A year after Universal Studios completed its trio of major movie monsters with The Wolf Man, RKO tried to get a taste of that film’s success with a project called Cat People. It was passed off to Russian-American producer Val Lewton, a former pulp novelist without an inclination for the kinds of furry fantasies Universal peddled. For their laughably named project, Lewton, co-screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen (Lewton did extensive rewrites on the script), and director Jacques Tourneur fashioned a more subtle, cerebral film than RKO had in mind, exploring the psychology of a woman who may only believe she is a were-cat, her delusion a symptom of the film’s true monster: sexual repression.
The precise level of its success is disputed among film historians, but Cat People was most certainly a success despite taking great liberties with the kind of monster movie RKO was probably expecting. While we never see Simone Simon transform into a beast via lap-dissolve effects as Lon Chaney, Jr. had in The Wolf Man, Cat People is still extremely effective, and arguably scarier than any Universal horror because of its refusal to be explicit. Attacks are limited in Cat People, but threats of attacks are near constant. Tourneur crafted a couple of brilliant set pieces in which Jane Randolph is stalked while walking home at night and trapped in a swimming pool that allowed viewers’ imaginations to do the heavy lifting. A brief use of animation delivers the phantasmagoria one expects from horror. Nicholas Musuraca’s extraordinary noir cinematography sets a suitably shadowy atmosphere in which unseen horrors might always be lurking.
On the Criterion Collection’s new blu-ray of Cat People, that atmosphere is beautifully represented with extreme darkness that never blurs into a black blob, fine clarity, and striking contrast. Supplements include an interview with Tourneur from 1979 (in which he does a lot of complaining about the current state of film, but only discusses Cat People for about three minutes of its 26-minute run time), horror historian Gregory Mank’s commentary (with bits of a Simone Simon interview) ported over from the 2005 DVD, and the very good Martin Scorsese-narrated documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows from 2008. Criterion’s one new addition is an interview with cinematographer John Bailey, who photographed the little-loved 1982 remake of Cat People but has a lot of insight into the cinematography of the original picture and Musuraca’s career in general. It would have been a treat to also get a bonus feature of Robert Wise’s superb sequel Curse of the Cat People, mostly because what I believe to be Lewton’s best film could be denied a blu-ray upgrade since there might not be some sort of new, hi-def Val Lewton Horror Collection considering that Criterion has already called dibs on the producer’s most famous movie. Of course, we should not hold that against an excellent presentation of one of the key films in horror’s maturation.