I had not expected myself, having finished watching “Cat People,” to be comparing it to “Get Out,” but both films, in their time, challenged expectations of what a horror film can be, and Jordan Peele caused as much surprise with his debut feature film as Val Lewton had done with his.
The horror in “Cat People” is implied, and psychological in nature. Like the other films Lewton made as a producer at RKO Radio Pictures, the story didn’t necessarily need to be told as a horror film – it is grounded in our reality, and the characters are relatable, even being shown at work. In fact, the horror comes when it is needed, not just because the audience needs to be jolted in their seats.
The story concerns someone who, like Lewton, was born in Eastern Europe – Irena, a fashion designer, who is haunted by the stories of devil worship and witchcraft from her ancestors’ village, which turned them into cat people. She believes she will turn into a panther if she gives in to passion and becomes aroused. All of this is foreshadowed in the opening scene, based in a zoo, where Irena discards sketches she made, but didn’t like, of a panther, which attracts a man, Oliver, who begins to talk to her - one sketch has a sword put through the panther.
The psychology and reason of the “new world” is played against the myth and tradition of the world, as Oliver, who goes on to marry Irena, his co-worker Alice, and a psychiatrist, all believe Irena is letting these stories control herself, but the reactions she gets from pets brought by Oliver for her, and being called “my sister” by a woman in a restaurant, remarked upon for looking like a cat, only convinces Irena further. As the others begin to suspect what they are seeing and hearing themselves, the threat of what they dismissed becomes more and more real.
“Cat People” begins and ends with quotes that allude to good and evil existing in the same place, and with a main character that embodies a kind of inevitability in their turning to darkness – a kind that even marriage cannot solve – you find that what was meant to have been a straightforward horror film actually contains very mature themes for the time. The shadows and fog of “Cat People” coincided with the birth of film noir, with RKO’s 1940 film “Stranger on the Third Floor” seen as the first of the genre, continuing into 1947’s “Out of the Past,” a masterwork by “Cat People’s” director, Jacques Tourneur. All three films have the same cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, whose use of light defined the genre.
“Cat People” is the definitive Val Lewton film. Lewton began as a journalist and pulp novelist, before becoming a script editor for producer David O Selznick, apparently telling him that “Gone with the Wind” was unfilmable. However, Selznick’s MGM production of “Anna Karenina” was influenced by Lewton’s grasp on detail as an amateur historian. When RKO approached him to head up a unit making cheap horror films to compete against Universal’s monsters, it was Selznick that negotiated his contract there, seeing the chance he should be given. Despite the terms - make films using titles suggested by the studio, lasting 75 minutes or less for under $150,000 (now only over $2 million with inflation), Lewton could make his films however he liked – to that end, despite using the staircase from Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” more than once, all the psychological intrigue, and even the way the shadows fall on his characters, were written into the script. “Cat People” made $4 million at the US box office over the next two years for RKO, twice what “Citizen Kane” and “Ambersons” had made put together at the time, saving the studio.