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F Ilm: Cat People

Classic 1942 horror film produced by Val Lewton concerning Irena, a Serbian woman living in America who believes that if she is ever kissed by a man, she will transform into a deadly panther. Her American co-workers try to persuade her otherwise, including a man who wants to marry her. Turns out, she's right and they're wrong. Despite some wooden acting, a low budget and rather primitive special effects, Cat People remains an effectively spooky (if not quite scary) film to this day, largely because of director Jacques Tourneur's use of visual and psychological suggestion to encourage the audience to imagine what might be lurking in the shadows.

Spawned a sequel (kind of), The Curse of the Cat People, which follows two of the characters from the first film and (apparently) a third one who had seemed to be dead at its end; it didn't really deal with the "cat people" angle at all, and dropped the "dangerous sexuality" theme in favour of exploring the importance of childhood imagination. It's not even in the same genre as the original, being more of a drama about family life than a horror film. That said, it's well made and worth seeing in its own right, despite the Executive Meddling.

There was also a 1982 remake starring Malcolm McDowell and Nastassja Kinski; it was a great deal bloodier and more salacious than the original, expanded the original's sketchy backstory into a proper origin story for the cat people, and generally preferred to show what the original merely suggested. It's also very... very... slooooow.

See Cat Folk for feline humanoids. See Cat Person for a series of Internet shorts.

Tropes:

  • Always Night — Much of "Cat People" is set at night, even the work scenes.
  • Animals Hate Him — In the 1942 film, the kitten Oliver buys for Irena hisses when she approaches it; when they go to the pet store to exchange it for a bird all the animals become agitated. Later, the bird dies of fright when Irena picks it up. Lampshaded by the pet store worker who says that animals can sense things about people.
  • Betty and Veronica — Alice and Irena in the 1942 version.
  • Brother-Sister Incest — In the 1982 remake, Paul suggests this to Irena as a way of solving the "we turn into deadly panthers after we have sex with normal people" problem.
  • Breakaway Pop HitDavid Bowie's eponymous song (a.k.a. "Putting Out Fire") from the remake.
  • Can't Have Sex, Ever — Irena will turn into a killer cat if this happens.
  • Cat Scare — A pioneering example in the original, often claimed (especially by the makers) to be the first using the brakes of a bus to make a sound very like the hissing of a great cat. Further uses would become known as Lewton's Bus.
  • Chekhov's Gun — The key to the panther's cage in Cat People.
  • Children Are Special — Oliver and Alice's daughter Amy in the sequel "The Curse of the Cat People."
  • Cloudcuckoolander — How Oliver and the other characters see Irena.
    • How Amy's classmates and at times her own father see her.
  • The Cloudcuckoolander Was Right — what Oliver and Alice belatedly realize about Irena's stories about the cat curse.
  • Cool Old Lady — Averted. Julia Farren is kind to Amy but rejects her own daughter, possibly because of mental illness or dementia.
  • Defrosting the Ice Queen — Barbara, who was ready to strangle Amy, stops when Amy, mistaking her for Irina, calls her her "friend."
  • Eagleland — A number of subtle examples in "Cat People." Oliver and Alice are essentially decent but are patronizing towards anything or anyone foreign. Alice finds Dr. Judd's hand-kissing (an Eastern European custom) grotesque, and Oliver pointedly orders apple pie at the diner, refusing the gumbo (leading the waitress to say "don't nobody like chicken gumbo?") And of course he is dismissive of Irena's Serbian background and stories.
  • Fake Nationality: Simone Simon, a French actress, plays Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian character.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father — Oliver demands that Amy give up her dream world and is furious when she doesn't. He becomes more understanding at the end of the film, however.
  • Film Noir —The 1942 version is a classic example.
  • For Your Own Good — Oliver believes he is helping Amy when he demands she give up her dream world.
  • Footprints Of MuckAs seen in this clip.
  • Fourth Date Marriage — Oliver and Irena
  • Hollywood History — Irena's tale involves one King John of Serbia who freed Serbia from "the Mamelukes". Well, there was a "King"—or rather an "Emperor"—John, but he fought the Hungarians during the Ottoman invasion and a subsequent Hungarian War of Succession in an effort to carve out his own Serbian kingdom—not the Mamelukes, who were Egyptian. He also didn't rule very long—ultimately his rule wound up letting the Turks conquer most of Serbia...
  • Hollywood New EnglandCurse of the Cat People.
  • Hollywood Psych — A shrink in the original tries to convince Irena that her belief that she'll turn into a great cat if a man kisses her is just a delusion fostered by fear of male sexuality. He tries this out with a... practical demonstration. It doesn't work out the way he thought it would.
    • He's also hilariously Freudian, absolutely convinced that her belief comes entirely from her own mind, despite it being established as a folktale from her Serbia.
  • Horror Doesn't Settle for Simple Tuesday — Amy runs outside into a blizzard and is nearly strangled by Barbara during the Christmas season.
  • Imaginary Friend: Irena to Amy. It is unclear if she exists only in Amy's imagination or not.
  • Invisible to Adults — Irena (or her ghost) can only be seen by Amy in "Curse of the Cat People."
  • In Name OnlyThe Curse of the Cat People has very little in common with Cat People beyond featuring the three main characters of the first film.
  • Lack of Empathy — Oliver is guilty of this both with Irena in the first movie and his daughter Amy in the second where he scolds and punishes her for not giving up her fantasy world. He is clearly remorseful by the end of "The Curse of the Cat People."
  • Magic Pants
  • Night Swim Equals Death — Subverted. It doesn't actually end with a death, but the suspense built up around it makes it look like it will.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent — Serbian immigrant Irena is played by French actress Simone Simon, who doesn't attempt to hide her French accent.
    • In The Curse of the Cat People she sings a lovely Christmas carol to Amy—in French.
  • Our Werebeasts Are Different — Humans turning into panthers in sexual situations.
    • In the remake, only sex with another werecat prevents the transformation, and if a werecat has sex with a human, the only way they can change back is to kill someone.
  • Pretty Butterflies — Amy slaps a boy for accidentally crushing one of these.
  • Ruritania — How all-American Oliver regards Irena's homeland Serbia with its crazy folktales and superstitions.
  • Sensual Slav — Irena comes across as this at first.
  • Sex Is Evil — In both versions, though the 1942 version requires a much smaller trigger to the evilness.
  • Skeptic No Longer — Oliver at the end of the 1942 version.
  • That Thing is Not My Child! — Julia Farren, who may have dementia, is convinced that her long suffering adult daughter Barbara is an imposter and that her real daughter died in childhood.
  • Women Are Wiser — Alice and Amy's teacher Miss Callahan are far more understanding of Amy's fantasies than her father.

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