In 1942, a horror movie was supposed to be something hairy and melodramatic like Universal's big hit The Wolf Man, but producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, ordered by RKO pictures to come up with a cheap copy of The Wolf Man with a Cat Woman in the lead delivered a subtler, innovative movie which brings the monster home literally, with its contemporary New York setting, and figuratively, in its attempt at psychological depth.
The kittenish Simone Simon stars as a frigid Serbian girl unable to consummate her marriage to 'plain Americano' Kent 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 comes on to her, her fingernails sharpen (in an unforgettable shot, she strokes a sofa to leave parallel scratches in the material) and a comes over her.
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 chilly, but the power of the film is in Simon's queerly appealing performance. Lewton was allegedly given the job as head of the RKO monster movie unit because someone misheard his claim to have written 'horrible novels' as 'horror novels'; a man of taste, he rejected the monster mask approach of most earlier fright films and opted to paint the screen with shadows, knowing the audience would imagine far worse horrors than an effects man could create.