Irena Dubrovna, a beautiful and mysterious Serbian-born fashion artist living in New York City, falls in love with and marries average-Joe American Oliver Reed. Their marriage suffers though, as Irena believes that she suffers from an ancient curse - whenever emotionally aroused, she will turn into a panther and kill. Oliver thinks that is absurd and childish, so he sends her to psychiatrist Dr. Judd to cure her.
In the early 40s, a horror movie was supposed to be something hairy and melodramatic like Universal's hit The Wolf Man (1941). That picture introduced all the cliches and conventions of the werewolf legend to the cinema and confirmed the genre stardom of Lon Chaney Jr. a bearlike fellow willing to sit still for the makeup ordeal whereby Jack P. Pierce glued enough yak-hair to his face to stuff a sofa. With Chaney stalking Universal's back lot version of the Welsh moors, The Wolf Man might not have been art, but it was creepy fun in a childish sort of way and set the box-office afire. Naturally, other studios wanted a slice of the pie.
In 1942, RKO Pictures, still reeling from a feud with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst over their backing of Orson Welles' veiled Hearst biopic Citizen Kane, took another body blow from Welles' follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Executives were fired and a new regime took over, instituting a policy of "showmanship, not genius". Val Lewton — formerly a sidekick of arch-tyrant David O. Selznick — was hired to command a brisk, efficient unit whose ostensible job was to turn out horror movies just like they made 'em over at Universal. There were left-over sets and costumes from the Welles movies, both of which featured old dark houses just as suitable for prowling Karloffs and Lugosis as Kanes and Ambersons. Studio head Charles Koerner tested out a jim-dandy title for the first of Lewton's proposed quickies, Cat People. If the public went for guys who turned into wolves, then it stood to reason they'd be even happier with girls who turned into cats. It was the kind of slam-dunk project that had the publicity department turning out a lurid fang-and-claw poster even before there was a film to go with it.
However, Lewton was secretly ambitious. His background was schizoid, torn between the pulp of Weird Tales magazine (for which he had once written a cat-werewolf story) and the Reader's Digest classiness of Selznick (who once had Lewton read Dickens to him as he sat on the toilet). If he had to make a film about a woman who turned into a cat, then Lewton intended to make the best possible cat person movie imaginable. To top off the whole thing, he would go all out to be scary in a way The Wolf Man, for all its growling, couldn't manage. Assessing the sorry state of the once-great genre, mired as it was in fairytale European settings and third-hand plots, Lewton opted for a subtle, innovative movie. He brought the monster home literally and figuratively by setting the action in contemporary New York (Cat People is among the first supernatural horror films to take place in a world its audience was familiar with) and by making an unusual stab at psychological depth.
Having guided DeWitt Bodeen through a solid script, Lewton hired young French director Jacques Tourneur (who would later helm horror classic Night Of The Demon (1958), and set about finding an unusual cast. The kittenish Simone Simon stars as frigid Serbian refugee Irena Dubrovna, unable to consummate her marriage to "plain Americano" Oliver Reed (Smith) because she is afraid orgasm will transform her into a giant panther. When her frustrated husband is tempted into an affair and her creepy psychoanalyst Dr. Judd (Conway) comes on to her, her fingernails sharpen (in an unforgettable shot, she strokes a sofa to leave parallel scratches in the material) and some sort of change comes over her. Is she a were-panther or just disturbed? The answer doesn't come until the last scene, and is all the more unsettling because of it. The stalking sequences — as "other woman" Jane Randolph is pursued through Central Park or menaced in a swimming pool by an almost-unseen force — are still chilling, but the power of the film is in Simon's uniquely appealing performance. In one ominous little vignette in a Serbian restaurant, she is struck silent by the sight of a mysterious beauty (Elizabeth Russell) who seems to be another passing cat woman.
Lewton allegedly got the job because someone misheard his claim to have written "horrible novels" as "horror novels". A man of taste, he opted to paint the screen with shadows, knowing the audience would imagine far worse horrors than an effects man could create. It was a huge hit, and Lewton delivered eight more strange and frightening little movies, first with Tourneur (I Walked With A Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943); then Mark Robson (The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship (1943), Isle Of The Dead (1945), Bedlam (1946); and Robert Wise (Curse Of The Cat People (1944), The Body Snatcher (1946). Lumped together they represent one of the most impressive and unnerving bodies of work in the field.
Sixty years on, Cat People is still fresh and surprising.