Feline Fever: CAT PEOPLE At 80

Pioneering scare tactics: How Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur made a vital contribution to the history of queer horror.

By Rich Johnson · @richpieces · December 6, 2022, 5:25 PM EST

"She knew strange, fierce pleasures that no other woman could ever feel!" [1]

Less of a stray and more an elegant beast, Val Lewton's debut production Cat People owed as much to its poetry as it did to its economic filmmaking, a striking example of minimalism laced with symbolic gesture and metaphor. Through such "coding," the film built on psychosexual themes via a dose of armchair Freudianism that provided a neat spin on the lycanthropic tale and horror's association with black cats. Director Jacques Tourneur took great care in his "werecat" reveal; the stalking of New York interiors and exteriors captured through fleeting shadows, echoed sounds, subtle movement, animated dreams, and montage. As collaborators, both Lewton and Tourneur's psychological horror through a mise-en-scène of "fear by suggestion" was both a milestone of genre filmmaking and, as it has proved over the decades, a B movie masterclass.


Having marked its territory on horror 80 years ago, Cat People still demonstrates the "magic" of the genre through many effortless tricks we now take for granted. We shall arrive at one such "scare tactic," but there is a great deal more at play in the short 73-minute run time; the sense of dread and unspeakable fear, as well as its play on archetypes via an underlying sexual tension within its storytelling.

Irena Dubrovna is a Serbian fashion designer living in exile. Her "dark half" is immediately apparent, her feline nature (and curiosity) explicitly directed as she sketches a panther in the nearby zoo. "Americano" Oliver Reed (not the British hellraiser!) spots her alone, and after a brief courtship, they are married. As their relationship remains unconsummated, Irena's Serbian ancestral Mameluk curse passed down by satanic cat women, which will transform her into a black panther when sexually aroused is revealed. Repression leads to increased paranoia and (eventually) jealousy over her husband's relationship with his co-worker Alice who, in contrast, represents the female workforce during wartime; "That's what makes me dangerous. I'm the new type of other woman." Irrespective of Oliver and Alice's affair, Irena's "condition" is only made worse by what American Gothic: Six Decades of Classic Horror Cinema author Jonathan Rigby calls a "blundering insensitivity" to their actions when they recommend Irina see a psychiatrist. Dr. Judd's analysis may be seen as helpful (at least to begin with), but his sinister motives and misogyny soon become apparent as he attempts to further control her emotions.


Irena's alienation leads to her hastily marrying the naïve and optimistic Oliver. He is blind to her curse, only highlighting how doomed their relationship is from the start ― "People can love but be still ripped apart" ― her fate is literally illustrated in the opening scene with her discarded sketch of the impaled panther; its symbolism of penetration ― those primal desires ― an obvious metaphor for the psychosexual aspects coded within the film. These important observations will be discussed further, but it is important to remember that the film's power lies in the "coupling" of B movie masters; a producer's strengths (and own fears) in shaping genre filmmaking supported by the keen eye of his director.

There are many memorable moments during the film, but none so impactful on the horror genre as what has become known as the "Lewton Bus," widely recognized as the first jump scare on film; a masterful mélange and [mis]direction of sounds and images. The crucial moment presents itself during an iconic "walk of fear," Tourneur's perfect sense of pace tracking the jealous Irena (Simone Simon) as she stalks Alice (Jane Randolph). It is a masterful build in tension heightened by shadow play and predatory angles as the camera and sound design mislead. Suddenly her healed footsteps fall silent and become more terrifying as we imagine her transformation… ready to pounce. We think we know what will happen as something huge appears right of frame; not the panther but, instead, the hiss of brakes as a bus pulls up alongside Alice.


There is enormous significance in the Lewton Bus scare. As a device, it has been emulated to the point of becoming almost a nervous tic for most horror directors; the genre somewhat downgraded by its overuse of shock tactics. This "art of suggestion" permeated Cat People and, subsequently, became a signature of the Lewton style. Holding up to any study (and scrutiny) of film authorship [2], Lewton supervised everything from set design to casting, overseeing (and employing) more creative approaches along with rewriting scripts often uncredited or under a pseudonym. Clearly, this was not only a leading producer in complete control of his vision but one able to exercise his own fears.

cat people 1942

Fear Leader


Before his untimely death in 1951, Val Lewton had delivered a string of terror tales— polished, coherent, and cost-effective movies that became hugely profitable for RKO. As a former assistant to David O. Selznick, Lewton had sought to produce RKO's equivalent of Universal horror on a fraction of the budget. Bringing together a horror unit ― initially dubbed the "Snake Pit" ― his more economical approach involved scavenging set pieces from Fred and Ginger musicals and current productions, including interiors of Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons doubling for Irena's apartment. Thrifty, but a considerable part of what made him so successful was the studio investing in his productions almost immediately after the success of Cat People.

But, on its initial screening for RKO president Charles Koerner in the autumn of 1942, Cat People didn't exactly connect with their boss when he made a swift exit to avoid Lewton and Tourneur. Critics hardly connected with the film either, so it was a surprise hit when audiences lapped it up. Hugely profitable, it cost just over $130,000 and eventually grossed an estimated $8,000,000 worldwide, saving the studio from bankruptcy after Orson Welles' money-burning masterpieces Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons had left them in the red.


Lewton had previously been a pulp novelist dabbling in poetry and a book of pornography before RKO tapped him to produce horror movies, his more "sophisticated" personality always drawing him towards a mix of the morbid and the exotic. An anxious character, it would seem that a fair amount of his personality ― his fears and shortcomings ― carried across into his productions. According to a commentary track by film historian Gregory Mank on the new Criterion release of Cat People, Lewton harbored hostility towards authority figures, hated being touched, and (surprise, surprise) had a fear of cats. According to Lewton's wife, Ruth, he tapped into his Russian Jewish psyche to write the film. "He had a folk fear," she said, "an atavistic kind of fear of something going way, way back. Of course, he knew better. He was a very intellectual man and not a superstitious person ― and so he was both frightened and fascinated by his fear."

Tourneur's supreme sense of mood and atmosphere was the perfect match for such fearful and mournful material. In Geoffrey O'Brien's Criterion essay, "Cat People: Darkness Betrayed," "The question of authorship becomes irrelevant; each brought the best of himself, with Tourneur finding inspiration in Lewton's high-poetic concepts and Lewton discovering in Tourneur an artist who could ground the producer's most dematerialized ideas in specifics of light and shadow, movement and angle." He loved working with Lewton, Cat People becoming one of a trio he collaborated on back-to-back that included I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man. A knack for genre filmmaking under limited budgets helped to distinguish his films, which would also, like Lewton, see him prove his worth to the studio. Soon promoted to the A-list, Tourneur went on to direct the classic film noir Out of the Past and the classic folk horror Night of the Demon. In further reading about these filmmakers, it is clear that the Lewton/Tourneur collaborations directly resulted from both men's peculiar tastes.


And then there is the rest of the Snake Pit. Under Lewton's guidance, a great deal of credit goes to Roy Webb's eerie score and Nicholas Musuraca's cinematography that paints the silver screen with shadow and light in much the same way he presented Tourneur's noir tones in Out of the Past. DeWitt Bodeen's final draft of the script remained concise; the narrative stripped back to suggest backstory and the pseudoscientific layers that have added to the film's reputation over the years. Much like the nature of a cat, the writing gives little away.

Everyone involved helps in the stitching of moments. This is what makes Lewton and Tourneur's film stand out as the relationship and Irena's psyche begins to unravel. A beautifully sad moment (laced with eroticism) frames our protagonist when she locks herself in the bathroom, hunched over in the bathtub, beads of water glistening on her naked back. Then there are the rippling light effects and growling echoes of the darkened swimming pool ― Tourneur's fist acting as the shadow of the big cat on the wall. The slaughtered sheep and muddy footprint transitions of our Cat Woman as she wipes her mouth clean of blood dressed in a black fur coat… and (in finality) the glimmer of light in her eye when Dr. Judd is killed, his sword cane impaling Irena in the process.


Queer leader


Although the city and modern living loom large, the narrative is wrapped up in the irrationality of folktale and superstition. The old ways merely hinted at in Irena's Gothic interior ― the walls of her apartment no different from a cage. Therefore, the film delivers a far more powerful and psychological approach that morphs into an urban fable. The normality ― characters and their occupations insisted on by Lewton ― is in direct contrast to the fantasy and begins to show how removed from society Irena has become, especially once transformed and prowling the streets.

Symbolism and other forms of coded narrative in horror have always made for interesting analysis giving greater hidden meaning to our screams. Therefore, at this point, it would be worth reminding ourselves of how much the Hays Code [3] remained an important part of censorship in Hollywood; such regulations forced filmmakers to disguise their messages, coding their narratives through more elaborate methods to imply sex and sexuality. With this in mind, the queerness that remains (restlessly) under this classic's skin only further highlights a tale shrouded in sin. When the film's medical professional, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), discusses Irena's curse, he focuses on the Cat-Women of her village and how their jealousy or anger is directly linked to "their own corrupt passions." Where her husband Oliver (Kent Smith) is the passive force (or just tone-deaf), the doctor takes on a more aggressive persona. Dr. Judd resembles King John of Serbia, who originally drove the "Satanic Mamelukes" away and wiped out the cursed Christian residents left behind by the witches. On the surface, he is the knight in shining armor, yet he represents someone who is "curing" her of the affliction rather than saving her.


With obvious parallels to Dracula's Daughter and Dr. Garth's cure of overcoming the Countess' "influences," both examples only emphasize the normality and the ignorance of the period that would often frame homosexuality as a perverse lifestyle. In this instance, Judd rationalizes her "sin," the (alpha) male agitator typical of heteronormativity who dismisses the abnormality. As would be expected, the sessions only further repress Irena. As she feeds on her legacy and the paranoia it induces, all manner of feelings bubble to the surface, from childhood trauma to her latent homosexuality. This is an explicit reminder of (hetero) man's ignorance acting as the voice for an appeased audience dismissing her state, her "Otherness," a psychological defect. Alluding to Freud's religious views, Judd's book The Anatomy of Atavism presents what is essentially his queer cure for "ancient sin," an underlying message from the opening. Not only does it refer directly to our protagonist's curse and transformation but also those "low places"; the depressions shaped by repressed emotions, the sinful and impure thoughts that shape the Other. Disturbingly, Judd seduces Irena in his attempt to "straighten" her out and control her. In the end, much like the mythic imagery, Judd "impales" Irena before he is killed as she finally embraces her impulses and accepts death.

The sin of jealousy on display could be read as somewhat of a distraction from its queerness ― that she does indeed have feelings for a man ― or simply another layer and reading of the film for wider audiences. Kier-La Janisse points out in House of Psychotic Women, "Few films, and even fewer horror films, convey the true tragedy of jealous obsession." Indeed, a film "almost unique in its sympathetic depiction of a woman haunted by the fear of her own jealousy." The threat here is directed towards another ("normal") woman who is stalked (or pursued) via the streets and, eventually, the indoor swimming pool. Alice's screams are, in some ways, both in response to a direct threat and also a subliminal reminder of the relative safety of a "traditional" relationship. This is supported all the more during the most obvious element of queerness, Irena's inability to become physical with her male counterpart, a clear barrier that prevents the consummation of a heterosexual relationship. From the offset, Irena, as an immigrant, is already "outside" unable to fit in and connect ― lesbian coding ― an implicitness (whether deciphered or not) that creates a distinct sense of unease, contributing to the moments of suspense, dread, and terror at the forefront of the film.


Homosexuality was, of course, a taboo subject; queer reading of films carefully directed through clever use of subtext. Freud's definition of the "uncanny" ― specifically the impact on an individual's impressions of certain situations ― was explored in great depth by film critic Robin Wood in his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan… and Beyond, building on the concepts via the study of film; the familiar and unfamiliar hidden under the surface. This is how the Other manifests and often becomes the spine of horror, the "self" shaped by external and cultural forces pushed deep inside until they are projected either mentally and/or through a physical transformation. An emergence, if you will. Rather bluntly, this monster, the apparent evil inside Irena, is her homosexuality. Crippled by anxiety, her uncanny nature is that she relates more to a caged animal, a "familiarity" with the beast, while she develops a bitter resentment towards another woman. This is not necessarily because of the opposite sex, but the desire to fit in and the freedom that entails.

Perhaps one of the most on-the-nose scenes hinting at Irena's repressed sexuality is during the newlyweds' reception at a Serbian restaurant. An older (leery) man points out a beautiful woman sitting alone at a table ― his friend rebuking, "She looks like a cat." As the woman leaves, she fixates on Irena. In greeting her, there is a hint of their cat connection before she asks, "Moya sestra?" ("My sister?"). Even coded by this fable and its mythic curse, based on the tension ― the fear of association and being ousted ― it is a moment that resonated with queer audiences at the time. In fact, after the film's release, the scene led to Lewton receiving a letter congratulating him for the subtle portrayal of lesbianism, which was the intention of screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen.

cat people 4

Leaving its claw marks


Cat People succeeds through its storytelling by never falling into the trappings of horror set during the period. By now, the classic monsters were dying, leaving room for those navigating the grayer areas — the notion of what makes good and evil. On one level, it acts as an entertaining horror for any fan of the genre; at the very least "… a film about a failed marriage." But, as Geoffrey O'Brien says, it is also evident that "Irena's predicament was calculated to evoke whole realms of sexual anxiety that the Production Code had effectively barred from Hollywood product, much as the immigration department might seek to bar undesirable aliens." Therefore, it becomes a powerful exploration of sexuality often repressed on the big screen and projected onto a central character, a woman punished when defying the norm that defined the female role in society as wife or mother. Unable to fit in, Irena outwardly refuses as her base instincts take control; her curse the queer equivalent of Larry Talbot's representing Jewish persecution. Both are outsiders, remaining prime examples of the monstrous other.

Paul Schrader's less subtle and erotic '82 remake aside, the Lewton style ― with its sophistication, intelligence, and sensitivity ― still inspires and delivers a genuine poignancy we often associate with more poetic works of art. Employing such meticulous methods, Cat People is not only significant because of what is "uttered" but also how it depicts a minority shrouded in clever motifs that, in turn, helped epitomize modern psychological horror. Through such mastering of subtle visual narrative, it personifies the magic (and witchcraft) of cinema.

1.A hint of queerness. This is one of the many taglines used on various posters. Check out the promotional artwork and stills for both the '42 and '82 versions as well as the sequel Curse of the Cat People (1944) here.
2.Coined by American film critic Andrew Sarris in his 1962 essay, "Notes on the Auteur Theory" after acquainting himself with the cinematic theories of André Bazin and Alexandre Astruc, which became a foundation for the French New Wave and, eventually, New Hollywood.
3.Until the second wave of the women's liberation movement, the sexual revolution of the '60s, and the scrapping of the Hays Code in 1968, only then a new frontier of American cinema could be explored. Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) would be the best example of a European filmmaker during this liminal period pushing deep psychological horror that would also explore control over the female body.