Cat People: The Beauty of Low-Budget Horror Filmmaking

 


I’ve said it so many times in the past that I feel like an old broken record repeating it now, but God, I love B-Movies made in the 1940’s. Under the tyrannical reign of the Production Code which came into effect in 1934, films made in Hollywood had to follow certain rules and were subjected to considerable amounts of censorship, but in the often neglected world of low-budget films, directors had more freedom to experiment with different ideas and subject matter, and most importantly, different techniques. RKO, the studio many film giants called home, originally assigned Van Lewton a new unit to make low-budget horror films, and gave him and writer DeWitt Bodeen and director Jacques Tourneur the name “Cat People” and said make a film out of it. What they made out of a small budget, an enigmatic title and not the most talented of actors was a film that would influence an entire decade of horror cinema, and a film that is still cited and celebrated till now; not a perfect film by any stretch, but extremely enjoyable in its own whacky way.

The film’s story revolves around Irena, a Serbian-born fashion illustrator who meets Oliver, a regular middle-class worker, sweet, caring and romantic and they fall in love and get married, but all this while, Irena keeps telling him of a story from her village about some women who turned into witches and who fled into the woods and mountains when faced with the King’s punishment, becoming “Cat People.” As her beliefs get stronger, and as her husband’s will to help her through a psychiatrist gets more persistent, Irena’s story is revealed to be more than a fairy tale and many strange events begin to happen, triggered by jealousy, love and the evil lurking inside of her.

The film plays like a bit of a genre bender that for its majority leans a lot more towards melodrama rather than actual horror, but that reverses as the film progresses, working towards a horrifying and incredibly tense third act, but throughout its entirety, even at the most wholesome and romantic scenes, there’s a feeling of unease that varies in its intensity: simple inconveniences that keep getting brushed off as imagination or coincidence, but events that nonetheless make the audience feel that something is off. That coupled with Tourneur’s signature fascination with the mystical, the eerie and the mythical, which he constantly explored through films like The Leopard Man, I Walked with a Zombie and Curse of the Demon, grant the whole piece an almost otherworldly mood. The film does suffer from rather unenthusiastic performances (something that I actually adore, the benefit of retrospect I suppose) but its pacing is very engaging, that is if you can look past the whacky premise, something I highly encourage you to do.

Because once you look past the film’s few “imperfections”, there’s a solid thriller that not only made the best out of it had available, but became a landmark of the 1940’s and defined a whole era of horror cinema in Hollywood. The film is shot in beautiful, dim black and white, with rich shadows and exquisite compositions, and the film’s most memorable sequences, most notably the one scene in the pool, are a masterclass on camera movement and lightning. One of the biggest technical achievements the film boasts is the simple fact that it actually never shows the “Cat People”; while other directors would have ran straight to the wardrobe department and asked for some silly cat costume, Jacques Tourneur realized that nothing scares people more than the dark, and thus, with excellent usage of shadows, he brings life to a creature he did not have the budget nor technological capabilities to portray on screen, and the result is ever more tense.

After Cat People’s incredible success at the box office, Val Lewton went on to produce some of the most memorable horror films of the 40’s, some of them made in collaboration with director Jacques Tourneur, and the latter went on to make great film after another, including the noir classic from ’47, Out of the Past; they were regarded as B-Movie makers back in the day, with all the subtle degradation that comes with that, but now more than a half century later, their work is celebrated as groundbreaking.


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