d. Jacques Tourneur / 1942 / USA / 73 mins
Cat People was Val Lewton’s first production at RKO, having previously worked under Selznick as a story editor. Lewton was tasked with producing films on spec, with only a title and a budget limit of $150,000 for guidance. In the end, the film would cost RKO approximately $140k, and proved a major success, helping to pull the studio back from the brink of financial disaster by producing close to $4m in box office coin over the next two years.
Helping to spark the Hollywood horror revival of the 1940s, Cat People leans more towards psychological rather than bodily horror, due – at least in part – to the necessities of working with a restricted budget. And yet Lewton turned this to his advantage, taking a starkly brilliant less-is-more approach, and developing cost-effective tactics that have remained an enduring staple of horror cinema ever since.
Indeed, Cat People has a handful of truly great moments – from the infamous Lewton Bus to that chilling scenario in a darkened swimming pool – but it should be said that a few moments doth not necessarily maketh a great film. Indeed, these now classic scenes cannot really make up for what is mostly the flimsy plotting of a narrative which makes giant leaps in its own internal logic and reason.
Recently, in Mark Gatiss’ brief, but exceptional BBC television series A History of Horror, modern horror veteran Jon Carpenter confessed that he never really understood Cat People‘s enduring noteriety as a horror classic. For Carpenter, Lewton’s reputation was built on promising an illicit thrill, but never delivering, and for the most part, I’m inclined to agree. It’s worth remembering, however, that Lewton was operating not only with a limited budget, but under the weakened, but still heavily restrictive Motion Picture Production Code, which curtailed the instances of violent horror and the consummation of illicit thrill on which Carpenter would later build his own career.
Thus, whilst Cat People as a whole lacks a certain something, the undeniable tension of those key scenes is paramount to its 1940s success, its ability to influence thousands of filmmakers and its enduring status as a perennial cult favourite.