1942. Directed by Jacques Tourneur.
One of the best things about horror films is when the director refuses to show the creature. Countless films violate this tenant in favor of showing of slick monster effects and violent death scenes, forgetting that nothing is more terrifying than the viewer's own imagination. Jacques Tourneur's neo-Gothic melodrama Cat People, is a sterling example in the less is more method of cinematic storytelling.
Irena is a Serbian immigrant in New York. She falls in love with a marine engineer named Oliver. Despite their obvious passion she refuses to be intimate, fearing that any sort of arousal will awaken an ancient blood curse, causing her to become a feline monstrosity. The fraying of their marriage sends Oliver into the arms of another women, and soon Irena is confronted by the very real conditions of her curse and her slowly dwindling self control over the beast within.
Nicholas Musuraca's cinematography presents New York as an intersection of superstition and the modern American regime. Despite the clearly urban setting, every scene is shrouded in deep blacks and a fog like quality that conjures the folk tales of the old country.There is a segment where Oliver's associate Alice is being stalked on the way to the bus station that puts the viewer in the point of view of the hunter. The way the tension slowly builds is unsettling in its restraint,and sets up the first legitimate "jump scare" in film history, which is now affectionately referred to as a "bus" scene. The use of light to to create living shadows is Cat People's greatest aspect, rebelling against the popular creature features that had taken American cinemas by storm.
The infamous producer Val Lewton's rigorous control over every aspect cannot be denied. The sets, the compositions, and most importantly Simone Simon's raw performance are all meticulously calculated to quietly build the tension as mysterious parlors, heartbreak, and primal vendettas slowly dance around Irena's inevitable transformation.
Available now for digital rental or on a crisp transfer from the Criterion Collection on blu ray, Cat People is the wicked matriarch that sired many of the greatest conventions in the history of horror films. Featuring a surprisingly emotional lead performance and thankfully lacking in physical violence, this is an urban fairy tale that takes a fairly mundane scary story and presents it as a cautionary examination of the perils of intimacy, a horror trope that is still endlessly exhausted today. If you're looking for stone cold classic with genuine thrills set amidst a moody and haunted big city, Cat People won't disappoint.