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Film: 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:

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    Cat People (1942) 
  • Always Night: Much of the film is set at night, even the work scenes.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Alice revealing her love to Oliver at the office.
  • Animals Hate Her: 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.
  • Ass Hole Victim: Dr. Judd.
  • Beautiful Dreamer: At one point Irena watches Oliver sleep. When he wakes up, they talk about it.
  • Betty and Veronica: Alice and Irena.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Dr. Judd, who turns out to be more interested in seducing Irena that curing her.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Heroine Dies, but this enables Oliver to move on and lead a more satisfying relationship with Alice.
  • 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.
  • Catapult Nightmare: How Irena wakes from a bad dream she has about her therapist posing as King John.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The key to the panther's cage.
    • Also the Sword Cane, which the therapist later uses during his fight with the black panther.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: How Oliver and the other characters see Irena.
  • The Cloudcuckoolander Was Right: What Oliver and Alice belatedly realize about Irena's stories about the cat curse.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Irena fled her Doomed Hometown because of the ancient curse.
  • Death of the Hypotenuse: Irena's death resolves the dilemma of the Love Triangle.
  • Disappeared Dad: Downplayed. Irena mentions that her father died before she was born.
  • Eagleland: A number of subtle examples. 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.
  • Film Noir: A classic example featuring Always Night, Emerging from the Shadows and Smoking Is Cool.
  • Fourth Date Marriage: Oliver and Irena.
  • Harassing Phone Call: Alice receives two of them from Irena who hangs up after hearing a female voice on the other end (office).
  • 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 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.
  • Human To Werewolf Footprints: Werepanther-to-human footprints. The Footprints Of Muck leading away from the site of the slaughtered sheep change from pawprints to tracks left by what are apparently magic high-heeled shoes.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Alice mentions this towards the end when things get really messy.
  • Kind Hearted Cat Lover: Alice, who plays with several cats throughout the movie.
  • Lack of Empathy: Oliver is guilty of this with Irena.
  • Love Triangle: Between Irena, Alice and Oliver. The dilemma is being resolved via Death of the Hypotenuse.
  • 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.
  • Our Werebeasts Are Different: Humans turning into panthers in sexual situations.
  • Perp Sweating: A variation where the therapist uses a beamer to put Irena under hypnosis.
  • Ruritania: How all-American Oliver regards Irena's homeland Serbia with its crazy folktales and superstitions.
  • Sassy Black Woman: Minnie, the waitress at Sally Lunn's.
  • 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.
  • Shadow Discretion Shot: The fight between the therapist and the panther is depicted as a shadow play against a wall.
  • The Shrink: A combination of Type 1 and 2. Though he seems to act in Irena's best interest, his actions ultimately lead to her demise.
  • Skeptic No Longer: Oliver by the end of the movie.
  • Smug Snake: Dr. Judd.
  • Surprise Vehicle: Lewton's Bus. It helps that Alice has No Peripheral Vision and is taken by surprise when the bus rushes into view.
  • Sword Cane: The therapist has such a cane. It doesn't help him though.
  • This Was Her True Form: When Irena dies, she turns into a panther.
  • Tragic Hero: Irena, aware and in fear of her cat curse, still enters into an ill-fated relationship.
  • What Is This Thing You Call Love?: Oliver asks this himself after Alice's pours her heart out to him.

    The Curse of the Cat People (1944) 
  • Children Are Special: Oliver and Alice's daughter Amy.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: How Amy's classmates and at times her own father see her.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • For Your Own Good: Oliver believes he is helping Amy when he demands she give up her dream world.
  • Hollywood New England
  • 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 Name Only: The 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 with his daughter Amy where he scolds and punishes her for not giving up her fantasy world. He is clearly remorseful by the end.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Serbian-born Irena sings a lovely Christmas carol to Amy—in French.
  • Pretty Butterflies: Amy slaps a boy for accidentally crushing one of these.
  • 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.

     Additional tropes from the 1982 remake of Cat People 
  • Brother-Sister Incest: Paul suggests this to Irena as a way of solving the "we turn into deadly panthers after we have sex with normal people" problem.
  • Creepy Housekeeper: Paul's housekeeper Femalé is hospitable, but she has a very voodoo vibe about her and is very loyal to Paul, helping him avoid punishment for his crimes.
  • Deus Sex Machina: The werepanthers' transformation is triggered by sex.
  • Green Eyes: Irena has green eyes and is a werepanther. Her brother, however, also a werepanther, has violet eyes. The title song (by David Bowie) begins, "See these eyes so green..."
  • My Instincts Are Showing: The first time Irena comes close to transforming, she strips off and hunts a rabbit in the bayou. Earlier, when frightened, she leaps to the top of wall. Her brother Paul often climbs trees and after a transformation, will eat the leftover skin clinging to his body.
  • Our Werebeasts Are Different: Only sex with another werecat prevents the transformation from and into human form, and if a werecat has sex with a human, the only way they can change back is to kill someone.
  • Perverted Sniffing: Paul does this to his estranged sister Irena. However, they are, of course werecats and it's a part of their animalistic bonding ritual. Paul wants Irena to be his mate.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: Early in the movie, Paul picks up a blonde in a cemetery, takes her to bed, and can't get it up. He breaks down in tears, crying that he was always afraid "it" would happen again; she comforts him that she knows how to take care of guys like him, and will make it better. And then "it" turns out to be, not failing to get it up, but turning into a black leopard and eating her.

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