Monsters in horror movies more often represent an internal than an external threat. Henry Frankenstein’s Creature is, depending on how you read it, symbolic of the repressed; when he sees the monster in Bride of Frankenstein his shock isn’t a response to its features, but to what the Creature means to him. He’s a respectable, well-to-do, loving husband who lights up with a manic obsession when confronted with the possibility of playing God, and the Creature is irrefutable proof of that obsessive streak.
In the 1940s Universal’s hold on the genre started to wane, and less effort and artistry was put into the resulting films. After The Wolf Man in 1941 it switched from A to B pictures, and focussed on increasingly silly sequels to the big franchises: Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Dracula and The Mummy. With films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and House of Frankenstein it crammed its monsters together, on the basis that if one monster is scary, four must be four times as scary. Like so many franchises, it got tired, less artful and more cynical.
The story is well-told: Val Lewton, a producer over at RKO, was put in charge of a horror unit aimed to rival the success of Universal’s. He would be handed sensationalist titles like I Walked With A Zombie, along with a modest budget and an upper running time of 75 minutes. And he produced some classics of the genre: The Leopard Man, Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, and, of course, Cat People (1942).
This was the first of the horror movies produced by Lewton, and its success gave him the kind of freedom he craved for his subsequent projects. It is perhaps, perversely, in thanks to the Auteur theory that we think of these as Lewton picture before anything else (perversely because he was their producer, not director), although part of Lewton’s talent was in picking the right directors. Later movies would be made by the likes of Robert Wise, but Cat People was directed by Jacques Tourneur, a French master of lighting and atmosphere who would go on to make Build My Gallows High (AKA Out Of The Past, 1947) and Night of the Demon (1957). As this was the first of this run, it may have been as much Tourneur’s input that made Lewton decide on the formula that for the most part he stuck with: minimalism, suggestion, ambiguity, and basically using a tight budget as an advantage
The plot concerns a young lady unwilling to give in to passion for fear that she may be a Cat Person, which is to say someone who turns into a large and rather dangerous cat when inflamed by passion or anger. This is Irena, played by Simone Simon in a sexy, unforgettable performance. The character, and the film, is built around the conventions of film noir, and this may be the first time those two genres were crossbred. She is not a femme fatale, exactly, because she doesn’t herself seem to know just how fatale she is; it’s a deliberately ambiguous film, but it’s hard not to think of her in some way as a victim, be it of the literal monsters or of the curse of an age where female sexuality was supposed to be tightly restrained. She envies ‘normal’ women: ‘they’re happy,’ she says, before tellingly adding, ‘They make their husbands happy.’
This is the first horror movie I’ve discussed wherein sex and eroticism are significant factors; a moment where Irena matter-of-factly takes off her stockings for a bath, for instance, might not stand out to a modern audience, but such a moment was no small deal in 1942. For the most part, Irena seems simply to be scared of her own sexuality. She is fighting the temptation to ‘loose evil upon the world,’ says a doctor, adding that she fights a desire for death, which as the French are keen to remind us is linked to a desire for flesh. The self-repression of her character may have spoken to many women in the 1940s who also feared their inner feline.
The male lead is Oliver Reed (played by Kent Smith), who impulsively marries Irena but fails to reach her; to modern eyes he’s actually pretty useless. ‘I’ve just never been unhappy before,’ he muses. He’s never felt doubt, either. Yet he experiences both through the film. His friend, the doctor, tells him he ought to get an annulment and hook up with Alice (Jane Randolph) from work, who compared to Simone Simon has about as much charisma as a plank of wood. Certainly it would be the sensible thing to do, for an uptight movie hero, yet the audience has its doubts: look at Irena scratching a couch, her nails leaving parallel tears in the leather. If she really let loose she could probably do some serious damage to a man, and he probably wouldn’t complain.
In terms of quality, this run of RKO horror pictures overtook Universal in the ‘40s. At that studio, the star monster was no longer Karloff, but the inferior Lon Chaney, Jr. The latter, admittedly, had the misfortune of trying to take over from actors who had made the roles their own (he played Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and the Mummy) and his versions, particularly Dracula, pale in comparison, though at least his Wolf Man was his own. A problem they were increasingly faced with was transformation scenes: some are done in shadow, some using dissolves. Most, if not all, are very dated. Cat People removes this problem by avoiding a transformation scene entirely; aside from the fact it would look dated, it would also cancel out the film’s ambiguities: maybe it really is all in Irena’s head.
The decade offers other classics, including The Uninvited (1944) with Ray Milland, a haunted house story which influenced many later ghost stories on screen, and is still fairly effective in its use of lighting and sound. Another favourite is Dead Of Night (1945) the British portmanteau film from Ealing Studios, featuring four different stories told by four characters trapped either in a country farmhouse or in the dream of one of the characters. The stories range from the creepy to the amusing (Charles Crichton’s golfing ghost story is played for laughs), and it is most memorable for “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” featuring Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist falling under the control of his dummy. Portmanteau movies like this, particularly horror ones, usually fall into the ‘Curate’s Egg’ category, with Trick ‘r Treat (2007) being a patchy but fun recent example. However Dead Of Night, directed by some of the best contemporary British filmmakers, remains a classic of sorts.
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