Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Cat People (1942)

In 1942 RKO hired Val Lewton as the head of the studio’s horror unit, at a salary of $250 per week. He was instructed to follow three rules: each film was to have a budget under $150,000 budget, the running time for each film was to be under 75 minutes, and studio would supply the film titles. Val Lewton who had worked as a journalist, novelist and the story editor for David O. Selznick, soon made a name for himself as a major player in the horror genre producing such films as I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), and The Body Snatcher (1945).

 His first film Cat People (1942) which became a cult classic and was a major hit is considered by many to be his best film during his RKO years. Cat People (1942) was directed by Jacques Tourneur and the screenplay was written by DeWitt Bodeen and based on Val Lewton's short story The Bagheeta published in 1930.  Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph and Tom Conway starred in this expressionistic, nourish film.

Cat People (1942) is the story of a young woman, Irena played by Simone Simon,  who is convinced that she is a descendant of a race of people who turn into cats when sexually aroused. The film was
shot from July 28 to August 21, 1942 at RKO's Gower Gulch studios in Hollywood. Sets left over from previous, higher-budgeted RKO productions, most notably the staircase from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) were used.

Supervisor Lou L. Ostrow was so dissatisfied with the style of the movie that he considered firing director Jacques Tourneur after only four days of filming.  Lewton stepped in and convinced studio head Charles Koerner to reinstate Tourneur. Later when Ostrow insisted on the panther appearing in the drafting room sequence, Lewton had Tourneur compromise by using low lighting and putting the panther in the shadows thus keeping the film well within its tight budget. The use of shadows in lieu of an actual panther in the film gained much attention and heighten the tension. This technique was in contrast to competing other horror films being produced by Universal at the time.

Lewton is credited for inventing "Lewton Bus,” during the making of the film. The Lewton Bus is a scene that slowly builds tension and then gives the viewer an unexpected jolt with something that turns out to be completely harmless. The Lewton Bus was first used in Cat People (1942) in the scene where Irena is following Alice; the viewer expects Irena to turn into a panther and attack Alice. As the camera focuses on Alice the viewer hears what sounds like a hissing panther—but it turns out to be a bus pulling up. The "Lewton Bus”,   is a technique that is still used in horror films today especially slasher films such as the Friday the 13th and the Halloween series films.

Toward the end of the filming two crews were utilized to finish the film. One worked at night, filming the animals, and one during the day with the cast. Cat People (1942) was the first collaboration of director Tourneur with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Their later collaboration on RKO's Out of the Past (1947) would again be regarded as major influence on the Film Noir genre.

The film premiered on December 6, 1942 and was released on December 25 that same year.  Cat People (1942) was such a hit at the box office that the releases of the next two Lewton films, I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943) were delayed.

Reviews of the film were mixed when the film was first released. Variety called Cat People (1942) a "weird drama of thrill-chill caliber" while Bosley Crowther for The New York Times wrote that "The Cat People is a labored and obvious attempt to induce shock."  But Cat People (1942) was in theaters for so long that many of the critics who had originally bashed the film saw it again and rewrote their reviews with a much more positive spin.

Critics and fans alike agreed that Cat People (1942) was a landmark in the horror genre and perhaps the most influential horror film since  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). In 1993, Cat People was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

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