Cat People is a lot talkier and less evocative than its reputation would suggest, yet it’s still a startling, psychosexual horror picture – especially for its time. It’s hard to believe the moviegoers of 1942 were given something as classically structured and concerned as Casablanca right alongside this.
“It is not my mind that is troubled,” says Simone Simon’s Irena, a Serbian immigrant newly married to all-American architect Oliver (Kent Smith). Worried that she may be a descendant of the satanic cat people who once lived in her home village, Irena refuses to kiss Oliver for fear that it would bring out the violent feline within her. When Oliver gets cozy with his coworker instead (Jane Rudolph), jealously threatens to do the same.
There’s no denying Smith is a stiff. The early courtship scenes, which take up a good chunk of the movie, are stilted and painful. Simon, meanwhile – so erotic in Max Ophuls’ La Ronde eight years later – is a bit of a mystery here, and not in a good way. Coquettish and demure, she’s mostly a victim and never much of a threat.
Director Jacques Tourneur, working under famed horror producer Val Lewton, makes up for this with occasionally affecting atmospherics, including a striking image of Irena under hypnosis in which a sea of darkness surrounds her illuminated face. There’s also a genuinely unnerving sequence in which Rudolph is stalked by a prowling shadow while going for a night swim at an indoor pool. I had hoped Cat People was wall to wall with this sort of stuff, but as it is there’s enough.