One of the best examples of what it’s possible to achieve on a miniscule budget, Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People has remained prominent in the memory for fans of horror cinema – thanks in small part to Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake – but has it stood the test of time? On this evidence, the answer is definitely yes.
As much a tragedy as it is a slow-burn horror, protagonist Irena (Simone Simon) is doomed from the moment Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) sets his roving eye on her. Cursed by a bloodline that causes her to take on a terrifying feline form the moment she becomes intimate, the steps taken toward the conclusion are baby ones, but are well-handled nonetheless – she’s presented as much as a victim as she is an agressor, pushed by the callous actions of Reed and his new beau Jane (Alice Moore), who dismiss her concerns as mania.
Even though it’s not exactly scary by today’s standards, it’s easy to view much of what’s effective about some of the better horror movies of today: the use of shadows seen in Halloween and later The Babadook; the fear of the unknown epitomised by Psycho and The Blair Witch Project, and the folly of the witch hunt – encapsulated, fittingly, by Witchfinder General.
Moreover, the performances are excellent, a way apart from the more hammy re-enactments that horror of the time was known for. Simon is brilliant as the fatedul Irena, while Smith’s performance is full of foreshadowing: he gets what’s what he wants, then slings her aside. If anyone’s a predator, it’s him, whatever the title says. In face, you could argue that it refers just as much to him as Irena.
Other elements haven’t aged as well, such as the poorly shot action sequences (come on, the panther barely touches her), but otherwise, Cat People is a slice of classic horror that’s well worth revisiting.