Thursday, June 30, 2016

Short Take: Cat People (1942)

Cat People may be the most artful horror/monster picture of Hollywood's Golden Age. Simone Simon plays a fashion illustrator who has recently come to New York from Serbia. She meets and falls in love with a boating engineer (Kent Smith), and the two are married shortly thereafter. But she refuses to consummate the marriage or even kiss him. She believes she is a descendant of a mountain tribe that embraced the occult, and who become panthers while in the grip of desire, jealousy, or even anger at an unwanted pass. Her husband, believing this a superstition borne of insecurity, tolerates her reticence for a time. But he ultimately demands she see a psychiatrist (Tom Conway), and she begins to feel her marriage is challenged from all sides: her upset at disappointing her husband; her suspicion of his relationship with a co-worker (Jane Randolph); and her having to contend with the psychiatrist, who may be taking an unprofessional interest in her. Mysterious events ensue, and with them the question of whether her beliefs aren't superstition. Producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur couldn't afford the special effects and other production trappings of King Kong and the Universal Studios monster features, but they more than compensated with an extraordinarily sophisticated use of horror and suspense tropes. Most of the film's thrills are built around ambiguity and portent, and the restraint makes the overt violence, when it finally comes, stunningly effective. The film's power owes far more to imagination than blatancy, and it's exhilarating. The screenplay is credited to DeWitt Bodean, and is based on Lewton's 1930 short story "The Bagheeta." Nicholas Musuraca provided the beautifully composed black-and-white cinematography. A remake of the film, directed by Paul Schrader, was released in 1982.

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