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.