BFI Classics: Cat People

Author: Kim Newman


Kim Newman is a name that is familiar with Cineaste’s. Eccentrically dressed, he looks something like a film critics answer to John McCririck, but I would hope a good deal politer. His love of cinema and its history is clearly evident from his range of books, articles and TV appearances where his enthusiasm for film always shines, particularly in his writing on the horror film and his book on Val Lewton’s Cat People is no exception. For many horror fans, Val Lewton’s films are a moot subject. Made in the forties after more than ten years of the Universal gothic horror films and its B and Z movie low budget equivalents, Val Lewton was commissioned to produce and oversee the production of a series of horror films that do not show any made up monsters nor, as Lewton put it “werewolf up a tree” pictures, but instead made a new type of horror film that relied on suggestion, atmosphere and psychology – some ten years before westerns followed in the same vein. Cat People was the first of these and Newman does a good job in putting to bed any of the myths and misunderstandings that befell Cat People. For example many incorrectly describe these as low budget RKO horror films, possibly because they did not have big stars and had a running time of between one hour and 75 minutes. However, these films, although made with a modest budget, they were not low budget pictures and were not made as such, but instead as an alternative to the more obvious horror film. In the book’s introduction Newman places the film in the context of its contemporaries, Universal and B movies alike and in so doing one can see how this film stands out among its contemporaries.

Conversely the story is not too different from the more traditional type of horror film; the only big difference is that it is not set in some haunted mansion or a nameless central European country but instead in contemporary New York. It follows the story of a Serbian girl who believes that a family curse in which if she is kissed by the man she loves she will turn into a killer cat. She meets a man at the Central Park Zoo, an architect called (funnily) Oliver Reed. After a brief courtship they marry and her neurosis and frigidity cause problems for the relationship from the outset. He inevitably begins to be attracted to a work colleague causing her to become jealous and stalks the girl (as a cat).

The films subtlety, the very thing troubling to horror fans, in that everything is suggested and not direct is what to many the key to the films cleverness. Ironically this subtlety did allow director Jacques Tourneur to introduce a trick that is mandatory to any modern horror film, something that is commonly known as the ‘bus’. The scene in question involves a woman who believes that she is being followed through Central Park at night. She hears footsteps before suspecting that something more deadly is following her. At that moment a bus suddenly pulls up in front of her at the bus stop and its doors

open creating a fright.

Thankfully Newman doesn’t labour over the dreadful 1982 remake that starred Nastassja Kinski, but does go into the story behind the scenes of the films genesis, as well as the future careers of Lewton (short lived though it was), Jacques Tourneur (who would go on to make the even more brilliant and underrated Night of the Demon, 1957), Lewton’s later films and another Lewton director, Robert Wise who would go on to make The Sound of Music (1965) and Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979) (both of which Newman didn’t think worth mentioning). This is a fascinating read to any fan of the old classic horror movies, of which I consider myself a most ardent admirer.

Chris Hick

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