Cat People (1942) | The sleek and sophisticated cinema masterpiece that changed the face of horror forever!

Cat People DVD cover

Serbian-born New York fashion artist Irena (Simone Simon) is haunted by an ancient Balkan legend that she is cursed to turn into a deadly big cat if ever she becomes sexually aroused. When she falls for architect Oliver (Kent Smith), she attempts to put her fears aside, but an encounter with a mysterious woman – who calls her ‘moya sestra’ (my sister) – troubles her so much that she is unable to consummate the marriage.

Cat People (1942)

After moving into Irena’s Central Park apartment, Oliver soon becomes concerned over his new wife’s obsession with the big cats at the nearby zoo and her fear of being touched. Irena then agrees to see a psychiatrist (Tom Conway), while Oliver finds emotional support from work colleague Alice (Jane Randolph). But when Irena becomes jealous of their relationship, a couple of attempts are made on Alice’s life by what could be a black panther. Could the curse be true after all? Oliver isn’t quite sure, but a late night visitor to his office soon could make him change his mind…


This atmospheric 1942 B-movie was a bit of a gift horse for RKO Pictures, raking in over $4million at the box office on its initial US release. Pretty good considering the horror has no actual scenes of horror on display. The studio wanted a monster movie, but producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur gave them so much more. Together they fashioned a taut, shadowy masterpiece that changed the face of horror forever, and helped to usher in a new wave of purely psychological horror.

Cat People (1942)

Lewton believed it was not the thing seen but the thing unseen that truly frightened. His mantra was: ‘A love story, three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence’. Under Tourneur, those key scenes, which all take place in the last 30-minutes, were made all the more terrifying by a masterly use of shadow and sound.

The first is one of the cinema’s most heart-stopping moments, in which Alice is pursued by the ‘panther’ on a road at night, culminating in the sudden pneumatic hiss of a bus door pulling up alongside her. The second, and just as iconic, turns the everyday into a nightmare world of unseen menace as Alice has the unnerving feeling that someone is watching her as she takes a dip in a basement swimming pool. Finally, the third key scene brings the menace home as the ‘big cat’ stalks Alice and Oliver in their shadow-lit office, as Irena’s perfume lingers in the air.

Cat People (1942)

The secret of Cat People’s success is its power of suggestion, and in Simone Simon’s Irena, Lewton and Tourneur created one of horror cinema’s great female terrors. There’s definitely something sinister lurking behind her beautiful passive face, but is she really a monster in disguise, or just a neurotic, possibly lesbian, woman driven to violence by obsessive fears? Well, the scene when she kills a poor canary says it all!

Simone Simon in Cat People

Lewton and Tourneur’s feline variation on the werewolf/Jekyll & Hyde tales certainly does have a Freudian vibe and can be read more about the fear of sex than being another clichéd monster movie. They even put their own phobias in the mix: Lewton had a fear of cats, while Tourneur once almost drowned while swimming alone. The end result might be ambiguous, especially as RKO insisted on including a shot of the panther in a crucial shot, but there’s no denying the film’s lasting power.

The OEG Region 2 DVD release features a Fullscreen PAL 4:3 unrestored print of the feature, and includes an analysis of the film by film critic James Oliver.

Read my review of the the 1944 sequel, Curse of the Cat People (here)


About Peter Fuller

Peter Fuller is an award-winning print, radio and television journalist and producer, with over 30 years experience covering film and television, with a special interest in world cinema and popular culture. He is a leading expert on the life and career of Vincent Price and actively promotes the actor's legacy through publications, websites and special events.

Posted on April 3, 2014, in Classic, Cult classic, Horror, Must See, Must-See and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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