Thursday, October 30, 2008

Cat People

With tomorrow being Halloween, TCM are airing an entire day of horror movies -- actually, two days, since they started off this morning. One of the great producers of horror movies was Val Lewton, who is responsible for RKO's great B-movies of the 1940s. Perhaps his best horror movie is airing tomorrow on TCM at 7:30 AM ET: Cat People.

Kent Smith stars as an engineer who meets an artist from Serbia played by the lovely Simone Simon. Unfortunately for her, she comes from a village that is believed by its inhabitants to be subject to a curse: some of the people in the village turn into cats. And, needless to say, she's one of them! Still, boy marries girl, although we know fully well it's going to have tragic consequences.

What Val Lewton was so good at, partly by necessity, was in making the horror based on what is unseen; what we imagine based on the fears in our own minds. Sure, we see some big cats, but they're in cages at the zoo; we don't see any trick photography turning Simone Simon into a cat. We do, however, hear the cat, in one particularly frightening scene involving the "other woman" -- one of Smith's co-workers whom Simon fears is having a relationship with him -- trying to escape from the cat. The other woman escapes into a swimming pool, but we get to see her fright when she sees a shadow of the cat on the wall and hears a cat's roar. It's tame stuff for 2008, but it shows that we don't need to see the blood and gore in order to be frightened.

As I said, it was in part out of necessity that Lewton used the techniques he did. RKO gave him very small budgets, so he couldn't use the effects that the better studios would have been able to use on their prestige movies. This leads to some imperfect production values on the one hand, but also an inventiveness that makes the movie sparkle. It wouldn't be quite the same if we could see everything perfectly polished.

Cat People, and Val Lewton, aren't so well remembered today, and that's a shame. Thanks to TCM, though, we get to see his excellent work at Halloween. And thanks to modern technology, you can watch it any time you want on DVD.

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