Simone Simon in Cat People
Anthropomorphic cats,  Bohemian Cats,  Cats in Myth,  Cats in Religion,  dressed cats,  Fairytale cats

Cat People: the feline answer to the werewolf genre

In the various cinematic monster universes, cats are a bit of a footnote, barely scratching their way onto the list. Werewolves, vampire bats, mummies, dinosaurs and various sorts of ghosts get all the love, going way back into the silent era. Cats didn’t saunter onto the screen until 1942 with the B-movie Cat People, and their appearance has been sporadic ever since.

Most major horror films in the United States were made by Universal, which still churns out monster fare. The Cat People franchise belonged to RKO, which ceased to be a functional film studio in 1965. Several different entities have held the rights to the RKO name and intellectual properties after that.

The original 1942 film Cat People does get a lot of respect from film scholars for pioneering the idea of not showing the monster and instead relying on suspense created from shadows, sounds and suggestion. This was done for practical reasons.

The film’s budget was so low that the filmmakers – director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton – couldn’t afford to create a monster. And the stock costumes available simply didn’t come close to the effect needed. Many horror films from the era devolved into laughter instead of screams when a stuntman in cheap makeup was revealed.

Lewton, who headed up RKO’s horror unit in the 1940s, hoped to avoid this mistake by adopting a less-is-more approach. Studio heads did insist on adding a few shots of a black panther to one scene late in the film, but they are shadowy and ambiguous. And there was no attempt to show any sort of transformation.

Poster for Cat People
Poster for Cat People
Publicity shot of Simone Simon for Cat People
Publicity shot of Simone Simon for Cat People

The film creates its own mythology, with a statue of King John of Serbia stabbing a cat with a sword as a recurring motif. The tale goes that villagers turned to witchcraft and Satan worship to protect themselves from the invading Mamaluks. Some of the witches could shapeshift into cats. King John drives out the Mamaluks but when he discovers the shapeshifting peasants he kills them as well. King John seems to refer to Jovan Nenad, a real historical Serbian leader from the 16th century.

Irena Dubrovna, played by French actress Simone Simon, not only explains the story but has an equestrian statue in her apartment of King John stabbing a large cat. She claims to be descended from the people who escaped from King John’s wrath by hiding in the mountains.

Animals in Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo and at a pet shop freak out whenever Irena is near. Little songbirds die of fright from her touch. And a strange woman at a restaurant brings a hush over the crowd when she calls Irena a sister.

For a 1940s film, there is a rather racy undertone, with Irena claiming to not be able to have sex. She has the idea that sex will unleash the cat creature trapped inside her. This leads to Irena’s new marriage being completely dysfunctional. Her husband Oliver (Kent Smith) seeks moral support and advice from his co-worker and friend, Alice (Jane Randolph).

Two key scenes are singled out by film scholars. One has Irena following Alice on a dark street as footsteps echo and wind shakes the branches of trees. Just as the tension reaches its peak, a bus stops out of nowhere and the friend is saved but only until the next scene. This is considered the godfather of the modern jumpscare.

Simone Simon in Cat People
Simone Simon sketches a leopard in Cat People
Kent Smith with the statue of King John bohemian cats tarot
Kent Smith with the statue of King John
Pool scene in Cat People bohemian cats tarot
Pool scene in Cat People
Odd decor in Cat People bohemian cats tarot
Odd decor in Cat People

After getting off the bus, Alice goes for a swim by herself in the basement pool of her ritzy apartment building. Irena turns up and follows her down to the pool. Alice hears odd noises and dives into the water for safety. Shimmering reflections, shadows and a growling noise create an ominous light- and soundscape. But nothing actually happens. Irena emerges and apologizes for causing alarm. The swimmer’s concerns are dismissed as a mix of imagination and hunger. But Alice’s robe is inexplicably town to shreds.

The film continues in this vein until its conclusion, using sound and lighting to maintain a sinister mood while leaving just enough ambiguity to keep audiences guessing whether Irena is a werecat or just suffering from delusions.

Director Lewton stretched the budget by re-using sets left over from bigger budget productions. The stairs in Irena’s apartment house come from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.  The zoo is the skating rink from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle Shall We Dance. But while most horror movies used stock music, Cat People had a quite effective original score by Roy Webb, whose other credits include the 1946 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Notorious.

A strange sequel and a British homage

Poster for The Curse of the Cat People bohemian cats tarot
Poster for The Curse of the Cat People
Poster for The Cat Girl bohemian cats tarot
Poster for The Cat Girl

The film was an unexpected success and quickly spawned a Val Lewton-produced sequel called The Curse of the Cat People, which is an odd fantasy about a child with an imaginary friend and not a horror film. Many of the original cast returned but under the direction of Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch, who lacked Tourneur’s visual style. 

Audiences in 1944 were disappointed, but the film’s reputation has grown over the years. Lewton attempted to get the studio to change the title of this sequel to something less deceptive but his concern was ignored. Actress Simon returned to France soon after World War II ended.

The storyline of Cat People was borrowed, to put it nicely, for the 1957 British production The Cat Girl. This one has the protagonist, a woman named Leonora (Barbara Shelley), learning she will inherit the family estate as well as the family curse of being possessed by the spirit of a leopard.  

The film itself is a fairly standard 1950s haunted house affair, with dark halls, creepy candelabra-toting servants, a locked room and secrets in dusty books. As with Cat People, there is a lot of discussion of whether or not the affliction is actually mental illness, as in reality nobody can transform into an animal.

The Curse of the Cat People bohemian cats tarot
The Curse of the Cat People
The Cat Girl cat people bohemian cats tarot
The Cat Girl

Revamping the story through a 1980s lens

In the 1980s, the legal successor to RKO’s intellectual property produced a handful of new films. A new version of Cat People, made in conjunction with Universal Pictures, was their fourth effort. It starred Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell and John Heard.

Director Paul Schrader was better known as a gritty screenwriter, having penned The Yakuza, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. But he also helmed a few films such as Blue Collar, American Gigolo and Hard Core.

The remake kept the main plot ideas but jettisoned the unseen monster concept. Instead it tried to keep pace with then-recent werewolf films like An American Werewolf in London and the body horror of films by David Cronenberg. To fit in with the over-the-top aesthetics of the era, a dash of gore and a subplot about incest were also added. The pool and bus scenes were retained as nods to the original.

Poster for Cat People bohemian cats tarot
Poster for Cat People
Alternate poster for Cat People bohemian cats tarot
Alternate poster for Cat People

The mythology was changed and no longer mentioned Serbia or King John. An opening scene shows people in ancient times in an unidentified desert partaking in rituals that involve human sacrifice and a cave where women apparently mate with black leopards. The modern-day part of the story was shifted from New York to New Orleans, and few hints of voodoo punctuate the film.

Music videos on TV were relatively new, and a lot of the film’s publicity emphasized a theme song performed by David Bowie. Fans who went to the cinema expecting to see a scene synced up to music were disappointed to find the vocal version of the song only played during the rolling closing credits over a frozen picture of a roaring leopard. However, the instrumental theme by Giorgio Moroder was heard throughout the film.

Despite its fine cinematography and mood-setting score, the remake of Cat People brought little new to the horror film table. Movie rating site Rotten Tomatoes ranks it at number 75 out of 97 listed horror films for the 1980s, based on critical reviews. Still, it has its staunch fans and catches Nastassja Kinski and John Heard at the peak of their careers, while Malcolm McDowell adds a note of intensity with his scenery chewing.

The director has said in interviews that he wanted to do something unconventional in the genre, and in the end he wound up disappointing both horror film fans who wanted more gore and violence as well as art cinema fans who wanted more existential angst and subtlety of character.

While a lot of films are getting remade again, with notable mummy, vampire, King Kong and even Godzilla entries hitting the screen, it seems unlikely that there will be a new Cat People any time soon. The current holder of the rights to remake RKO properties has gone dormant, releasing only nine projects since 2000 and nothing at all since 2015.

bohemian cats tarot Nastassja Kinski in a publicity still for Cat People
Nastassja Kinski in a publicity still for Cat People
Nastassja Kinski in Cat People bohemian cats tarot
Nastassja Kinski sketches a leopard in Cat People
Nastassja Kinski in Cat People bohemian cats tarot
Nastassja Kinski in Cat People
Malcom McDowell in Cat People bohemian cats tarot
Malcom McDowell in Cat People
Pool scene in Cat People bohemian cats tarot
Pool scene in Cat People

For more about cats on film, check out our article on animation star Felix the Cat. Cats who take human shape were also a popular myth in Japan. A holiday legend in Iceland tells of a large mystical cat who pounces on people who don’t have new scarf. Cats as gods was an important concept in ancient Egypt

Film buffs can find out about Czech and Slovak locations used  in all three versions of Nosferatu and the ongoing legacy of Carmilla on our sister blog, Magic Bohemia.

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