Next to Universal, few studios have had such a big impact on horror than RKO Radio Pictures. Started in 1927, RKO was the first studio founded to make exclusively sound films, a then-brand-new invention that served as a major draw for the studio. RKO’s life was relatively short (it was killed just 30 years after forming), but during their time, they put out a seriously impressive number of classics, including Top Hat, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Informer, and most notably, Citizen Kane.
Of course, RKO didn’t shy away from horror. While their output wasn’t nearly as prolific as, say, Universal’s, it was still quite impressive, boasting some of the most formative and important horror films of old Hollywood. RKO saw the release of a few all-time classics, including I Walked With a Zombie, The Thing From Another World, King Kong, and the topic of today’s Crypt, Cat People.
Released in 1942, Cat People marked the first collaboration between French visionary Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past, Curse of the Demon, gillsploitation favorite War Gods of the Deep) and producer/auteur Val Lewton, who would collaborate with Jacques on the aforementioned I Walked With a Zombie, as well as endeavors with other directors like The 7th Victim, Isle of the Dead, and Bedlam.
Cat People follows Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a sketch artist who draws animals for a fashion designer. She lives a lonely life, isolated in her apartment or lost in her sketches at the zoo. It is there that she has a chance encounter with a handsome marine engineer named Oliver Reed (Kent Smith, no relation), who quickly falls for her. Soon after, they marry.
But there’s a catch. Irena believes that she is descended from a group of Serbian witches who were said to transform into cats when aroused or provoked. Because of this superstition, she refuses to become intimate with Oliver, fearing it could cost him his life. Frustrated, Oliver turns to his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph), causing a schism between the couple that could very well lead to the release of the cat creature dwelling within Irena.
What follows is a masterpiece of examining both sexual and emotional repression, as Irena struggles to confront both her emotions and sexuality as her already flimsy marriage falls apart around her. It’s amazing how much of this is portrayed only through implication, as obviously the Production Code at the time probably wouldn’t have taken too kindly to an explicit drama about repressed sexuality.
The dark subject matter is matched by the visuals, a near-noir spectacle of dark shadows and cramped interiors. While nothing in the movie is quite as striking as the shadowy landscape of I Walked With a Zombie, Tourneur’s skill as an aestheticist cannot be ignored, and the way he uses cleverly placed objects in the environment (like, say, a disconcerting painting of a massive cat poised to strike) to enhance the story beats is incredibly neat, to say the least.
This being a low-budget horror film, it’s safe to say that actually showing the cat person on screen wouldn’t be the best idea. So, in a move that would become the stuff of legends, Val Lewton chose not to show the beasts at all, leaving it up to sound design and the heavy shadows. It’s an unquestionably effective touch, mining scares entirely out of the anticipation of monster strikes and subtle misdirection through audio cues and clever cuts.
Honestly, there isn’t a lot going in with Cat People besides these raw elements. What makes it work is just how well it pulls each of them off, crafting an incredibly tight, effective horror film that would not only help define the genre, but put both Tourneur and Lewton on the map. There’s a very, very good reason it’s a genre classic and essential genre viewing, if only to see how much modern horror takes from it.
The sequel, on the other hand, is a lot less appreciated. Released two years later, The Curse of the Cat People was still written by DeWitt Bodeen and produced by Val Lewton, but Jacques Tourneur was no longer sitting in the director’s chair. Instead, The Curse of the Cat People served as the co-directorial debut of Citizen Kane’s editor, Robert Wise, who would later go on to direct West Side Story, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, among others.
Picking up many years after Cat People left off, The Curse of the Cat People follows Amy (Ann Carter), the six-year-old daughter of Oliver Reed and Alice. Amy has grown up unaware of her father’s past, but has her own problems. Her overactive imagination has isolated her from children her age and left her father frustrated. However, once she receives a mysterious “wishing ring” from a retired actress (Julia Farron, played by Judia Dean) and wishes for a friend, she finds the spirit of Irena paying her a visit, giving her a friend and confidant just in time for Christmas.
If that doesn’t sound specifically horrific, that’s because, well, it isn’t. The Curse of the Cat People is a fairy tale above all else, more in line with Pan’s Labyrinth than the first film’s almost noir-ish horror vibe. In fact, if it wasn’t for the returning cast and a few notable callbacks to the events of the first film, The Curse of the Cat People could be mistaken as something from an entirely different franchise.
This isn't a bad thing. As much as I love the vibe of Cat People, the direction taken with The Curse of the Cat People feels more fitting for the cast, showing Oliver still grappling with the tragedy of years past through the lens of a fantasy-tinged family drama. It adds a real human element to Oliver and Alice that just wasn’t present in the first film, and swapping scares for quiet tragedy helps bring out a different, more subdued side to the characters.
The Reeds aren’t the only family going through turmoil, though. Julia lives with her adult daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), whom she believes to be a spy, a mere imposter of the original Barbara. While it’s an interesting setup, Curse of the Cat People doesn’t examine their relationship any further, although it does have one pitch-perfect payoff.
While the subject matter is very heavy, it’s worth noting that the story still exists in the realm of the supernatural. Besides the aforementioned plot setup, the world of Curse of the Cat People is one filled to the brim with magic and mysticism. While the existence of Irena’s spirit could be (and has been) debated, the film’s reliance on supernatural motifs and stories suggests otherwise. It is a touch confusing, however, that Oliver seems to be pulling a Scully and refuses to believe the possibility that Amy could be seeing a ghost, despite knowing it’s the ghost of a woman who could transform into a cat and kill people.
Even if the supernatural wasn’t in the forefront, the town of Sleepy Hollow (yes, that Sleepy Hollow) is just overflowing with mystical imagery. Houses are dark and mysterious, gardens are full of strange statues and reflective ponds, and the heavy shadows take on a vibe that’s less grimy noir and more spooky fairy tale dreamscape.
Complementing the setting, the cinematography of The Curse of the Cat People takes on a decidedly less sinister, more whimsical tone. While the first film dealt in shadows and dark settings, its follow-up creates a dreamlike, otherworldly atmosphere by shooting locations like pages out of a German Expressionist storybook. There’s something incredibly special about snowy films shown in black and white, and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca knows this, capturing scenes that coat everything but the empty night sky in the brightest white possible, creating incredible beauty unparalleled by anything in either of the ’40s Cat People films.
It's that pristine, expressionist storybook aesthetic that really ties the whole film together, cementing the fairy tale angle and heightening the mythic quality of the otherwise grounded family drama. The Curse of the Cat People is really nothing like the two films its sandwiched between, but honestly, that doesn’t matter because it’s a damn good one, felines or no.
The Curse of the Cat People would be the only official sequel to Cat People and the death of the series for quite some time. It wouldn’t be until the ’80s when Cat People would come to the big screen again, this time in the form of a remake from famed Hollywood screenwriter and director Paul Schrader (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, American Gigolo, Blue Collar).
Schrader’s Cat People, addressed here as Cat People ’82, takes the base concept of Cat People and its lead characters into an entirely different scenario. This time around, Irena (a wonderful Nastassja Kinski) has moved to New Orleans to live with her brother, Paul (Malcom McDowell). On her first day in town, Irena goes to visit the zoo, where she meets a very special man, Oliver Yates (John Heard).
Yet as she falls for Oliver, prostitutes are being torn apart across the city. Irena soon discovers that the culprit is none other than her own brother, Paul, who reveals the truth to her. Their family is one of cat people—supernatural creatures that turn into murderous leopards during intercourse. The only way they can reproduce is by mating with—you guessed it—each other. It’s quite the striking premise, and one that, with the right director, could be great.
Paul Schrader was absolutely not the right director.
See, when it comes to tackling sexuality, Cat People ‘82 just falls apart. It’s clear from the get-go that one of the main reasons this film was even made was to update the tale in a time when films were incredibly free to portray risqué content than when the original was made. So naturally, this means that the Cat People remake is stuffed head to toe with naked bodies and overt preoccupations with sex, including a particular kinky (and thematically baffling) finale.
While normally this would just be garden variety sleaze, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Schrader is ashamed of it all. Despite the camera clearly loving the bodies of the film’s female characters, the story beats take an incredibly prudish approach to sex, bordering on puritanical. In fact, it’s so puritanical, that the evil of Cat People is no longer the danger of repression, it’s the danger of the act of having sex itself. It’s frankly an almost embarrassing approach to the story, and is so clearly at odds with the imagery that it’s borderline nonsensical.
Still, as bad as the script is, the camerawork is usually quite solid. Cinematographer John Bailey (Mishima, Groundhog Day) takes the reins here, packing the film full of steady zooms and pans over various pretty New Orleans landscapes. What’s really impressive, though, are the brief flashbacks and dream sequences, giving fleeting glimpses into a scorching, otherworldly desert shaded in a smoldering red. These scenes make up a very small part of the film, but it’s clear that these sequences are where the bulk of Cat People ‘82’s visual priorities lie. Next to them, impressive as they are, the most important shots of the film can’t help but feel a little weak.
The effects suffer from the exact opposite issue. Tom Burman (Halloween III: Season of the Witch, The Goonies) handles the effects, which can cleanly be split into two categories. First, the viscera. It’s obvious that much like the sexuality, Schrader took the cultural norms of the ’80s as an excuse to pack in all the bloody violence that was hidden in the original. And boy, is it shown. Limbs are torn, bodies are mutilated, and cat people’s transformations leave mucus-like globs of flesh scattered around sets. These are where the effects shine brightest, but when it finally comes time to show a cat person’s transformation, it becomes incredibly clear why Lewton decided to hide the beasts in the shadows. The Fly this is not.
Fortunately, the music’s high standard of quality never lets up. Composed by Giorgio Moroder (an electronic music pioneer who did the score for Scarface and Midnight Express among others), the score works less as a Halloween-esque instrument of dread, and more as a steady mood builder, joining the orange hues and neon lights in creating a tense, incredibly ’80s vibe. Famously, Cat People ’82 also includes a track by David Bowie, and while I can’t say I’m a fan of the film’s ending by any stretch of the imagination, hearing those sweet chords of “Putting Out Fire” kick in over the final few shots make it all worth it.
Still, none of these touches can save Cat People ’82. They can help it, sure, but no amount of great music, cool effects, or pretty dream sequences can fix the fact that at its heart, the remake is an incredibly hypocritical film, one that wants to have its cake and eat it, too. It really is a shame, because given the right script and director, a modern update of Cat People could work like gangbusters. It’s a wonderful story with a wonderful concept, and unfortunately, it’s one that just wasn’t right for Schrader. Who knows, maybe one day, the Cat People will rise again.