A woman – the quintessential 40s beauty, with her feathered cap covering her curled hair, with her high heels clacking on concrete – walks alone in the dark. Or so she thinks. Noticing the sound of other footsteps coming closer, her thin eyebrows bunch in confusion. The scene is shadowy and dimly lit, except for the lamplight. Chiaroscuro – a shining example of film noir cinematography, where suspense and danger lurks in the shadows.
Cat People is a gorgeous film, a classic of its genre – it’s also a B movie about a woman who believes in… cat people.
Blissfully unaware of its own absurdity, it invites the viewer to sit with this bizarre story for an hour. Basically, a Serbian immigrant named Irena still believes in an old myth from her home country: that a band of satanists transformed into cats and lived in the mountains. This, somehow, relates to her intense fear of intimacy. If she has sex, she’s afraid she’ll turn into a satanic cat. Her boyfriend, Ollie, is deeply frustrated with this… but marries her anyway. Hilarity and horror ensue.
Silly as it seems, from the moment star actress Simone Simon starts to purr her nonsense lines and flutter her false eyelashes, it is entrancing. Maybe that is, in part, because of its age. Namely, the way that almost everything about this movie is offensive to a modern viewer.
The exotified, infantilized Serbian femme fatale. The perverted psychiatrist. The mere existence of this scene, where a woman who looks like a cat menacingly purrs “moja sestra” twice and then walks out of the restaurant, which has no wider consequence in the film whatsoever:
Apparently Cat People has been remade more recently in the 80s – but what could possibly make it better when it’s great for all the wrong reasons? Foregoing the glamour of 40s cinema in favor of lame special effects, sex and nudity, and cheesy 80s music (sorry, Bowie, but it’s not your best) is, to quote Mary Pickford, like “putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.”
Its appeal lies in what is never said – both within its plotline and in a wider scope. Most obviously, its characters are afraid of something they can’t see, and afraid to discuss sex except through euphemisms. It is also a film where a man talks to his wife as if she were a child, where a psychiatrist tells his patient to forget her fears and just “live a normal life,” where an adulterous love confession takes place at a water cooler in the middle of a workday.
In my view, that is the film’s true horror – and comedy. Completely unintentional, yet it still makes me want to unleash my claws and rip the film’s stiff and stilted universe to shreds. And I say that with the highest praise possible.
A relic of its time, Cat People remains mysteriously, maddeningly meow-velous.