Not rated, but it is a horror movie. But it's also a horror movie from 1942 that was shown in theaters across America. Yes, there's death, but it all happens in shadow. Probably the most objectionable thing is that it is just xenophobic enough make your hair stand on end, pun intended. Also, there's an emotional extramarital affair. Still, not rated.
DIRECTOR: Jacques Tourneur
I had to watch this! I mean, no one forced me. I suppose in some metaphysical, existential way, you made me watch this. Actually the more I think about it, there's an alternate universe where I didn't have a blog so I would never have watched Cat People. That would be a sad universe indeed. But when I was picking spooky season movies this year, I wanted to vary the types of horror movies I watched this year. I wanted an old fashioned monochromatic classic that slipped under my radar. I know. Some people haven't heard of Cat People. But I have and so have a lot of other folks and I consider it a crime that I haven't seen Cat People up to this point.
I don't know how I feel about Cat People. In terms of how movies are made now versus movies made in 1949, that's probably a lot of the basis of my read on the movie. Contemporary horror movies need regular scares. If they don't have regular scares, like a Paranormal Activity or something, they need to be build up to a giant third act to compensate for little happening in the rising action. Cat People doesn't do that and it comes across as charming. I'm never mad at Cat People. (Okay, the weird justification for infidelity really bugs me and I hope to remember to write about that later. ) I mean, a lot of older horror is about ambiance. Honestly, while I kinda like Bela Lugosi's Dracula, not much scary happens in it. It's kind of just creepy as opposed to outright scary. The same thing is true about Cat People.
This is a broad stroke and I can't even confidently stand by this claim, but Cat People, like a lot of horror movies from this generation, are more about neat ideas. This seems incredibly dismissive and I don't want to slag off an entire era of film just because sensibilities were different. But Cat People seems like the idea tossed around a party. "What if there was a race of people who couldn't fall in love because they're possessed by cats?" That's it. Instead of expounding on that or really exploring what that would mean, that's what's filmed. Sure, there's a story. But instead of Irena growing and making her the protagonist, the movie is obsessed with Oliver being the hero of the story. The meat of the narrative shares biology with the werewolf story. She is this self-sacrificing character, knowing that any moment, she can tear down her own life by submitting to the things she wants. It's actually a little bizarre that she lets Oliver into her life considering what her character arc in this movie is. (I mean, I know why she does it. There would be no story if she didn't indulge Oliver's flirtations. It's just odd that she's so willing to accept Oliver's courting rituals, but can shut down her sex drive to keep the beast at bay.)
But instead, it makes Oliver, who is absolutely the worst, the focus of the movie. Call it the patriarchy in 1942 and the fact that we can't make a foreigner a hero over good, ol' fashioned American willpower. But I don't think I've ever rooted for the monster harder. Even Frankenstein, I'm like...I get why the monster needs to go into that windmill. But Cat People, Irina is 1000% the character that needs all of our love and attention. Irina tells everyone the issue with this situation. She has made it very clear that her family has had to deal with this situation for her entire life. Now, it sounds absurd. But then she agrees to Oliver's suggestion that she seeks counseling. Then the doctor completely acts irresponsibly and tries seducing her and keeps calling her crazy to her face. Now, I can get how Irina still might be unsympathetic at this point. After all, in reality, we'd want Irina to come to grips with the problems of the narrative that she's dealing with. (Okay, the seduction is inappropriate, but that in all earnestness doesn't come until later.)
But then Alice,who is apparently the real love interest of the story, confesses her undying love to Oliver. She does it in a friend way. Yeah, it's not like Oliver and Alice sleep together, but Alice has no right to confess anything like that. I don't care what realization she's come to and if it is only awakened because of Oliver's marriage to Irina. Oliver is married and you had your shot. It's not emotionally healthy at all. Now, this is where I get really mad at Oliver. Oliver, who swears that he is going to respect the process that Irina is going through and says that he's going to support her, acknowledges that he's really in love with Alice. There's this moment where Oliver is given a choice (which is not the binary choice that the movie claims to be). He can either send Irina off to a mental institution (which is an odd choice, considering that Alice was attacked by a giant cat before this scene and is absolutely convinced that Irina is a cat) or get the marriage annulled so Alice and Oliver can marry. To give Oliver some degree of nobility, he says that the morally right thing is to institutionalize Irina because that's the morally right thing to do. You know, after he tells Irina that he loves Alice.
There's an odd sexual fluidity and dissolution of marriage in this story that I can only beg to be intentional. This is 1942. The notion of Chrisitianity as the one true faith is thrown around a few times in this movie. It's not like we're looking at a community of swingers in this town. But Cat People treats marriage like it is the most fluid thing in the world. I'm both a prude and not a prude at the same time. I'm more rallying over mixed messaging in this movie. The doctor trying to seduce Irina --at least I get this vibe --is meant to be disguisting. That's why he dies a horrible death. In fact, he might be the only death of the movie. But Oliver and Alice are the good guys? I refuse to believe that the movie is being criticial of these characters. I don't know why they need to the surviving characters to be in love. The story, oddly, might work better if Oliver and Alice weren't in love and that Irina's attacks on Alice are spawned by blind, irresponsible jealousy. But Oliver and Alice survive the events of the story because of Oliver's choice to take care of Alice? I know. I'm putting Friday the 13th morality over a movie that predates Friday the 13th by three decades.
But is it effective? The movie mostly works really well. It's the right time limit. One of my favorite thing about this spooky season is that a lot of horror movies know to cut the line at an hour-and-a-half. Cat People works mostly because it knows to get out before it gets into it. There are some of those shots that are gutsy and fun. Like, Irina's hallucination of King John and the cats, while probably goofy to my students, hits just in the right way. It's the same thing that the trippy sequence in Vertigo does for me. Some people could hate that. Not me. That's my bread and butter for a movie. Get a little weird. I like that kind of stuff. Also, when Irina full on embraces her homicidal cat side, the movie picks up. The scene that people probably remember (which is the only scene that I saw before watching Cat People outright) is the pool sequence. Mainly, it's one of two action scenes and it is probably the most effective scene in the movie. It's kind of silly that Alice knows she's being stalked and she jumps in the pool to hide. If her logic is, "Cats hate water", slow clap. But I don't know if Alice is that linear of a thinker to put those concepts together. I mean, she might think that it is harder to get attacked in a pool. Unless the stalker had a gun. Then that wouldn't help at all. If anything, it might hinder.
Can we talk about the misuse of quotations? Old movies be loving fancy pants sounding quotes. There are some real stretches with this one. There are multiple shots where a quasi-smart sounding tangentially-related quote appears on screen. There are characters who drop knowledge left and right as if people are just throwing witticisms back-and-forth. But it's a lot. Normally, I don't raise an eyebrow to this, but this is...this is a lot.
Cat People is on those lists of greatest horror movies of all time. It's not terrible. I can even say I like it. But we might be too forgiving because it's dated and people claim that they love it. It's better than other horror movies from the era, but there are some weird choices being made in the movie.
Happy Halloween, everyone!
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.