Cat People (1942)

Irena has a secret.  And it’s slowly destroying her will to live.

French actress Simone Simon plays the Serbian beauty, an enigmatic artist who doesn’t believe in her own talent.  At a zoo, she meets Oliver (Kent Smith who looks like Sting in certain shots), a corny, overbearing designer of ships and barges for a construction company.  She’s been trying to sketch a caged black panther but keeps throwing away her efforts.

One such crumbled toss attracts his attention.  (She misses the garbage bin so he throws it in for her.)  After pointing to a poetic sign as a way of flirting with her (insert eyeroll here), he makes his move, doing the old “I never met an artist before” routine.

Within minutes, he’s walking her home, wondering if he could write her a letter to ask her out.  (Really?  You’re talking to her right now.)  She’s not feeling it.  So he suggests a second letter.  (Red flag, toots.)  But then, she suddenly invites him in for tea.  After making it up the stairs to her apartment, she says he’s her first friend in America.

They’ve been talking for three minutes.

So begins the original Cat People, one of the weirdest horror films I’ve ever seen.

After noticing her peculiar perfume, Oliver sits quietly in the dark with a lit cigarette as his new lady friend starts humming for some reason.  As he goes to put it out, a lion from the nearby zoo roars.  Irena doesn’t mind.  Like the darkness, the noise soothes her.  But don’t get her started on those lady panthers.

When she finally turns on the light, he lights another cigarette (Jesus, buddy, think of your lungs) and notices an unusual figurine on her table, a man on a horse holding a stabbed kitty by the sword.  Irena returns to tell him quite the tale about that very man.

Long story short, her village people were enslaved and the guy on the horse rescued them. But he discovered “dreadful things”, like those who were worshipping Satan.  Plus, “the wisest and most wicked” managed to flee.  What she doesn’t mention is that she can somehow turn into a cat.

In no way does any of this turn off Oliver who shortly thereafter decides to buy Irena a kitten.  Because nothing says love like giving someone unnecessary responsibility.  Unfortunately, human cats and actual pussies do not get along too well.  So, it’s back to the pet shop to make a substitute.  But none of the other animals in the store like her, either.  Oliver ultimately gets a bird.  Not a smart choice, as it turns out.

Within the first ten minutes of this movie, Irena and Oliver are already declaring their love for each other.  (I’m pretty sure they’ve only had two dates.)  And despite not even swapping spit a single time, the domineering fellow already declares they will be married.  (Gee, have you ever heard of asking, pinhead?)

At their restaurant reception following the unseen ceremony (where pig heads are prominently displayed in the window), one of his work buddies notes to Alice (Jane Randolph), a fellow co-worker, that Mr. Impatient is now suddenly having second thoughts about the marriage because, get this, he thinks Irena is “odd”.

Gee, what tipped him off?

Meanwhile, as the movie drags on, Alice (who I originally thought was a lesbian), suddenly declares her love for Oliver after he confesses by the water cooler at work that this Serbian chick with the French accent is ruining his happy streak.  He’s so white he’s never been miserable.  Eventually, he admits he loves her, too.  But after a late night work session, when they part, they shake hands!  What a perv.

By this point, Irena has seen a shrink who thinks she’s full of shit (Oliver also doesn’t believe her village people story) and feels threatened by the presence of Alice.  You see, two things turn Irena into a murderous cat: a sex drive and jealousy.  She can’t consummate her marriage because it’ll turn her into a killer.  She also starts stalking her romantic rival on foot and on the phone.  In other words, if she can’t have sex with her husband, no one can.

When she’s not doing that, she’s hanging out at the zoo confronting that same black panther from the opening scene.  Feeling similiarly imprisoned, albeit in a more metaphorical sense, she makes a fateful decision that explains that one sketch left behind outside its cage.

Cat People has an undeserved reputation as a horror classic.  It’s not scary, it’s ridiculous.  Were it not for its magnificent black & white cinematography and set design, it would be much worse.  Because it only runs for 73 minutes, the relationship between Irena & Oliver is expedited to the point of absurdity.  Despite its groggy pacing, the movie rushes through their courtship to get to the love triangle with Alice.  The actors try their hardest to sell this nonsense and to their credit, there are no unintentional laughs.

The filmmakers really want us to suspend our disbelief but that is an impossible task.  Irena’s nightmare involving cartoon cats will never be scary.  Neither are the stalking scenes which lack genuine tension.  (We never feel Alice or her husband are in any serious jeopardy.)  And we could care less about the unsympathetic Oliver and his dilemma about whether he should get an annulment or have his wife institutionalized so he can finally hook up with the other woman.  (You can’t divorce an insane person?  Really?)  Why is he hanging around Irena when he has horny Alice at the office?  Why is he drawn to someone who doesn’t want to fuck?

Like The Blair Witch Project many decades later, Cat People asks you to be scared of something you can’t see.  It had to go this route because the budget was small.  As it turns out, so is its imagination.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, April 27, 2017
3:56 a.m.

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Published in: on April 27, 2017 at 3:56 am  Leave a Comment  

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