Film Review: Cat People (1982)

Release Date: April 2nd, 1982
Directed by: Paul Schrader
Written by: DeWitt Bodeen, Alan Ormsby
Music by: Giorgio Moroder, David Bowie
Cast: Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O’Toole, Ruby Dee, Ed Begley Jr., Frankie Faison, John Larroquette

RKO Radio Pictures, Universal Pictures, 118 Minutes, 93 Minutes (TV cut)

Review:

“Oliver doesn’t love you. He loved the panther. He wants you because he fears you. Let Alice have him. She thinks his fear is courage. And he thinks his fear is love. Well, they were made for each other.” – Paul Gallier

It’s probably strange that I had never seen this until now. I grew up in the ’80s on a steady diet of horror and fantasy and in the time since, I’ve adored the original Cat People series of films put out by RKO Radio Pictures and producer Val Lewton in the 1940s.

This stars Malcolm McDowell, one of my all-time favorite actors, especially in darker roles, as well as Nastassja Kinski, daughter of Klaus Kinski, who enchanted me in the Wim Wenders masterpiece, Paris, Texas.

The cast is rounded out by John Heard, Annette O’Toole and smaller roles for Frankie Faison, Ed Begley Jr. and John Larroquette.

Cat People‘s plot is very similar to the film it’s a remake of but it’s a much darker twist on that film and it also explores the mythos quite a bit more. It also adds in a steady helping of gore and eroticism. I wouldn’t quite call this exploitation but it’s probably as close as “high art” can get to that.

The cinematography is haunting and effective and director Paul Schrader did a great job of staging and capturing just about every scene and shot in the film. It certainly looks incredible and the atmosphere really becomes a character within the picture.

Overall, this is pretty good but I did find it a bit slow at times. But almost everything in it feels necessary and I can’t imagine how disjointed the 93 minute cut of the film must feel. Hopefully, those who have judged this harshly in the past didn’t watch the shortened version without realizing that there was a more developed version of the movie.

I really liked the characters in this and how each one felt like they were alone in their own way, exploring and discovering parts of themselves where the overlap of knowing one another created a dangerous situation for all parties involved.

Ultimately, though, the real highlight was getting to see the werepanther transformation. The effects worked extremely well.

All in all, this was a cool movie that was made even cooler by the use of different versions of David Bowie’s “Cat People” mixed with interesting and moody cinematography.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: other were-creature movies from the time like An American Werewolf In London and The Howling, as well as the film it is a remake of and it’s sequel/spinoffs from the ’40s.

Film Review: The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Also known as: Amy and Her Friend (working title)
Release Date: March 3rd, 1944 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise, Gunther von Fritsch
Written by: DeWitt Bodeen, Val Lewton (uncredited)
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Ann Carter, Eve March

RKO Radio Pictures, 70 Minutes

Review:

“Children love to dream things up.” – Miss Callahan

This motion picture has the strange distinction of being a non-horror sequel to a horror film.

The Curse of the Cat People is a followup to the 1942 film Cat People. Where the original was a story about a woman who was a werecat, this one is about her spirit becoming best friends with a little girl. This really has nothing to do with cats or werecats. Although, there is a black cat briefly in a scene.

This was one of the films produced by Val Lewton when he was making horror pictures for RKO in an effort to capitalize off of the low budget horror films that Universal had great success with. This could have been its own movie without the Cat People element even added in but I guess it served its marketing purpose, which was to piggyback off of the previous film’s success for RKO.

Simone Simon, the werecat from the first film, returns to play the ghost of her character. Her ex-husband, played by Kent Smith, is also in this. So there is an actual character link to the previous film.

Amy, a little girl, has a hard time connecting to other kids socially and is sort of an outcast. She also has a vivid imagination. When Simone Simon’s Irena appears to befriend the girl, no one wants to believe Amy.

Like other Lewton produced features for RKO, this one has beautiful cinematography and a sort of enchanting allure. It is a magical picture and you do get wrapped up in the proceedings, even though they are very simplistic and straightforward.

Ann Carter, who plays the young Amy, was very good in this and proved to be a child actor with much more skill than most of the kids of that era. She had to carry the picture and she did a fine job. She was lovable, sweet and sad. But she wasn’t chirpy, didn’t over-act and felt right at home alongside a cast of adults.

The film was directed by Robert Wise, who did several horror pictures for RKO, as well as the great boxing noir The Set-Up, the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still and dozens of other movies.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Other Val Lewton produced films for RKO: Cat PeopleI Walked With a ZombieThe Leopard ManThe Seventh VictimThe Ghost ShipThe Body SnatcherIsle of the Dead and Bedlam.

Documentary Review: Val Lewton: The Man In the Shadows (2007)

Release Date: September 2nd, 2007
Directed by: Kent Jones
Narrated by: Martin Scorsese, Elias Koteas

Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Turner Entertainment, Sikelia Productions, 77 Minutes

Review:

I remember seeing this on television a decade ago and it is where I really discovered who Val Lewton is and why his contribution to the film industry was so important.

When I was a kid, I discovered classic film early, as my mother and grandmother were both avid watchers of AMC, which at the time still stood for American Movie Classics. I also watched a lot of TCM, or Turner Classic Movies, when that cable network debuted. I got pulled in to old school horror, as I loved the Universal Monsters movies, Vincent Price’s Edgar Allan Poe pictures and the movies put out by Hammer with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I didn’t quite experience Val Lewton’s body of work though, until years later.

My appreciation for all that other stuff, really gave me the foundation to appreciate and understand what Lewton was trying to do for RKO Radio Pictures. His mission was to run the B-movie unit for the studio, where he and the artists he brought in, would create films to rival what Universal was doing with all their successful Monster franchises.

I’m glad that I found this on television a decade ago and it was really fantastic revisiting it now, as it is streaming on FilmStruck.

It is produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese with Elias Koteas jumping in to narrate Val Lewton’s actual words.

It is a nice and quick documentary that covers a lot of ground and gives a good amount of time to each of Lewton’s pictures. It also gets into how his collaborations with Boris Karloff came to be and how Lewton initially didn’t want to work with Karloff but quickly grew to love the man’s work, as he helped contribute to these films, which were much more psychological and intelligent than the majority of Universal’s horror pictures.

Lewton created horror movies that had a noir style about them. In fact, his films sort of built a bridge between German Expressionist horror movies like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the film-noir movement of the 1940s.

If you love classic horror or film-noir and haven’t seen Lewton’s films, you need to. You should also check out this documentary, which is a great primer on the man and his work.

Rating: 8.75/10

Film Review: Cat People (1942)

Release Date: December 6th, 1942
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: DeWitt Bodeen
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph

RKO Radio Pictures, 73 Minutes

Review:

“I like the dark. It’s friendly.” – Irena Dubrovna

Cat People was the first picture produced by Val Lewton for RKO. It was also his first collaboration with director Jacques Tourneur. And like their other collaborations, it is very much horror but sort of has a film-noir flair to it in a visual sense.

The story takes the typical werewolf tale and gives it a few new twists. Firstly, the were-monster is a woman, as opposed to it being a man, as seen in 1935’s Werewolf of London or 1941’s The Wolf Man. Secondly, the creature is a cat, as opposed to a canine. RKO was trying to compete with Universal’s horror franchises, so taking a familiar formula and breathing new life into it made this picture unique and stand out from the pack, pun intended.

The main character is Irena, a Serbian fashion designer. She marries an American man but she is afraid of intimacy because of a curse she believes she has. She assumes that if she is sexually turned on or becomes angry, that she will transform into a killer cat. Her husband thinks it is old country nonsense and that her fears are just Serbian superstition. He ends up confiding in a pretty co-worker, which angers Irena and sets the really dark part of the story in motion.

Due to budgetary constraints, Cat People is a film that utilizes the less is more approach. The film completely hides its monster and the horror mostly happens out of frame. It forces you to have to use your imagination but the direction by Tourneur, enhanced by the enchanting cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca, pulls you in and doesn’t let go. The part where the character of Alice is being stalked through the night is an amazing sequence that really is one of the best horror moments of the 1940s.

This definitely seems to be the most popular of the Lewton and Tourneur collaborations. I like I Walked With A Zombie just a bit more but this is an incredibly well produced and directed film. It was also the start of a good string of work from both men. Plus, Cat People builds suspense and a feeling of real dread in a way that Universal’s were-creature movies did not.

Rating: 9/10

Film Review: The Leopard Man (1943)

Release Date: May 8th, 1943
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Ardel Wray, Edward Dein
Based on: Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Jean Brooks, Margo

RKO Radio Pictures, 66 Minutes

Review:

“You don’t get the idea, mister. These cops banging those pans, flashing those lights, they’re gonna scare that poor cat of mine. Cats are funny, mister. They don’t want to hurt you, but if you scare them they go crazy. These cops, they don’t know what they’re doing.” – Charlie How-Come

I’ve been working my way through Val Lewton’s horror films for RKO. He produced some of the coolest scary movies of the 1940s and The Leopard Man is a pretty solid film that was directed by one of his best collaborators, Jacques Tourneur. Mark Robson, who would also direct some of Lewton’s productions, worked on this picture as its editor.

The film stars Dennis O’Keefe, who would go on to work in film-noir throughout the decade. He is joined by the mesmerizing Jean Brooks, who completely owned the screen in another Lewton production, the horror film-noir The Seventh Victim. She had a very strong presence in this and an enchanting aura about her. It’s surprising to me, actually, that she never went on to be a megastar in the era of film-noir.

Like Tourneur’s other films under Lewton, this is a picture where the audience has to often times rely on their own imagination. This is a classic suspense horror picture, through and through. It’s the things that aren’t seen that are the most scary. For instance, when the first victim dies, you witness this from the other side of a locked door, hearing her bloodcurdling screams, until they abruptly stop and a pool of blood starts pouring into the house from under the door.

Additionally, when another victim is attacked in a graveyard, much is left to the viewer’s imagination. You see the victim’s reaction and a branch violently shake before the attack. But it is done in a way that is more effective than seeing the monster attack on screen. And for the twist ending of this film, it is actually necessary to obscure the killer and allow the mind to fill in the blanks.

The plot of the film is pretty simple. A showman rents a black leopard to spruce up the act of one of his top ladies. The leopard is frightened and runs off, escaping into the small desert town. Shortly after, a girl is mauled outside the front door to her house, as her mother and little brother listen in horror. Some other killings happen while the police are trying to find the leopard, who is blamed for the deaths. As the story progresses, we learn that it might not be the leopard that is killing these people after all.

The big reveal at the end is pretty predictable but it doesn’t make the film any less effective. Plus, you’re never really sure what’s happening and why. The “why” is as big of a question as the “who”. While the answers might not be totally satisfying, everything leading up to the mystery being solved is pretty well structured and executed.

Tourneur and Lewton made another horror movie in the same visual style as the noir pictures that would come to dominate the 1940s. There’s a bit of a German Expressionist influence in the lighting and the use of shadows for contrast and a chiaroscuro presentation.

The Leopard Man is a much smarter horror picture than what was the norm for the 1940s but this would become Val Lewton’s specialty and even if they weren’t as big as Universal’s horror franchises in terms of popularity, they were better than most of those pictures in quality.

Rating: 7/10