Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 8: The Cat People (1942)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writer: DeWitt Bodeen
Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph
Plot: A young woman from Serbia meets and marries a handsome young American man. But their relationship is stalled due to a fear that, should she allow herself to become intimate with her new husband, she will fall victim to an ancient curse that causes people in her family to transform into killer panthers. After they’ve been married for some time – during which she never allows herself so much as a moment of physical passion with her husband – she begins to suspect that he is having an affair with his attractive young assistant. And then we realize lust isn’t the only emotion that can trigger the curse… jealousy works, too.
Thoughts: Like a lot of early horror films, this one uses folktales (real or imagined) as the basis of the monster, such as it is. The idea of an “old curse” is standard. What’s interesting to me is the way Irena (Simone Smith) claims the curse came upon her family: in centuries past, they dabbled in witchcraft and consorted with the devil, and as such were branded with this inability to grow close to anyone. This immediately calls to mind the question of how, exactly, they’ve managed to perpetuate the family line over the centuries, if they turn into monsters and slaughter anyone they grow physically intimate with. (The 1982 remake answered this question in the logical and extremely squicky way of saying that family members could only be intimate with one another, despite them being from Serbia and not members of any particular royal family.)
Of more interest – to me, anyway – is the way the perception of witchcraft has changed over time. Sure, whenever a movie that seems vaguely related to the topic is released today you get your requisite group of picket sign-carrying protestors condemning everybody who’s going to see the movie to Hell, but they’re considered a joke by both the media and most passerby who see them. In truth, these days if a movie uses witchcraft as its hook, we usually see a case of an innocent person accused of witchcraft and being tormented by an oppressive society. (For the best example of this, see 1996’s The Crucible, the script for which was written by the original playwright, Arthur Miller.) The alternative is typically a more classic representation of witchcraft wrapped up in a movie that’s laughable in its presentation of something that was once considered a very legitimate threat. (For the most recent example, as of this writing, see 2011’s Season of the Witch. This movie gets bonus cheese points for having Nicolas Cage with long hair while simultaneously being bald.)
At any rate, in 1942 witchcraft was seen as a much more legitimate source for horror, and a curse being a punishment that goes down generations was something that could cause true fear. The 1982 version of the film throws away the witchcraft elements in favor of a more vague curse, which is apparently still acceptable so long as you don’t specify that it’s a result of bubbling cauldrons or dancing in the moonlight with Mephistopheles. Even the specific manifestation of the curse is given a Biblical connection – Irena chats with a zookeeper who kindly takes the time to explain who the Book of Revelations describes a beast from Hell that is “like a leopard, but not a leopard,” which to him is pretty much the definition of a panther.
The other thing about this film that I find really odd is the way the relationship grows. In 1942, when filmmakers didn’t get quite as explicit about sex as they do today, they got away with a man falling and love with and marrying a woman who refuses any sort of physical intimacy – even so much as a kiss – giving him an excuse that would today either have the man drop her for a loony after the first date or do everything he can to get her onto Dr. Phil. Granted, Oliver (Kent Smith) eventually does seek out psychological help for Irena, but only several chaste months after they are married. I don’t care it if is 1942, nobody is that good. Let’s be clear about this: this is not a fear that Irena developed some time after she and Oliver got involved, this was a barrier between them from the day they met. A month after they start dating, he mentions to her that, y’know, normal people in love kiss, and she starts with the whole “I turn into a cat” thing. This, Oliver, this is the time to seek out mental help. Not after you marry a woman who insists on separate bedrooms and a bowl of Fancy Feast at night.
In many ways, this Oliver Reed character begins the film as something of a fantasy man. He’s good-looking, square-jawed, loves Irena from the moment he meets her despite her little “quirks,” and is resistant to temptation from Alice (Jane Randolph) even once she pretty much starts throwing herself at him. But even Mr. Perfect eventually starts to break down – he gets mad at Irena when she starts skipping her therapy sessions, and ultimately decides to leave her for Alice. Even then, though, the film doesn’t give us reason to believe there’s any hanky-panky going on before he proclaims he wants a divorce. Look at the timeline here: Irena is given the 1942 Man of the Year on a silver platter, then drives him away because she acts cold, jealous, and irrational. (Well, okay, it only seemed irrational, turns out she really did turn into a murderous cat, but one can hardly blame Oliver for not quite believing that.) You can’t tell me that the writer of this film wasn’t firing a warning shot across the stern of the Women of America, whose husbands at this point were increasingly getting shots fired across their own sterns over in Europe and the Pacific.
The movie’s ending is suitably tragic, and the body count is remarkably low (compared to modern films). And to be frank, while it’s entertaining in its own way, I don’t see it as being that great a precursor to modern films, except perhaps to show how different societal norms have become in the last 70 years. There’s a taste of Jekyll and Hyde in here, a flash of the subtle sexuality that would later become more dominant in the works of Anne Rice, but nothing I really feel is definitive the way I’ve felt about some of the other movies I’ve seen. The film’s sequel, 1944′s Curse of the Cat People, is even less memorable, with no “cat people” present, instead tapping into The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and turning into a ghost story about a married Oliver and Alice terrorized when Irena’s ghost begins visiting their six-year-old daughter. Weirdness.
We’re taking our biggest jump in time yet next, and I’ll talk about why that is tomorrow, when we get down to the classic 1958 sci-fi chiller The Fly.