Oct. 10: Cat People (1942)
A prime example of how to use a small budget to great effect, Cat People is a landmark low-key shocker that builds up great tension almost out of thin air, giving us incredible frights basically just from shadows and ominous noises.
One day at the zoo, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) sees an interesting woman sketching a panther. She is Irena, a Serbian girl recently moved to the United States. The two fall for each other and marry, but Irena is haunted by the tales from the village where she grew up which say that the village'92s women can'92t even kiss a man or they will turn into a giant cat. This understandably irks Oliver, who can'92t seem to break Irena of what he assumes is a superstition.
The film stays ambiguous on the subject for as long as possible, making us wonder if Irena is really cursed, or merely disturbed. The actors make us feel for the characters as their situation becomes more and more unbearable, finally reaching a breaking point after Irena'92s behavior makes Oliver turn away from his wife, instead falling for a co-worker played by Jane Randolph.
The horror in this film is rarely shown. Instead, it frightens you with sound, shadows and ambiguity. One chilling scene has Randolph being followed through the streets, but we hear only footsteps and see only shadows. She goes to an indoor swimming pool, but is followed inside by a cat, which we can hear but which remains in the shadows. It'92s a terrifying scene, but we really don'92t see anything.
'a0This movie put Tourneur and producer Val Lewton on the map. Throughout the 1940s, Lewton produced a series of excellent fright films, some directed by Tourneur, which used their low budgets as an advantage. They frighten you with sound and shadows, but show you very little.
An uncharacteristically elegant film for the genre, Cat People manages to have a very light touch, yet still be deeply disturbing.
If you liked this, then check out:
'97'a0'a0'a0 The Leopard Man (1943): Another Tourneur-directed, Lewton-produced fright flick, this one is almost as effective as Cat People, with a tale of a small Mexican town menaced by big cat attacks.
'97'a0'a0'a0 Night of the Demon (1957): More Tourneur, again scaring us with the unknown instead of special effects in this tale of a psychiatrist (Dana Andrews) who wants to debunk the occult but instead is pursued by a demon summoned by a cult leader.
'97'a0'a0'a0 The Seventh Victim (1943): Another eerie Lewton classic, this time directed by Mark Robson. It concerns a girl (Kim Hunter) who finds out her sister has disappeared after the tuition at her boarding school stops being paid. She travels to New York, to find that her sister had gotten mixed up with a cult. This and all of Lewton'92s classics from the '9240s are available in a boxed set on DVD.