The Shrunken Head
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The Shrunken Head

Val Lewton and Cat People

A Study of High-Quality Low-Budget Filmmaking

In 1942, the studio heads at RKO gave Val Lewton his first title to turn into a movie, Cat People. On a budget of $150,000 and with no-name actors, what could have become a display of sub-par special effects and bad makeup he instead turned into a taut, psychological drama.

Written by DeWitt Bodeen, and directed by Jacques Tourneur, Cat People follows the Lewton formula for which his other movies would become known: two scenes of implied horror, one scene of graphic horror, cut, wrap, print.

Lewton’s sense of terror dealt with the unseen and the unknown — the feeling of being followed, or the sense of being watched, rather than the blood and gore of slasher films, or the terrifying monsters of Universal Studios. Indeed, the first half of Cat People could easily be mistaken for a relationship drama.

Irena (Simone Simon), an immigrant from Serbia meets Oliver (Kent Smith) in front of a panther cage at the Central Park Zoo. He falls in love. By the time their first date ends, she has recounted cultural lore in dramatic fashion: Satanists filled the Serbian village she left behind and ran to the hills when King John brought Christianity to the land. Allegedly, there remain descendants of these Satanists who, provoked by anger or sex or jealousy, turn into giant panthers.

Irena believes that she may be one of these “cat people,” but Oliver assures her the lore is poppycock and marries her. Fearing demonic transition, Irena refuses to kiss her husband, much less consummate the marriage. Oliver, thinking his wife is crazy, seeks advice from a psychiatrist (Tom Conway) and his co-worker, Alice (Jane Randolph). When Irena learns Oliver is seeking counsel and emotional support from another woman, she spies, and becomes jealous.

Only in the third quarter does it launch into horror. Neither Oliver nor Alice believe Irena can really turn into a cat. But, why does Jane feel she is being stalked? Did the wind rattle the bushes, or was something there? Are the shadows in the indoor swimming area a giant cat, or a trick of the eye and reflections of the water? Moreover, Irena has the keys to the panther cage at the zoo — so if it is a cat stalking her, is it the zoo panther, or Irena?

Beyond the obvious plot are the movie’s subtexts — Irena’s shame of sex and emotion brought on by the religion of her youth, given life by Simone Simon’s cold, detached performance.

Nicholas Musuranca lensed Cat People (he would later go on with Jacques Tourneur to make Out of the Past, a noir masterpiece). Like a great noir, the movie is as much about fog and shadows, sharp angles and high contrast black-and-white, as it is about the actual plot devices. Cat People is also about sound, be it the clicking of shoes on pavement or the echoing of screams in an indoor pool. Sound is cheap on a low budget, and John Cass, an A+ Foley artist working for RKO’s B-movie department, provides terrifying ambiance.

Of note: The luxurious apartment in which Irena lives was the mansion set constructed for Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Cat People cost $134,000 to make, and grossed $4 million, while Ambersons cost $850,000 and lost $620,000.

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