Jacques Tourneur's Cat People, perhaps the artistic high point of horror during the 1940s, is one of the most difficult horror films to explain to modern audiences. Part of that's probably because it's mostly a parable about the dangers of the past and a metaphor for repressed sexuality and a bunch of other smart stuff like that, and also probably because we never actually see people who look like cats. This was, after all, just one year after The Wolf Man showed us a man who looked like a wolf - so it would make sense to expect people who look like cats.
What do we get, if not people who look like cats? We get the fascinating Simone Simon as Irena, a Serbian woman living in New York City who becomes convinced that she's a member of a family who turns into panthers when they're sexually aroused. I suppose that's not really hard to explain, but it's a little bit hard to believe. It's not far off from the gypsy culture of The Wolf Man - which keeps popping up in my mind due to its close proximity to this release - but the differences in style between Cat People producer Val Lewton and the folks behind Universals' monster movies are pretty significant.
As I've already mentioned, the obvious difference is Lewton and Tourneur's choice to go with an implied monster over an actual monster. It's the right choice for this movie for multiple reasons. For starters, I can't picture one scenario in which you use makeup or prosthetics to make Simone Simon look like a cat and don't end up with an audience that thinks the film is a huge joke. But, more obvious than that, there's an air of mystery added to the film by the choice to keep things ambiguous.
Much of this is sold by Simon, who portrays Irena as an icy character, but not one who is sufficiently vicious or evil. She's a confused character - moreso when she interacts with the men in her life than usual -who certainly earns our sympathy as she moves through the film. Even as she grows more unstable later in the film - thanks to a juicy (by 1942 standards) love triangle with her husband and one of his co-workers - we still feel a strong sense of pity for the character, because the filmmakers do such a good job of making us feel like she is doomed by her past.
The film builds to a couple of tense sequences - most notably the swimming pool showdown with her husband's lover, which is probably the best use of a swimming pool in a horror movie's final act prior to C.H.U.D. II - that do a fantastic job of making us feel uneasy without any specific visual of Irena's cat form. Future low-budget horror movies owe a lot to Lewton, as Cat People and his other productions set the standard for building tension with minimal resources. Ironically, all of those scares where cats jump out of dark areas at victims are ancestors of Cat People, where Lewton surprises viewers with the screeching brakes of a bus just when we think we're going to get a cat.
There are a surprising number of people who don't back Lewton's approach to horror these days - for example, the great John Carpenter has famously chided his films as being full of "nothing" - but I think there's still something fascinating about the balance between drama and horror in his productions. Cat People could probably work as a drama about a confused woman and her romantic struggles, and the addition of this shapeshifting aspect of her persona still only barely makes the film a horror tale at times. But the way the director and producer sell her affliction - and the way they let it take over the film in the final act - set up Cat People as one of the more intriguing horror films of its era, and make it a great piece of counterprogramming to the monster movies of its day.