Whilst his name will not be familiar to many, Val Lewton had a profound influence on the way movies are made. Starting with Jack Tourneur’s The Cat People, he produced a number of (mostly low budget) films for RKO Pictures. Indeed, The Cat People ended up saving the studio from financial ruin after a run box office failure. His vision and use of light and shadow changed mainstream horror cinema forever.
Whilst sketching a black panther at Central Park Zoo, Serbian fashion designer Irena (Simone Simon) has a chance encounter with Oliver (Kent Smith), a marine engineer. There’s an instant mutual attraction and the couple soon get married. However, Irena’s belief that she will turn into a cat if she becomes aroused gets in the way of any intimacy between them. Oliver turns to his friend Alice (Jane Randolph) with his troubles, but it soon becomes apparent that she’s in love with him. Ierna becomes suspicious and odd feline occurrences begin to happen.
Largely overshadowed by Paul Schrader’s inferior remake, The Cat People is a milestone in horror movies. The way Lewton and Tourneur use shadow in lieu of an actual monster completely revolutionised how films are made. There’s so much more malice in a fleetingly glimpsed silhouette than revealing all your cards to the audience. However, don’t labour under the misapprehension that it’s a horror film per se. The Cat People is a tense and chilling thriller which looks sumptuous with the new 2K restoration.
- New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Audio commentary from 2005 featuring film historian Gregory Mank, with excerpts from an audio interview with actor Simone Simon
- Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, a 2008 feature-length documentary that explores the life and career of the legendary Hollywood producer
- Interview with director Jacques Tourneur from 1979
- New interview with cinematographer John Bailey about the look of the film
- PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien
The Cat People is released on Blu-ray by Sony Picture House Entertainment as part of the Criterion Collection on Monday.