More often than not, it's much better to show nothing than anything at all. Hitchcock knew this, and that's how he essentially became known as The Master of Suspense. Had he shown Norman's "mother" from "Psycho" killing the girl in the shower in greater detail, the horror of the scene would have been more greatly ineffective as compared to just how haunting it is today.
Jacques Tourneur obviously understood this idea and used it to his advantage in "Cat People." An experienced director of cult horror films from the 30s and 40s, Tourneur's story of a woman with a mysterious background still works as a pinnacle thriller sixty years later. Movies like this aren't made anymore--and I mean that in a literal sense. A more modern director would use bad CGI effects to reveal the "cat woman" for what she is, and I can only imagine how an idea like this would translate to the screen nowadays. But the key to "Cat People" is that we never even see the cat people. We don't see anything. We don't want to see anything.
"A Kiss Could Change Her Into a Monstrous Fang-and-Claw Killer!" boasted the tagline in 1942. Of course, this is an ancient filmmaking technique for that age--symbolic of the loss of one's virginity, the essential background of the tale is rooted deeply in the nature and misconceptions of sexuality at the time.
The monogamy of it all is very subtle and, at first glance, nonexistent--but the deeper you look into the hints the clearer the signs appear. Irena is not allowed to kiss a man or she changes into a monstrous beast. A metaphor for loss of virginity and the result stemming from this is old folklore, and the film's use of Irena's background is more than just an explanation for her genetic traits--it is a way of creating the central idea that she lives in fear of her own background of sexuality. It's as subtle and effective as the entire film's approach to horror.
Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is a fashion artist living in New York City. Born from a Serbian background, she lives under the impression that her own family's roots lie in an ancient curse of the "cat people" that were thrown out of a city in Serbia hundreds of years before.
Animals do indeed react strangely to her. She is unable to enter into a pet store, because the squawks of scared birds and the barks of sensitive dogs drown out the entire area. It is almost as if she is truly an animal. When she is given a pet kitten, she takes it back and exchanges it for a bird. The bird dies from fright weeks later.
When she meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) downtown in the city, she falls desperately and hopelessly in love, but the depression of her own fear of unleashing the cat within prevents her from coming in close contact with her own boyfriend--and eventual husband.
Left untouched by his own wife, Oliver eventually turns to his co-worker Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) for satisfaction (only lightly hinted at by the film), which ends up sparking a terrifying anger and hatred within Irena. Hounded by a curious psychiatrist (Tom Conway) and feeling like an outcast around her own husband, Irena's inner cat is indeed released and wreaks brief havoc upon those around her.
We never see the cat, and we never see Irena's transformation into another species. But, as I said before, it's much better--and certainly more effective--this way, as the suspense and mystery of the film propels it towards repeat viewings. The movie is even a bit like "Ginger Snaps," in a way, only it's certainly more moody and suspenseful. And there aren't any fake-looking dog puppets in this version of the tale.
It's always pleasant to watch classic movies late at night on a Friday or Saturday night. No one cares about them anymore--cheap straight-to-video movies air on television earlier than the classics. But these are the staples of every existing genre--specifically horror, when it comes to films like "Cat People." These types of films should be appreciated much more than they have been in the past, say, sixty years.
"Cat People" is an amazing achievement with a distinct sense of classic horror and a good dose of suspense. If you like horror--or if you don't--this is a must-see film, and it is certainly one of the most memorable cult horror classics of all time, led by some great performances and a very talented director behind the camera. What a treat.
- John Ulmer