Cat People

I saw the first part of today's movie - Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur in 1942 - in a film noir class. We just watched some parts of it for the cinematography and tone and all that. Maybe we even saw the whole thing and I just slept, probably.

I don't much remember the Cat People I saw today. I do remember the 1982 remake, innocently rented by myself and my close guy friends in high school from the local library. I forgot why we thought it would be good, but I remember that we hated it. It was out of the DVD player within the first half hour. I'm pretty sure that what set us off was the incest - we had no idea that it would come up, and we were all pretty repulsed and displeased.

The 1942 film is nothing like that. It's all about subtle horror - the sort of movie where what you don't see is more important than what you do see. I like movies like that, that rely on building tension and have a slower burn.

The film is about a woman named Irena, a Serbian woman who marries an American she meets at the zoo. She seems off - he buys her a sweet little kitten, but it hates her and hisses at her as soon as it sees her. She has a fear that if she is sexually intimate with her husband, she'll turn into a panther, like the folk tales in Serbia say. Weird, right?

Had this movie been made today, there would have been panthers all over the place. That would have been the point of the film, really. Since there weren't CGI panthers in 1942, nor budget for many scenes with real ones, the film has to use tension and psychological stress to create fear. One of the more famous scenes in the film uses a trick that we're really familiar with now, but was really new then. A woman walks alone in the street, and Irena is stalking behind her. We think she's going to turn into a panther at any moment. Suddenly, as things grow more and more tense, there are hissing cat noises - but it's just the bus coming to pick up the woman. I kept wondering if Irena ever actually turned in that scene or not, which just made it even more creepy. I mean, we're used to seeing false scares like that now. They're pretty over-used in horror movies. But here, where it's finessed in really well and a payoff for all the tension we've been feeling, it's really effective.

I love that this movie is slower. I hated the 80's Cat People because people were turning into cats right away (and yunno, it was terrible). I like that here we are left to sort of imagine what is going on, to try to figure out if Irena's fears are legitimate or not. It's way more effective, I think. Ebert wonders in his essay if movies like this still work since they are so much slower, and personally, I think they do. But I like it. I like that we have to wonder if Irena is insane or actually a panther, and I just love tense, weird movies like this.

It's a cool, short film, with lots of cool atmosphere and neat film noir cinematography. I really like films like this, since they seem sort of refreshing from what we normally have to see. It's worth checking out if you like this sort of movie, or just feel like watching something that's a slow burn instead of so in your face all the time.

Have any thoughts on Cat People? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Cat People
Buy it on Amazon

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