation of the Hays Production Code in 1933, which sought to impose its own supposedly sanctimonious purity on filmmakers’ work while trimming down the sex, violence and other depraved themes and visual content of Pre-Code works. Lewton would have known all about this, as one of his early jobs for Selznick included acting as a runner between the Hays Office and the executive building to check on censorship legitimacy during development and production of films.
Cat People reveals in its own way, much like the hypocrisy of the Hays Code, how repression in any and every sense fails, and how its practice not only affects the individual, but also those around him/her. Although she wants to save her failing marriage, Irene is unable to tell Oliver about her horrible past or recent activities, driving the two of them further apart and putting their marriage at risk. The same could be said about the manner in which the Hays Code tried to cut down or squeeze out of existence the uncensored versions of films like King Kong, The Sign of the Cross (1932), Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1931), which would all eventually appear very tame in later decades. This would be especially true from the mid-to-late 60’s, when censor barriers started exploding due to the growing sex ‘n violence of the times and a new ratings system, the Motion Picture Association of America, would emerge to give more creative freedom to the New Wave of filmmakers and entertainment to audiences wanting to see what before had merely been implied.
Then there is the skillful manner in which the film hints at Irene being a shapeshifting man-eater while remaining ambiguous in its suggestion. To that extent, and due to a lack of shapeshifting visuals like those seen in Universal’s The Werewolf of London (1935) and The Wolf Man, the studio insisted that Lewton and Tourneur insert a shot with a featured cat, that being the panther in the zoo which opens the film’s narrative and to which Irene becomes increasingly drawn. Irene’s humming chant, prominent in Roy Webb’s evocative score, sounds more like a children’s lullaby than a curse, even though we know that children’s lullabies can contain darker secrets than what is heard on the surface. Her dream sequence – a montage complete with nifty animated black cats and the figure of King John of Serbia as embodied by Dr. Judd in armor and crown with brandished sword while his conventional scientific diagnosis plays over the images – complements the quietly intense scenes where she is at odds with Dr. Judd over the outcome of her obsession with her ancestry and curse. Although we believe in the end that she really is a metamorphosing killer, the film never lets up in its coy approach to the material. Cat People could be seen as a film about a shapeshifting monster unleashed by a curse, or as an examination of a woman suffering from childhood trauma that has been carried into adulthood and her faltering marriage. It doesn’t help that Judd has become increasingly infatuated with her both psychologically and sexually as a patient-turned-test-subject, and eventually abuses his position as both friend and doctor with fatal results.
Perhaps most importantly, Cat People introduces a theme just as enticing as that of the Shapeshifter – that of the Id Demon lurking within the human consciousness that wants out after being repressed by civilized values that fail to compensate for hidden trauma and desire. Through Irene’s childhood trauma, and its long term consequences in the form of Oliver’s decision to annul their marriage and begin anew with Alice, we see how the damaging effects of abuse, neglect, repression, dysfunctional relations and even divorce, scar countless generations. Forbidden Planet (1956) would later reprise the Id Monster theme while niftily incorporating extra-terrestrial technology into the mix. David Cronenberg’s most personal masterpiece of body horror, The Brood (1979), would take it to nearly-unbearable heights by showing how monstrosity in a troubled childhood only spawns more monstrosity, in the form of the parthenogenetically-spawned malformed infants of the title. Such films would certainly not exist without the groundwork laid out by Cat People.
Finally, I would be remiss if I left out the fact that Cat People also touches on a theme that would be explored later on in horror: the price of revenge. The aforementioned curse aside, Irene is also an innocent victim cursed by feelings of infidelity regarding her husband Oliver, and subsequent vengeful rage directed towards Alice. In the end, after cornering Oliver and Alice in cat form within their own office space and in the, Irena kills herself in a tragic and ingenious manner rather than allow herself to further harm Oliver. What’s amazing is how the themes of repression and the ultimate price of revenge meld into one; future horror auteur Wes Craven would take these connected themes to deranged, depraved and even more unsettling, stomach-churning heights with films including his notorious debut The Last House on the Left (1972), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and his landmark masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which introduced a hidden inner demon with far more autonomy and personality than Irena was allowed: 1980’s and 90’s horror icon dream assassin Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund).
Going back to the early 1940’s, the success of Cat People encouraged Lewton, Tourneur and Bodeen to respond with yet another “implied-horror” tale, this time being I Walked With a Zombie (1943), an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre moved to the world of voodoo worship in the Caribbean, but the film’s failure led to Lewton and Bodeen attempting to repeat the success of Cat People with the sequel, The Curse of the Cat People (1944). This is a sequel in name only; although Kent Smith and Jane Randolph reprise their roles as Oliver and Alice, now parents living in Tarrytown (where Lewton himself spent much of his childhood and young adulthood), and Simone Simon returns as Irene (who met with a tragic death in the last film), the subject had changed, substituting a troubled childhood filled with loneliness in place of the shapeshifter theme, a subject only suggested in the original.
The child in this case is introverted Amy (Ann Carter), a daydreaming girl who has no friends – except for those she creates in her imagination – and who struggles to get much attention from her busy father, Oliver. Despite Oliver insisting that she make real friends, the lonely Amy eventually stumbles upon a photo of the late Irene with Oliver taken during their marriage… and gradually summons up the ghost of Irene as her new and ultimate imaginary friend! And to make things more disturbing, in trying to establish relationships with real people, Amy discovers an aging actress and recluse, Julia Farren (Julia Dean) who has distanced herself from her daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell) because she has come to believe that Barbara is actually a spy impersonating Barbara. Barbara gradually begins to take a disliking to Amy, including entertaining thoughts of murder. Things begin to take a turn for the worst when Amy decides to break a promise with ghost Irene not to reveal their friendship to real people, including her parents, in order to prove to her father that she has found a friend in the deceased Irene.
Curse is filled with its own mixture of fantasy and horror that is far more overt than the original. Whereas Cat People was both acknowledging and coy with its shadow monster theme, Curse depicted scenes in summer and winter that wouldn’t look out of place in, say, Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937), or Rene Clair’s I Married a Witch (1942) and Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast/La Belle et la Bête (1946). The same critics and audiences who saw Curse after Cat People were in some cases polarized by the shift in theme and tone – while there were those who liked the inclusion of tangible fantasy elements, there were others who felt that it was out of keeping with what the original established. The latter views do a disservice to Curse’s attempt to try something new. Variety called it “highly disappointing”, but famed New York Times contrarian critic Bosley Crowther actually gave it praise as “an oddly touching study of the working of a sensitive child’s mind.”
There’s a magic to the surroundings that belies the horror hidden within – particularly when Irene and Amy have their enchanting conversations together in the Reeds’ backyard, or when Julia gives a storytelling performance of the regional legend of the Headless Horseman that is as captivating as it is unsettling. Of interest, perhaps, is that the last third of the film takes place during Christmas, and goes from scenes showing traditional holiday merriment complete with caroling, to distressing scenes of sadness with Amy seeking to abandon her parents in order to pursue her journey away from loneliness into her imagination. But to tell what happens at this point would be to spoil the whole thing. In any case, Curse, like its predecessor, would be shown and discussed in college psychology courses many years afterward. Time has also been far kinder to this film than most audiences were during its release: the Moving Arts Film Journal went so far as to list Curse as the 35th greatest film of all time in 2010.
Perhaps more importantly, The Curse of the Cat People introduced a new talent who would become a legendary filmmaker in his own right: Robert Wise, who in his directing debut shared credit with Gunther von Fritsch. Wise’s career, which spanned more than half a century, began with sound and music editing work for RKO, including The Gay Divorcee (1934) and Top Hat (1935), both starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He worked his way up to film editor, with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo and Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda, and even Citizen Kane, for which he had received his first Oscar nomination for Film Editing. Following Curse, Wise directed another Lewton-produced classic, an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Body Snatcher in 1945, starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and would go on to direct some of American cinema’s greatest classics including: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); Run Silent, Run Deep (1958); West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), both musicals for which he won Best Director and Best Picture Academy Awards; The Andromeda Strain (1971), which made screenwriter-author Michael Crichton a hot property in Hollywood long before Jurassic Park (1993), Twister (1996), and TV’s ER; and even Star Trek – The Motion Picture (1979), which despite vast disappointment from the Trekkies became a blockbuster hit that elevated Gene Roddenberry’s most iconic show from 1960’s cult status to a massive franchise that included many sequels, spinoff series and vast merchandise.
In between West Side Story and The Sound of Music, Wise directed, in homage to the late Lewton, The Haunting (1963), based on Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 bestseller The Haunting of Hill House. This film would itself prove to be just as influential as Lewton’s Cat People and has been acknowledged as a an influence on later ghost and haunted house thrillers including Stuart Rosenburg’s The Amityville Horror (1979), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999). Wise followed this up more than a decade later with another psychological ghost horror film and homage, Audrey Rose (1977); based on Frank De Felitta’s novel, it starred Sir Anthony Hopkins and incorporated elements of Hinduism and reincarnation while following The Curse of the Cat People’s template. During and after his late directing career, Wise became president of the Director’s Guild of America from 1971 to 1975, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1984 to 1987, as well as a leading member of the National Council of the Arts and Sciences, the Department of Film at the Museum of Modern Art, and the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital, and the American Film Institute’s Board of Trustees. He received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1998, six years before his death at age 91 in 2005, and is still remembered today as one of America’s greatest, most diverse and most influential filmmaking artists, whose work continues to inspire aspiring and established filmmakers today.
Lewton’s own legacy beyond Cat People and Curse extended to several more films, including several horror “B-films.” Among them was The Leopard Man (1943), also directed by Jacques Tourneur, which returned to “cat monster in the shadows” territory. Tourneur’s career would extend far beyond Lewton to include the 1957 horror classic Night of the Demon (or Curse of the Demon when it was cut down and released in the US). Starring Dana Andrews as a skeptical scientist marked as the next victim of a cult’s demonic Pagan god, it marked a return to the Lewton type of horror, but this time with one of cinema’s greatest demon shown onscreen. Other Tourneur classics include Out of the Past (1947) and Berlin Express (1948), and lesser films of some interest including The Giant of Marathon (1959) and War-Gods of the Deep (1965). He also directed some television credits before his retirement and return to France, including several episodes of The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1960-’61), Bonanza (1959-’73), and the “Night Call” episode from Rod Serling’s beloved groundbreaking series The Twilight Zone (1959-’64) during its fifth and last season, scripted by sci-fi/horror master Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man). For this episode, one of the series’ best and most remembered, which starred Gladys Cooper as an old woman haunted by phone calls from the dead, Tourneur returned to the same techniques he helped pioneer with Lewton over two decades before with Cat People.
There were also two more horror classics starring Boris Karloff during the Lewton era: Isle of the Dead (1945), in which Karloff plays a general during the Balkan Wars of 1912 who must track down a “vorvolaka,” an evil vampire-like force inhabiting human form; and Bedlam (1946), the last of Lewton’s horror films as producer, which was inspired by William Hogarth’s series of paintings called A Rake’s Progress, which depicted life in mid-18th century London and most particularly the ill treatment of the patients of Bethlehem Royal Hospital (fictionalized in the film as St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum). The elderly Karloff, in a later interview held by Louis Berg of the Los Angeles Times, had especially high praise for Lewton, calling him “the man who rescued me from the living dead and restored my soul.”
Before these Karloff collaborations, Lewton also produced The Seventh Victim (1943), which marked another directing debut: Mark Robson, who like Wise also worked his way up the ladder from editor to director with credits including Peyton Place (1957), Von Ryan’s Express (1965), Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Earthquake (1974). The film also marked the starring debut of a young Kim Hunter, later to appear as Stella Kowalski to Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski and Vivien Leigh’s Blanche Dubois in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She would earn further fame as the chimpanzee Zira in the first three Planet of the Apes films from 1968 to 1971. The film also features Tom Conway reprising his role as Dr. Louis Judd from Cat People, making this an unofficial prequel to the classic. Hunter plays a Catholic boarding school student, Mary, who is investigating the disappearance of her sister (Jean Brooks). As the film progresses, Mary is pushed towards depression and suicide by an underground Satanic cult, the Palladists, in Greenwich Village; because she has revealed their cult to the outside world.
Set in the same location as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) 25 years later, The Seventh Victim, although a box-office failure, has been influential on later devil cult movies, including Alan Parker’s Angel Heart and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (both 1987). And again, like Cat People, it took a jab at Production Code restrictions with themes of homoeroticism, brought up in the story by a former co-worker of Mary’s sister who shared a lesbian relationship. Part of The Seventh Victim’s authenticity, like that of Cat People, has been due to exquisite attention to detail within everyday settings, some stemming from actual experience lived by frequent Lewton collaborating screenwriter Dewitt Bodeen. Bodeen actually joined a devil worshippers’ meeting to do research and found that instead of a scene of old pagan worship straight out of Macbeth, the members of the society were old folks who “were casting spells on Adolf Hitler while they knitted and crocheted.”
Lewton was cursed to live a short-lived life. Although a fantastic producer and a willing collaborator – as well as “the most sensitive movie intelligence in Hollywood” according to author James Agee – he was, like his contemporary Orson Welles, frequently seeking to maintain constant, unadulterated control of his projects. He was demanding of those who worked with him, unwilling to compromise the visions he strove to put onscreen, at one point suffering an intense heart attack as a result. Bodeen, in further reflecting on the producer’s work, called him “the only producer to whom the credit producer really applied. People gave him credit for the whole thing, and in a way they’re right. It’s just that it became impossible for Val to work with anybody, and he couldn’t do it all by himself… he wanted his hands on everything.” Lewton would eventually succumb to a second, and this time fatal, heart attack in March 1951, at the age of 46. His work would serve as an inspiration to many in the decades to follow.
In the wake of a series of graphic remakes of old classic horror films during the 1970’s and ‘80s, RKO’s rival company, Universal, remade Cat People in color and widescreen four decades later. Directed by Paul Schraeder, and produced by Wilbur Stark and Jerry Bruckheimer (yes, that Jerry Bruckheimer!), the film moved the setting to the more exotic locale of New Orleans and added more sex and blood to the original story, here revised by screenwriter Alan Ormsby to include more daring subjects of voodoo worship, incest and bestiality, along with an opening hellish sequence set in ancient times detailing the ancestry of the Cat People and their practice of accepting human sacrifices. Nastassja Kinski assumed the Irena role, delivering one of the best performances of her career, with John Heard (later the father from the Home Alone films) playing Oliver and Annette O’Toole playing Alice. A new character, Irena’s brother Paul, was played by Malcolm McDowell. It also featured a synthesizer soundtrack from famed composer Giorgio Moroder (Top Gun, Scarface, Flashdance) and a hit theme song by the late David Bowie. In many ways this new version works… and in other ways it doesn’t.
Paul Schraeder – a filmmaker and critic best known as the screenwriter of director Martin Scorsese’s classics Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and auteur of crime dramas and biopics including American Gigolo (1980), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), and the more recent Auto Focus (2002) – clearly has a flair for films involving tortured souls, often combining them with sex and violence, and he would naturally come off as the kind of person who could rework Cat People for the times. The incest angle between Irena and Paul is a brilliant concept, adding strain to the relationship between Irena and Paul, with the notion that Irena can’t mate with Paul not only because of the curse she carries, but also because Paul views the relationship between human and shapeshifting creature to be a lowering affront on both their heritage and divine role. The pool scene is steamed up with a topless Alice, and there’s an added scene combining humor with horror, with a prostitute played by cult film icon Lynn Lowry of Cronenberg’s Shivers (1974) and George A. Romero’s The Crazies (1973) fame: “We take checks, Master Charge and American Xpress, but not the tips!” It even has a nifty twist ending that the viewer which adds more tragic resonance. However, for all the cool stuff that’s added, something is lost in the bargain… in fact, a lot.
For one, it’s uneven in its tone and pacing.. For all its beautiful imagery and uncensored intensity, the 1982 Cat People is also frequently slow and overly long. Despite the full efforts of the cast, some characters (including John Heard’s Oliver) are blandly developed, while the added character of Paul played by McDowell is a little too sadistic and hammy. Also, Annette O’Toole as Alice is a little too soft-hearted compared to Jane Randolph’s rendition. And apart from the humor of Lowry’s character, some of the other comedic elements often feel awkward and out of place.
It wasn’t a box-office failure and it did receive several awards and nominations, but critical reception was mixed and the commercial returns were underwhelming when measured against its $12.5 million budget. Also, unlike other explicit genre remakes from the late 1970’s to mid-80’s that managed to become classics on their own while either respecting or surpassing their age-old predecessors – namely Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983) and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) – it just doesn’t stand on its own hind paws the way the Lewton-Tourneur original did. What made the original so striking was the refreshing and groundbreaking manner in its themes, content and tone. The remake is not a bad film by any means, but the original, for all its restraint during the Production Code Era, was vastly superior.
In any case, the 80’s remake of Cat People is a reminder of how influential and seemingly un-killable the original version of Cat People from 1942 was, and why producer Val Lewton, working a team of then-emerging collaborators and now equally immortal legends including Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson and Robert Wise, still remains one of the most iconic legends of vintage-age Hollywood. Millennia ago, long before there was even such a thing as the silver screen and celluloid, we in our primordial stage were weaned on stories around the campfire and in caves while wearing animal skins. We were entertained by tales of darkness about the ‘other’, whether that meant wolves, saber-toothed tigers or even the elements of earth and weather, and it’s a tradition that has continued to this day, reflecting the at-times contentious co-existence of human civilization with Mother Nature both from without and within. The horror films of Val Lewton that began with and include the original Cat People still continue to inspire far more than just those who prefer non-bloody, atmospheric, psychological horror. Had he made Cat People only, his place in world cinema would still be assured. Cat People alone stands as a true classic, a thematic trendsetter and a quintessential genre masterpiece – one which is just as deserving and worthy of accolades during its 75th Diamond Anniversary as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
This film essay is dedicated in memorium to the filmmaking legends behind Cat People’s legacy – most especially Val Lewton himself – and those who began their careers working under or who have followed Val Lewton’s example.
Simone Simon (1910-2005)
Jane Randolph (1915-2005)
Ann Carter (1936-2014)
Robert Wise (1914-2005)