Monday, May 2, 2011

Cat People (1942)

Between a tantalizing title and Jake's excellent review, I thought Cat People sounded pretty fascinating. The film details the fast-moving romance between all-American ship builder Oliver (Kent Smith) and the sexy-but-shy Serbian fashion designer Irena (Simone Simon). They meet at a zoo, where Irena often visits the deadly panther, and are soon married. Unfortunately, Irena is haunted by a curse drawn from her hometown- an old story concerning her female ancestors who were known to turn into ferocious big cats whenever they were intimate with men. She's too terrified to even kiss her new husband, convinced there's something evil inside her that will claw its way out. Oliver encourages her to seek psychiatric help, and leans on his coworker Alice for support. Irena's jealousy over the closeness between Alice and Oliver awakens the vengeful cat within.

So this movie isn't too hard to figure out, really. Irena is a lady, and ladies aren't allowed to have sexual desires, and those who do are basically "whores" and/or "sluts". This poor woman has all this pent-up evil sexual emotion and she has to fight to keep it from turning her into a homicidal panther-being. She is also Serbian, which makes her "exotic", and we all know those non-American women are the worst when it comes to the sexy sex. They don't even wear bras half the time, sheesh. Irena tries to be a good American girl so she can fit in, and she totally keeps it in her pants. But of course, her exotic ways seduce the American men around her, who can't help but want to sleep with her, which means she can't help but want to retaliate with her own brand of sexuality. That kills people. All she wants is to be able to do it with her husband without killing him! Is that so much to ask? Can't she just lie there and let him do all the work? Who ever heard of a "female orgasm" anyway?

Cat People is an interesting atmospheric horror movie that feels ahead of its time, and while I may have been a bit facetious in the previous paragraph I did legitimately enjoy it! The premise is sound, playing on the perceived "otherness" of Eastern Europe (especially in the 40's) by seriously positing the existence of Serbian women cursed to become ferocious cats when engaged in sexual activity. The pacing is slow and deliberate, escalating from slightly off-kilter domestic drama to tense, uncertain horror. There are several memorable scenes, most notably that at the pool, with its expert play of shadow and sound.

As played by the lovely Simone Simon, Irena is a sweet, reserved young woman who lives in such fear of herself that she chooses a lonely lifestyle. She is beautiful, but also somewhat childlike: the opposite of the seductive vixen I might have expected from the poster. Kent Smith is almost alarmingly stereotypical as your "average joe", but the funny thing is he knows it and even brings it up at the beginning, calling himself as American as it gets. Alice is pretty cool, the sarcastic but dependable "guy's girl", as it were, the best friend that gets the guy in the end as opposed to the sexy popular lady. Oh wait, now I've sidetracked into Some Kind of Wonderful territory.

I was unsure about Cat People at the beginning, finding it slow and unconvincing, but as it picks up and the director cleverly keeps viewers in the dark about the veracity of Irena's story, I became more and more absorbed. It's also interesting as a snapshot of the time period, rooted in the psychological and sexual politics of the 40's, and surely somewhat scandalous for the era.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Well there is a sequel, but I didn't watch it so I'm not sure if it's good. I'm going to put it together with any good ol' film noir from the same period, something like Mildred Pierce or Laura.

10 comments:

  1. Glad to see some love for this one. I agree that it would pair very nicely with Laura; in fact, that sounds like a fabulous Friday night.

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  3. Alexa: Awesome double features are the best way to spend any Friday night, totally!

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  4. I watched this in one of my high school film classes when we were all like: B movies, what are those? There's no sex in Old Hollywood! Suffice it to say, we were pleasantly surprised.

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  5. Curse of the Cat People isn't really a sequel; it's a very different type film, but quite good in its own way.

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  6. This film has very little to do with sex. If you think that, you miss the entire point.

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