Saturday, October 4, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Cat People

Simone Simon stars as a woman more afraid of what she is than what lurks in the dark in Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's stunning Cat People.
In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 4: Cat People (1942)

Val Lewton was a horror genius. He produced just 14 films in his too-short life, but nearly every one was a stone-cold classic. From 1942 to 1951, when he died at the age of 46, Lewton produced Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man, and The Seventh Victim, among others. He left an indelible mark on the genre, not only with the quality of his films but with the ways in which he brought them to the screen.

For his first film, Cat People, Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur were given the task of turning a B-movie premise into a quality picture on a shoestring budget. They smartly took their greatest weakness and made it their greatest strength, saving money on special effects by filling every corner of the frame with shadows. As a result, the viewer is constantly on edge for fear of what may be lurking in the dark – the mysteries of the unknown looming as large as the frightening nature of the facts at hand.

The facts are thus: Irena is a Serbian-born immigrant living in New York. She meets and falls in love with an American businessman, Oliver, and they marry. However, Irena comes from a village she believes has been cursed, and if she is intimate with her husband, she thinks she is destined to transform into a panther and kill anyone close to her.

It is an admittedly schlocky premise, and if filled with maulings and people turning into cats and scenes of police and doctors chasing after imaginary beasts, it likely would have been a schlocky movie. Instead, Lewton and Tourneur fill each scene with dread and paranoia, relying on the shadows to imply what their cameras could not show.

For this reason, Cat People still holds up against modern horror films. We live in an age when special effects from 10 years ago risk looking outdated. By avoiding special effects – more by circumstance than by choice – and focusing on the implied terror of the scenario, Lewton and Tourneur ensured their film will remain a timeless classic.

Tomorrow, another producer who knows how to stretch a buck and a director destined from greatness from the start.

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