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Film / Cat People

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1982 remake

"Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to the low places, the depressions in the world consciousness."
Dr. Louis Judd, The Anatomy of Atavism

Classic 1942 horror film produced by Val Lewton, directed by Jacques Tourneur.

Irena (Simone Simon) is a Serbian woman living in America who believes that if she is ever kissed by a man, she will transform into a deadly panther due to a family curse brought on by medieval dabbling in witchcraft. Her American co-workers try to persuade her otherwise, including Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), who wants to marry her. Turns out, she's right and they're wrong.

Spawned a sequel (kind of) in 1944, 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. It's also notable as the directorial debut of Robert Wise.

There was also a 1982 remake, directed by Paul Schrader and starring Malcolm McDowell and Nastassja Kinski; it was more of what would later be called a "reimagining" than a straight remake, as it made Irena the protagonist rather than Oliver, introduced a new male co-lead in the form of her brother Paul, and changed the cat people's origins from medieval witchcraft to prehistoric Human Sacrifice. It was also a great deal bloodier and more salacious than the original, and generally preferred to show what the original merely suggested. It's also notable for the soundtrack, a collaboration between Giorgio Moroder and David Bowie.

See Cat Folk for feline humanoids.


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    Cat People (1942) 
  • 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. Lampshaded by the pet store worker:
    "Animals are ever so psychic. There are some people who just can't come in here."
  • Artistic License – Biology: A minor example, but one of the kittens Alice plays with is said to be a month old when it’s clearly closer to four or five months.
  • Artistic License – 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 Egyptians of Circassian origin and never actually fought Serbs). He also didn't rule very long—ultimately his rule wound up letting the Turks conquer most of Serbia...
  • Artistic License – Religion: When meeting the other Serbian woman, Irena makes the sign of the cross left-to-right as opposed to the Orthodox way of right-to-left.
  • Asshole Victim: Dr. Judd, who gets killed after he arguably takes advantage of Irena's situation.
  • Batman Gambit: Alice's actions in the pool scene are actually pretty smart, given the circumstances; she hears that there could be a wild animal or an attacker in the near, so she jumps into the water. If it's a wild animal, it might hesitate at going into the water. And if it does, it'll have to reveal itself. And if it goes into the water, it might be slowed down and an experienced swimmer like Alice might be able to get away quickly. Once it becomes apparent the animal won't be showing itself, she screams to let the receptionist know there's a problem.
  • Beautiful Dreamer: At one point Irena watches Oliver sleep. When he wakes up, they talk about it.
  • Betty and Veronica: Alice and Irena. Alice is the Girl Next Door from the same industry as Ollie, while Irena is the foreigner with a more glamorous career as an illustrator.
  • 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. In an early scene, the zookeeper leaves it in there forgetting about it. Irena steals it after her first transformation and later uses it to open the 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. Although it was already decided that she and Ollie would divorce, so he could be with Alice.
  • Disappeared Dad: Downplayed. Irena mentions that her father died before she was born.
  • Driven to Suicide: Irena, by releasing the panther.
  • 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.
  • Evil Wears Black: Irena completes her Face–Heel Turn by wearing a black dress and coat in all the scenes.
  • Fanservice: We get a sequence of Alice about to take a swim, although one won't find too much titillation; she's being stalked by an animal at the time.
  • Film Noir: A classic example featuring Emerging from the Shadows and Smoking Is Cool.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Oliver and Irena. Although in this case there's a Time Skip to when they've been together a few months and then another to their wedding party.
  • Harassing Phone Call: Alice receives two of them from Irena who hangs up after hearing a female voice on the other end (office).
  • 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.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: When Dr. Judd says that Oliver can either divorce Irena (and leave her with the stigma involved) or institutionalize her and be obligated to take care of her forever without the possibility of divorce, Alice immediately says that the latter would be the right thing to do, even though it would mean she wouldn't get to marry Oliver.
  • Kind Hearted Cat Lover: Alice, who plays with several cats throughout the movie.
  • Lack of Empathy: Though Oliver respects Irena's requests for a lack of intimacy, he can't wrap his mind around why she insists until the truth becomes apparent at the end of the film. Somewhat justified in that most people would think their spouse was a little nuts for believing they'd turn into a deadly animal if they were so much as kissed.
  • Love Triangle: Between Irena, Alice and Oliver. The dilemma is being resolved via Death of the Hypotenuse.
  • Madonna-Whore Complex: Actually a surprising inversion for a 1940s film. Irena is initially presented as the Whore to Alice's Madonna - the sexier exotic vamp to the all-American Girl Next Door. But Irena is afraid of her own sexuality and has a sexless marriage with Ollie, which is one of the reasons their relationship falls apart. Alice is far more sexually forward - making declarations of love to Ollie and being quite fearless.
  • Never a Self-Made Woman: Interestingly played, especially for the time period. Irena has a job of her own as an illustrator, but once she's married, she has no life outside of her relationship with Ollie and her eventual death could be interpreted as a suicide now that she can't be with him anymore. Alice meanwhile, the 'right' girl has her own career and interests - and had no ill will towards the man she loved marrying another woman - only confessing her feelings once it was clear his relationship was failing.
  • 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. As Simone also dubbed Elizabeth Russell, who plays the other Serbian woman (who calls Irena "my sister"), this is the result for her too.
  • Nothing Is Scarier:
    • One of the most famous examples is the "Lewton Bus" scene, in which Alice is shown looking over her shoulder, walking faster and faster as the camera zooms in on her terrified face, before we are startled by a hiss. It's actually the hydraulic brakes on a passing bus. This scene is still terrifying over 70 years later!
    • The film also makes a great deal of implication rather than outright explaining things, leaving a lot to the imagination.
  • Our Werebeasts Are Different: Humans turning into panthers in sexual situations. This is exclusive to the females of Irena's village.
  • 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. But then it turns out she's terrified of even kissing her husband.
  • Sex Is Evil: In both versions, though the 1942 version requires a much smaller trigger to the evilness.
  • Sexy Cat Person: Both versions heavily play on the stereotypical association of cats with female sexuality.
  • 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.
  • Shrug Take: Alice on her way to the apartment pool sees a kitten hissing in fear that has just encountered Irena. Not realizing this, Alice shrugs and keeps walking.
  • Skeptic No Longer: Oliver spends the movie convinced Irena's fears are just superstitions...until he gets proof first hand.
  • 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.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: After Oliver finally has enough of Irena's jealousy and leaves her for Alice, Irena decides to purposefully transform into the panther so she can kill everyone.
  • 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.
  • Unexplained Accent: Dr Judd is said to have some Eastern European heritage, but speaks with Tom Conway's English accent.
  • What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?: Oliver asks this himself after Alice's pours her heart out to him.
  • Yandere: Averted; though a jealous Irena follows Alice twice in a sinister manner and even looks ready to kill her while she's taking a swim, not to mention apparently appearing to Alice and Oliver as a panther ready to kill them both she only scares her.

    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.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The trailer makes the film seem like a horror film, presenting Irena's ghost as a threat to Amy.
  • 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.
  • Will Not Tell a Lie: Amy refuses to lie and say she cannot see Irena in the garden even though she knows her father will now punish her.
  • 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 
  • An Arm and a Leg: Caged in panther form, Paul rips the arm off one of his keepers. Realistically, the man dies of blood loss.
  • Ascended Extra: The character of Paul is derived from the panther at the zoo who fascinates Irena. As in the original, Oliver and Irena first meet while she's sketching him. But in the original the panther seems to be nothing more than an ordinary animal, while here he's her brother and another cat person.
  • The Big Easy: The film's setting is moved to New Orleans, and Schrader makes the most of the atmosphere of the city and the surrounding bayou.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: The remake offers this as the solution to a piece of Fridge Logic from the original: if the werecats kill everyone they have sex with, how did they keep their lineage going for all these generations? Only by doing it with each other. Paul wants to keep this tradition up with Irena, much to her horror.
  • Color-Coded Eyes: Irena has green eyes, which is significant because she is a werepanther. Her brother, however, also a werepanther, has violet eyes. The title song (by David Bowie) begins, "See these eyes so green..."
  • 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.
  • Distant Prologue: The film opens in what appears to be a Neolithic village, where the locals offer up a young woman as a sacrifice to the leopards.
  • Human Sacrifice: In this version, Paul and Irena are cat people because their ancestors sacrificed their children to leopards. "The souls of the children grew inside the leopards until they became human," Paul explains in an expository Dream Sequence.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: Paul picks up a blonde in a cemetery, takes her to bed, and can't get it up. He says mournfully that he prayed that "it" wouldn't 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.
  • Ms. Fanservice: And how! There are 5 speaking roles for women in the film, only Femalé gets to keep her clothes on.
  • 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 Power of Love: Irena's love for Oliver overpowers her instinct to kill him, even when she's in panther form.
  • Psychic Link: Paul and Irena seem to have a mild one; she can sense when he's distressed and eventually recognizes him in cat form.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Single Mom Stripper: The prostitute whom Paul attacks early in the film is late for an appointment because she had to find a babysitter.
  • Sinister Minister: It's downplayed, but Paul works at a (colorfully painted) local church. It's not totally clear whether this is meant to counteract his werecat impulses or enable them; there's evidence for both.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In this remake, Irena survives but is permanently stuck as a panther, albeit a docile one.