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Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Fear of the Dark: ‘Cat People’ and the Horrors of Repression

Two films made in 1941 led directly to the making of Cat People the following year, The Wolf Man and Citizen Kane. Kane had become a fiasco for RKO when newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst condemned the film as a thinly veiled attack against him. Ultimately it led to the ousting of studio head George Shaefer. His replacement, Charles Koerner, brought with him the motto “showmanship in place of genius.” Seeing the success of the revival of Universal’s low budget horror pictures, Koerner hired writer/producer Val Lewton to head up a new horror unit at RKO. The first assignment given to Lewton was a title meant to capitalize on the success of The Wolf Man and its ideas of a human that turns into a beast, Cat People, but Lewton gave them something far different than the studio brass expected. Rather than a sensational exploitation film aimed at the youth market, Cat People was a subtle and sophisticated adult drama that mined the fears of both Lewton himself and a nation that had recently found itself thrust into a World War.

As with any film of depth and intelligence, the possible interpretations of Cat People are multitude. Feminist, queer, and racial readings come immediately to mind. Ultimately what these come down to, as with much horror of the classic period, is the story of the outsider and those who live on the fringes of society. The film illustrates this most explicitly in the fact that Irena (Simone Simon) is Serbian, commenting on the immigrant experience in America. As a first-generation immigrant to the United States from Yalta, Russia in the early twentieth century, Lewton was all too aware of these challenges. With the coming of World War II, they had only compounded with many Americans conflating Eastern Europeans with either German fascists or Russian communists. The film even addresses this issue by having Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) ask if Irena is a Russian name, making Irena’s “otherness” a key aspect of the film right from the beginning before exploring multiple aspects of it. Besides being a powerful story of the outsider, Cat People explores a number of fascinating and complex themes.

Perhaps above all, Cat People is a film about repression and several symbols are used to illustrate this, the main ones being the phallic symbols of the sword and the key along with the central metaphor of the black cat. Early on, Irena tells the story of King John of Serbia and has a statue in her apartment of him impaling a cat upon his sword, destroying the “evil” of the pre-Christian pagan religions in her home country. Irena believes that the power and presence of the cat still lives within her and could be released at any moment; she must fight to keep it at bay. Taken literally, the key has the power to release a leopard at the zoo from its cage. The figurative implication is that by having sex, the cat inside Irena will be released. After Irena and Oliver marry, she asks him to be patient with her as she fears that consummating the marriage will release the cat, which she sees as evil, and destroy them both. This fear of sex with Oliver also implies that Irena is a lesbian, the cat representing her true sapphic nature, and the repression of society and religion allowing her to be her true self. The dilemma for Irena is that she begins to believe that because she is not willing to sleep with her husband that he is finding sexual and romantic satisfaction with his coworker, Alice (Jane Randolph), and becomes jealous of her. This jealousy, a product of her repression, is the true evil that Irena must grapple with. It is what awakens the cat within her, or at least Irena believes it does.

This leads to a second throughline for the movie, that of mental illness. One of the reasons Cat People works so well is that it is effective with or without the horror conceit of Irena actually turning into a cat. It could ultimately all be in her mind. The leopard that we see in Oliver and Alice’s office and attacking Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) toward the end of the film could be Irena in panther form, or the cat from the zoo. Dr. Judd, a psychiatrist believes that the cat is a mere fantasy that Irena’s repressed psyche has created, a “product of her own fear, her own overworked imagination.” Alice, however, believes that Irena’s sexual jealousies have caused her to literally turn into a cat and hunt Alice down on multiple occasions. These kinds of psychological complexities are a thread woven throughout Lewton’s body of work and the “monsters” are rarely what they seem.

The film also argues that all of us have the potential to be monsters. The definition of evil, however, is not always clear. At first it may seem that Irena is the film’s illustration of this idea as she at least believes she turns into a cat. When Dr. Judd observes her return the key to the panther’s cage to the zookeeper, he tells her that he admires her ability to resist temptation. “There is in some cases a psychic need to loose evil upon the world,” he tells her, meaning both literally and figuratively releasing the panther from its cage. He then underscores the theme of universal evil by saying, “and all of us carry within ourselves a desire for death.” By saying this, however, he subtly plants the seeds of destruction in her mind, making him the true villain of the piece.

Judd is a schemer who desires Irena for himself. He gently pushes Oliver toward Alice and plays on Irena’s fears in order to push a wedge between her and her husband, taking advantage of their eventual breakup. The seeds that Judd sows lead Irena to steal the key from the panther’s paddock, which may or may not, depending upon your reading of the film, lead to his ultimate destruction. Irena, however, is no monster but a tragic victim of the beliefs that have been forced into her psyche since childhood and manipulated by Dr. Judd. In the end, it is not any form of evil that destroys Irena, but the combined symbols of her repression, the key, the sword, and the cat.

With Cat People, Lewton, along with writer DeWitt Bodeen and director Jacques Tourneur, introduced a new kind of horror film to the American public, one of great subtlety, ambiguity, and psychological depth. It relied heavily on subtext in ways that were only rarely found before in horror movies. Though Cat People adheres strictly to the Hayes Code as to not garner unwanted attention, it explores subjects forbidden by the code, particularly sexuality, in ways that horror films that came before would not even dare to touch, with the exception of films like Paramount’s 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But where that film indulges in its pre-code sensationalism, Cat People (and indeed all the films produced by the Lewton unit) requires peeling back the layers and reading between the lines to uncover its deeper intentions. The greatest power of the film is not in monsters and spectacles but in what is not shown or explicitly spelled out. This is illustrated most powerfully in the film’s two most enduring sequences.

The first of these is an example of the fact that Cat People stands at the crossroads of horror and film noir. After seeing Oliver with Alice in a restaurant, Irena’s jealousies are ignited, and she follows Alice down an empty street. Shadows and sound are of utmost importance in this sequence. We hear only the sound of each woman’s high heels on the pavement, Alice’s with a more delicate clicking while Irena’s echo at a lower, more sonorous pitch. Alice begins to move faster, though she does not see and soon does not hear anyone behind her, she clearly has the feeling she is being followed and begins to move faster, continually looking behind her, becoming more frantic. We then hear what could be the growling of a cat or the engine of the bus that suddenly screeches to a halt within the frame. This is generally acknowledged as the first occurrence of a jump scare in a horror film. (One had previously been used in a scene transition in which a cockateel suddenly appears screeching in a closeup in Citizen Kane). The effect was so startling and indelible at the time that for many years after, jump scares were called a “Lewton bus.”

Perhaps the most talked about sequence in Cat People to this day is the scene at the pool. In it, Alice once again fears she is being pursued by Irena in cat form. As with the previously discussed street scene, lighting and sound are the keys to the effectiveness of the sequence. We hear the sounds of the growling leopard coupled with Alice’s screams and the splashing of the water. We see the waves of the pool reflected in swirling patterns of light and shadow on the walls. Irena suddenly appears from the shadows and turns on the light, once again implanting the thought that she has turned from a stalking panther back into human form, her long black fur coat an indication of her feline nature. After Alice gets out of the pool, she finds her robe torn to pieces. Tourneur masterfully allows the audience to fill in all the blanks. In later interviews he stated that many people told him that they remembered seeing the panther about to attack Alice in the pool. In reality, the cat is nowhere to be found in this scene.

What the film does not show may well be the primary reason Cat People continues to endure. Even beyond its psychological complexities, sophisticated themes, and masterful filmmaking, it speaks to our most primal fear of all—the fear of the dark. When darkness came for our ancestors, there was fear that the light, and the warmth that came with it, would never return. The monsters came out at night and brought death and destruction with them. Over time we learned to banish the darkness with technology, be it fire or electric lights, and manage our fear, but it never entirely leaves us. Even more powerfully, Cat People places the darkness in two places. The fear of the darkness “out there” is built into our deepest instincts, but the darkness within is even more frightening and not so easily banished. Overcoming any evil, be it exterior or interior, requires struggle, a continual grappling with the nature of our darkness, further complicated by the necessity to avoid the dangers of repression along the way. Only through this struggle of bettering ourselves—purging our shadows, seeking out the light, and finding and embracing our true selves can we overcome our fear of the dark.

In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures beyond, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror. So, I raise my glass to you and invite you to join me in the toast.

The post Fear of the Dark: ‘Cat People’ and the Horrors of Repression appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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