CAT PEOPLE
Introduction/review for the Cutting Room, Episode 8
By Joseph Christiana - 4/15/12

Fear is a drug. Terror is habit forming.

And since starting this show a few months ago, I've found my tolerance to the blood splat
narcotic building to impenetrable levels. But I got clean this week… and looking back at classic
horror pictures like those Val Lewton made with Jacques Tourneur in the 40's has reminded
me that horror doesn't need to be an angry fix that leaves you desiccated and self-loathing
when the credits role. Their pictures reminded me that the art of intoxication should be
accompanied with ritual and ceremony, that inebriation can be rejuvenating when it's used to
aid in understanding our humanity, not to destroy it.

And his 1942 film CAT PEOPLE is a fine wine. At its center is a tale of young love. But the
young woman, Irena, can't let go of the superstitions and haunting legends of her ancestry. An
immigrant of Serbian descent, she's plagued by an irrational belief that she's one of the cat
people that terrorized her village in her folklore and she fears that if she gets too close to her
new husband she'll rip him to shreds. We, the audience, think so too. She has an obsessive
fascination with a caged panther at the Central Park Zoo, birds die of fright at her touch, and
house cats freak out at the sight of her.

Her husband, Kent, is a swell guy and willing to stand by her through thick and thin. He
connects her with a psychiatrist pal to get her all fixed up. But things don't work out and Irena
grows distant, making the physical consummation of her marriage less and less likely. Kent,
bending under the pressure, unloads his burden on a beautiful co-worker, Alice. He's unhappy
for the first time in his life, he says… And this admission just about kills Alice. See, she loves
him. Always has.

Irena's jealously over this hastens the descent into her feline insanity and she begins prowling
after Alice, stalking her from inky black shadows in a form, we believe, is a cat. I say "we
believe it's a cat" because Tourneur and Lewton don't show the menace on screen. Instead we
see suggestive shadows, we hear leopard-like growling accompanying the click-clack of high
heels, and we see the terror on the face of Irena's prey. There are three such sequences in
the film, all of them brilliant.

In the end, we get our answer- whether Irena's nuts or if she really is a were-cat-- but that's
beside the point, and the last shot's rumored to have been a studio mandate anyway. What
matters is that with CAT PEOPLE Lewton and his team saved RKO Studios from collapse and
in so doing quietly changed the thrust of the horror genre.

Lewton and his gang proved that effective, scary pictures could be made on the cheap and if
they were done well, they could make the Hollywood magnates look as foolish and blind as
they really are. That Lewton did this by mining his personal fears for inspiration, by shirking the
tiring trends and conventions of the Universal monsters pictures, and by setting out to make a
good film first and a horror movie second, serves as testament to his perseverance and vision.
There are lessons to be learned here for any film maker worth the price of a bucket of fake
blood.  

Ok, these are classic pictures we're talking about tonight. They're filmed in black and white. On
the surface, they're maybe even a little naïve. And that may not sit well with some folks listening
right now. Horror, like I said, is a drug. And like any drug, the more we take the more we need,
the quicker we need it. We've come to want our horror fast and angry and potent. We want the
easy high of physical revulsion instead of savoring the slow ecstasy of psychological, human
terror. But just like any drug that's abused, we forget the ceremony, the ritual, and we quickly
numb to our methods of revulsion… until we're dead inside and even revulsion doesn't work
and we're strung out and hopeless and self-hating in the empty theater light. No, it's not easy
to sip the fine wine of Lewton after being strung out on pictures like Human Centipede II.

But I've found that if I'm still able to cleanse the pallette, to get clean, so to speak, the wine is
sweeter.
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