The genius of filmmaker Val Lewton is legendary. His themes and use of shadow evoked the German Expressionists of the silent era and brought on a new wave of thinking horror. Meet me after the jump for my thoughts on the first of his horrors, Cat People, its strange sequel and sexy remake.
Val Lewton and RKO
In the days after Citizen Kane RKO needed to get back on its feet and thought to reinvigorate its horror arm to compete with the still popular monsters at Universal. So in 1942 they put Val Lewton, a Russian born Jew and failed screenwriter and novelist, in charge of doing just that. Before running RKO’s horror film unit, Lewton was a jack of all trades at the studio, doing everything from writing promo copy to assistant director to literary scout.
Lewton was given a tight budget, a time restraint, and the titles of the potential films. Essentially he was Roger Corman before Roger Corman was Roger Corman. His first film was Cat People. The script was by DeWitt Bodeen, who would also write The Curse of the Cat People and The Seventh Victim for Lewton, and Jacques Tourneur from France would direct. Tourneur would also later direct I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man for Lewton.
Clawing It Together
The low budget was due to Citizen Kane failing so terribly. Yes, it was perhaps the greatest film ever made but it cost a fortune and had virtually no box office. Cat People was filmed on mostly soundstages of other films, sharp viewers will notice the sets of Top Hat, King Kong, The Magnificent Ambersons, and others. Despite this, the film is constructed from elaborate use of shadow and looks fantastic.
The film’s title came to Lewton from his bosses who in turn pulled it from poll testing audiences. Cat People did well so he was to make a movie to fit the title. It is suspected he based the idea of a woman who turned into a panther when consummating her love came from the short story “The Bagheeta” he wrote back in the thirties in his pulp days, but here fleshed out.
The Panther’s Pride
For the lead role Lewton sought out the exotic French beauty Simone Simon, whose kitten-like face made her perfect for Serbian Irena who believes she is cursed to become a panther when in passion. Simone is a woman of opposing extremes, naive yet savage, indeed perfect as Irena. Her accent, catlike movements and gestures, her looks combined with her wardrobe, and her attitude made her a panther out of the movie’s confines as well.
The role of Irena’s belabored husband Oliver was filled by Kent Smith. His female confidante at work, and future wife in the sequel to Cat People, Alice was played by Jane Randolph. Tom Conway, another Lewton regular better known for his roles as The Falcon and The Saint, is the doctor treating Irena. Also look for Alan Napier, Lewton’s best friend and Batman’s butler on TV, and Elizabeth Russell who steals the restaurant wedding scene as the mysterious cat woman.
Cats in the Shadows
The low budget, coming in just under $150,000, necessitated creativity. Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur reached back to German Expressionism and used shadows to create terror. Also at play was the power of suggestion, because what you don’t see, and imagine for yourself, is far more frightening than anything you could be shown. This is used to great effect when Irena stalked Alice at the pool and in all the attack scenes.
Light and darkness are as much characters in this film as any of the actors, as is the power of suggestion, the real big cats, the score by Roy Webb, and the wonderful borrowed sets. The movie is played straight, and works, in other hands it might have been campy or ridiculous. Its acceptance as a serious horror is a triumph for the filmmakers and stars.
Cat People was quite a success and suitably scared audiences in 1942 and 1943, breaking attendance records and jumpstarting RKO back into the horror business. This is don’t-miss horror, even today. And two years later, the film spawned one of the most unorthodox sequels in film history, The Curse of the Cat People.
Cat Scratch Sequel
Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, and even Simone Simon, whose character died in the first film, all return in their original roles. Whereas Cat People was a more traditional horror movie with a more traditional monster, this sequel is more of a fantasy, a fairy tale, and its only ‘monsters’ are well meaning but slightly scary strangers – a lonely woman and a ghost from the past. And at its center is a troubled young girl, the child of the now married Oliver and Alice.
Ann Carter, described as a pint-sized Veronica Lake, played little Amy, who lives in a bit of a fantasy world. Elizabeth Russell also returns here in a new mad role. This sequel was directed by Robert Wise, after first director Gunther Von Fitsch left the production after a few weeks. Wise of course would later go on to direct West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and a film that owes quite a bit of its horror style to Cat People – the classic original The Haunting.
There are very little in the way of cats here, but still a few legitimate scares. Russell is suitable creepy, and if you know who Irena is, her presence is also haunting. The real terrors come from the sense of place, as the film takes place in modern day Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow. Older neighbor and former actress Julia Dean tells Amy a rather frightening tale of the Headless Horseman.
Lewton wanted to title the DeWitt Bodeen screenplay “Amy and Her Friend,” but RKO, who wanted a horror sequel, would have no part of it and proceeded to market it as such. Audiences were, as one might imagine, disappointed. Over the years however the film has gained praise as a story alone and separate from Cat People. Often it is used in college psychology courses as an example of children and fantasy.
A New Litter
In 1982 Cat People was remade. Directed by Paul Schrader and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, this slick sexy flick featured a score by Giorgio Moroder, a classic rock hit by David Bowie, and made a star of Nastassja Kinski. Written by Alan Ormsby, it was only very loosely based on the original Bodeen script. Ormsby notably also wrote 1980’s My Bodyguard, Deranged, and the first Porky’s sequel, as well as developing the Hugo doll.
There are only a few reasons to do a remake as far as I’m concerned – and now having the effects to do it right is one. There is also, in this case, having the sex and violence restraints removed. There were many bits in the original film that were toned down, and now could be done without censorship. Schrader and Bruckheimer went for broke.
I like the 1982 remake, but I love the 1942 and 1944 originals much more. Val Lewton is a genius, and you should be exposed and scared of his brilliance. Check them out.