Cat Scratch Fever

The Criterion Collection of Blu-Rays and DVDs is a great way to catch up on all the classic, capital “I” important cinema that you’ve missed. It’s also a great way to spend $40 on something that should, if we’re being honest, cost no more than $10 at the local Best Buy. Nevertheless, I’ll be sidestepping all the subtitled European ennui, four hour samurai epics, and talking-chimp documentaries and diving headfirst into the real blood and guts of the collection to bring you the best horror it has to offer. This week we’re kicking things off with the 1942 feline freak fest, Cat People.

Serbian immigrant Irena fears she will transform into a violent cat-like beast if she and her newlywed American husband become intimate, fulfilling a cursed prophecy bestowed upon her homeland in this vintage horror gem from French director Jacques Tourneur.

Irena, played by Simone Simon, is timid and alone but never a loner and one of her most endearing qualities is how genuinely she yearns for connection and companionship amongst the anonymous dirge of city life. We see this in her wide-eyed acceptance of her soon-to-be American husband Oliver’s advances as the film opens outside a lion’s cage at the zoo. Oliver, played by Kent Smith, is the kind of earnest, down-to-earth good ol’ gent you might expect to be leading a 1942 American picture and most of the film’s tension resides in testing his loyalty as Irena slips more and more into madness over the proposition of, well, turning into a cat.

While modern audiences will find little in the way of actual scares, Cat People exists today as more of a mood piece than an exercise in true horror. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca heavily emphasizes contrast between light and dark and casts shadows over much of the film’s beastly transformations and stealth-like violence. In fact, its willingness to push so much to the margins may just be the most enduring part of its legacy, effectively elevating the would-be B-movie to new heights that far surpass the standard scare-affair of the era.

It’s this great directorial restraint on the part of Tourneur that makes what small moments we do get—like an anxious Irena crouched on a living room couch, extending her claws for the first time, running them slowly down the back cushion, leaving three chilling streams of ripped fabric in their wake—all the more impactful.

But it’s not only violence that lurks offscreen—the film pushes character interactions to the periphery in a way that harmoniously mirrors the solitude of Irena’s affliction. She and Oliver can’t connect and she struggles to communicate the evil brewing inside her over which he is understandably skeptical. When they talk they’re on opposite sides of dark rooms; their collective gaze often wanders to the walls. There’s never enough light to see.

This point is never more painfully vocalized than by Oliver himself when he confesses to a seductive coworker late at the office one night that he guesses he just doesn’t know what it means to be so unhappy. The inability to truly understand what’s torturing Irena is one of the more tragic elements on display here, along with her ultimate resolution at the futility of ever fully articulating her suffering to another human being.

The film also preoccupies itself with another form of isolation: isolation from oneself. Irena is a stranger in a strange land, yes, but she’s also a stranger to herself. She fears the curse of her homeland lives inside her but she doesn’t know for sure. Will she be able to control it? What horrible acts would she be capable of if her inner evil is unleashed? At the behest of her husband, Irena visits a psychotherapist to hopefully get to the heart of what ails her. The scene is beautifully shot, mostly all in darkness save for a single white beam—like a spotlight ending its search—illuminating only her face. Tom Conway’s sinister psychotherapist voice prods her from afar and she dives inward to find the beast—one we never see but by this point, know is there.

While no-one is watching Cat People for insight on the human condition (unless of course you are maybe a cat person yourself) the light touches deftly deployed by Tourneur that are there help make the overall endeavor feel that much more cohesive as a thematic whole and further cement its legacy as an early art horror classic. Much like its characters, the movie keeps us at a distance, close enough to bait but far enough still—leaving us ultimately alone with the horror of our own imaginations.

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