Jul 12, 2013

Cat People (1942)

Considering underrated cult auteur Curtis Harrington’s poesy and hypnotic art-horror-thriller Night Tide (1961)—a work about a lonely and seemingly melancholy sailor played by Dennis Hopper in his first leading who discovers phantasmagorical yet ultimately tragic love in the form of a mysterious miss who may or may not but a real mermaid but plays one in a seaside amusement park—is a personal cinematic favorite of mine, I felt it was about time that I got around to viewing the film that probably had the biggest aesthetic and thematic influence on it, Cat People (1942) directed by French-American dime-store director Jacques Tourneur (Nightfall, Night of the Demon) and produced by his RKO Studios collaborator Val Lewton, whose 1930 short story The Bagheeta the film was based on. In 1942, Lewton became the head of the horror department of RKO Studios and he was required to follow three artistically constraining rules for the films he produced: 1. All films had to be under a meager $150,000 budget 2. All films had to be less than 75 minutes in length 3. The monetary-inclined supervisors of the studio had the artistic honor of dreaming up the film titles. Despite these absurd but seemingly creativity-inspiring constraints, Lewton and Tourneur were not only able to create a rare, artsy and ultimately pioneering non-budget Hollywood horror flick with their first cinematic collaboration Cat People, but the film also made a relatively amazing $4 million in its first two years and saved the studio from financial ruin despite its patently pathetic budget of $141,659, thus proving there is no correlation between a film’s budget and its artistic potential, at least when it comes to ostensible horror flicks. Utilizing recycled sets from big budget RKO productions, including Orson Welles’ studio butchered period piece The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Cat People, as well as other Lewton/Tourneur RKO cinematic collaborations like I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943) and the films of James Whale (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House), are probably the closest Hollywood has ever come to directing a poetic horror work worthy of being compared to European art flicks like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s omnious and oneiric celluloid horror poem Vampyr (1932) and the allegorical surrealist celluloid shadowplays of Jean Cocteau. Not just a piece of beauteous yet beastly B-grade celluloid art of the cinematically poetical variety, The Cat People is also a reasonably thematically intricate work that meditates on still relevant and 'controversial' dichotomies like race/culture (Slavic and Anglo-American), gender (male and female), religion (Christian and Pagan), and the intellect (rationality and irrationality) in its depiction of a darkly romantic cultural clash between a Serbian beauty with deep ancestral roots and the archetypical happy-go-lucky American philistine she makes the ultimately fatal mistake of marrying. 

 While making crude sketches of a black panther while hanging out at Central Park Zoo in Manhattan, NYC, Serbian-born fashion designer Irena Dubrovna (played by French actress Simone Simon) is approached by a would-be-suave American-born gentleman named Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), who must look and act dumber than he really is as he is apparently a marine engineer. The two hit it off and Irena immediately invites Oliver back to her apartment for tea, where the little lady shows off her prized statue of her hero King John of Serbia impaling a large cat with a phallic sword, which is essentially an allegorical symbol of rational and masculine Christianity triumphing over female and irrational paganism. As Irena proudly proclaims, she considers King John a hero because he defeated and drove out the Mameluks, whose occupation caused her people to spiritually degenerate to the point of becoming evil witches who bowed down to Satan and subscribed to a sort of hedonistic barbarism. King John also killed the spiritually lost Serbs, but “the wisest and the most wicked” among them managed to find sanctuary in the mountains. Although somewhat disturbed by Irena’s story, Oliver almost spontaneously falls in love with her at first sight (or so he believes) because, after all, she wears a potent form of arousing perfume that is “something warm…living” and she has an exotic accent and an unconventional beauty that one just cannot find anywhere, even in multicultural-friendly NYC. When Oliver buys Irena a kitten as a surprise present, he learns that his lover is the opposite of catnip and that she believes she is descended from the ungodly and lustful cat people of her village who can transform into vicious black panthers upon becoming simply sexually aroused. Like anyone hit with the irrational spell of love, Oliver ignores Irena’s superstitious and seemingly schizophrenic stories and passionately persuades her to marry him, which she somewhat reluctantly does as a woman who is afraid of love (and with good reason) and opening herself up to someone else.

 During their post-wedding dinner at an authentic Serbian restaurant, Irena feels the supernatural subconscious of her soul stir when a fellow female Serb randomly remarks “мојa сестрa” (“my sister”) in a conspicuously cryptic manner that makes the woman seem like a member of an evil satanic cult. Afraid that it will not just be the pussy in her panties that will purr if she sleeps with her new classically handsome hubby Oliver, Irena keeps her physical distances, which is certainly no way to start a healthy marriage. Cock-blocked by what seems to be his wife’s seemingly insane spiritual blasphemy, Oliver naturally persuades his ostensibly half-insane spouse to see a psychiatrist named Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conaway), a professionally unethical pervert hack with a god complex who seems to be a composite of rival psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl G. Jung—two men that were known to get more than intimate with their patients—that ultimately sees a sensual Serbian woman whose lack of sanity he will opportunistically exploit. Meanwhile, Oliver confides in his attractive assistant Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) about his marital qualms and she eventually admits her undying love for him, thus a siring bizarre love triangle where Irena slowly but surely falls out of favor, while her seemingly sociopathic psychiatrist plots to get his prick wet. After Irena learns of Oliver’s quasi-extramarital activity when she spots him eating with Alice at a restaurant, the saddened wife stalks the home wrecker as she walks home like a carnivorous kitty cat playing with its mousy prey, but nothing happens. Later, Alice is also nearly scared to death after being stalked by an animal while taking a swim in an indoor swimming pool and Irena comes in looking for Oliver not long after, thus hinting at the seductive Serb's werecat ways. To her credit, Irena’s husband Oliver and Alice are conspiring to get her institutionalized so they can marry and they plan to use degenerate Dr. Judd to carry out the scheme, but he has different plans of the more salacious sort that ultimately leave him dead after arousing the Serb's pussy. In the end, Irena accepts her fate as a perennial Slavic werecat and unleashes the panther at the zoo that takes her life, thus allowing archetypical moronic Americans Oliver and Alice to marry and live happily ever after. 

 Beginning with the fictitious quote “Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to the low places, the depressions in the world of consciousness,” (The Anatomy of Atavism) written by pernicious pervert psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd, who ironically dies as a result of his own atavistic tendencies, The Cat People is a rare work of its time that seemed to side with the dark aspects of humanity, including paganism and irrationality, while also portraying the hypocrisy and pedantic nature of academic psychology and the unwavering arrogance and ignorance of Americans in regard to foreign peoples and cultures. It might be a bit of personal prejudice on my part, but the only character I found even remotely sympathetic and not suffering from a certain deracinated soullessness is Cat chick Irena Dubrovna as she has yet to be tainted by the culture-distorting uprooting force of American universalism, hence her ceaseless feeling of detachment and isolation from her husband and everyone else she comes in contact with, as well as her eventual and ultimately suicidal acceptance of who she really is and where she comes from. Husband Oliver never really seems to love Irena, but has a sort of irrational lust (He’s viscerally “drawn to her” and she gives him a “different feeling” from the average American girl) of the metaphysical sort due to her exotic beauty and foreign background and when he finally realizes this, he seeks refuge in his ‘safe’, modest, and mundane assistant Alice Moore, a woman whose essence is as banal as American pie. Of course, culturally mixed marriages, especially of the miscegenation-based sort oftentimes reveal themselves to be novelties that produce mixed up and miserable children, something that Irena and Oliver thankfully avoid due to her vicious pussycat-like ways. 

 Followed by a barely related but apparently somewhat worthwhile (non)sequel entitled The Curse of the Cat People (1944), as well as an erotically-charged and even gratuitous but extremely loose and thematically lackluster 1982 remake of the same name directed by Paul Schrader and starring Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell, Cat People has certainly left its paw marks in the cinema world and rightfully so as a rare old Hollywood studio system horror flick with actual lifeblood and potent poetry that brought artistic merit to a most aesthetically meritless film genre. Interestingly enough, Cat People is one of only a handful of films in film history where the producer artistically contributed to the film to a notable degree where one could argue that Val Lewton—a novelist and poet—was the true ‘auteur’ of the film as its ‘creative producer’, which is further supported by the fact that most of the works he subsequently produced have a similar feel and essence, using shadow and symbols like only a natural artist would, which Curtis Harrington would take to more eerie and esoteric extremes in his debut feature-length work Night Tide (1961).  Of course, trashy popular television shows like the HBO series True Blood (2008-present), a rather guilty pleasure of mine, would be almost unthinkable without Cat People, so naturally I felt it was my duty to praise this little film.

-Ty E

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