Oliver (Kent Smith) spies Irena (Simone Simon) sketching outside the panther cage at the zoo one day and strikes up a conversation. She invites him back to her apartment for tea, and before the end of the day they're in love. Irena's got a few...mmm...hangups, I guess you could say; she fears she's descended from the Cat People of Serbia and if her passions are at all inflamed, why, she'll turn feline and deadly. Because of this fear, she's herself apart from society- she's new to America and has never had a friend. She certainly never expected to fall in love, although she agrees to marry Oliver regardless. Consummating the union is another story, however, and Irena refuses to even so much as kiss her new husband lest she end up killing him.
And so goes Cat People (1942). Oliver is a patient man, but eventually comes to think that perhaps Irena is just plain crazy and maybe he was too hasty with this marriage thing and Irena's not really responding to attempts to help her and isn't he a better match with his officemate Alice (Jane Randolph) anyway?
Meanwhile, Irena becomes increasingly jealous of the friendship between her husband and Alice and jealousy means passion and passion means maybe oh no cat person!
You might be thinking "Like, okay, so it's a werewolf movie but with cats? Werecats?" and that is...possible. Though there are two sequences that are among the most famous in all of horror- one featuring Alice followed by something along the empty streets and another featuring Alice in a swimming pool, stalked by something growly along its edges (man, poor Alice)- we're never given any hard evidence that there's any transformation, that there's any such thing as a cat person, that Irena is or isn't insane. The ambiguity doesn't make the film any less effective as a horror film; in fact, not seeing cheesy cat attacks and/or cat people keeps the suspense high. It's more eerie than shocking, more sinister undertones than overt action.
Cat People is an awfully melancholy film. Watching poor Irena struggle with her own desires, afraid of the danger lurking within her because she's been taught (by her religion, no less) that sex is bad, living in fear of killing the only person she's ever allowed herself to love...depressing. Watching as she endures everyone around her telling her that she doesn't know herself or her own feelings because she's likely insane...depressing. The entire film is drenched in a sadness as heavy and palpable as the shadows that obscure whatever it is that's lurking there, just out of sight.
Aim for the Head
Life Between Frames