The Best Horror Movie of 1942: Cat People

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The Best Horror Movie of 1942: <i>Cat People</i>

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

As the 1940s continue and the war heats up in Europe, and America enters the war following Pearl Harbor, the horror genre begins to undergo some of its own changes. The overall volume of horror releases isn’t affected much, at least for now, but the effort and budgets being put into those horror pictures seems to slip, industry wide. There’s never a shortage of horror flicks in the cinema, but many of them are cookie-cutter sequels or rather formulaic rehashes of the same “mad doctor” or “monster on the loose” formulas. The genre is getting a bit more tired, in other words, and the studios are taking a grindhouse approach toward horror films: Make them cheap, and make them in quantity to satisfy the regular consumers. The genre begins to feel like a comfortable distraction from the sober news of what is happening in Europe.

That attitude leads toward the decline of some of the more prominent franchises, such as Universal’s Frankenstein. Three years after the lavishly appointed Son of Frankenstein revived the genre, the studio released The Ghost of Frankenstein, marking the series’ departure from “A” budgets to “B” budgets, as well as the departure of Boris Karloff playing the creature. In his place is the newly minted Wolf Man, Lon Chaney Jr., but something about the creature’s pouting face just isn’t quite right, if you ask us. The continuity here has grown loose, as there’s no real explanation for why a returning Béla Lugosi (as Ygor) is now alive after his apparent death in the end of Son of Frankenstein, but the film does introduce the important plot device of “brain swapping” that will become important in pretty much every Frankenstein film from here on out. In general, though, Ghost is the series’ first step toward mediocrity, being significantly brighter, less atmospheric and less stylish than its forebears. Still, it’s above-average within the context of 1942.

Other films from this turbulent year include another Mummy sequel, The Mummy’s Tomb, along with monster flicks like Night Monster and The Undying Monster. And as always, there’s Karloff with at least one chiller, like this year’s horror comedy, The Boogie Man Will get You.

1942 Honorable Mentions: The Ghost of Frankenstein, Fingers at the Window, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Boogie Man Will Get You

The Film: Cat People

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Cat People is evidence that a work of significant artistic merit can come about even as the result of a mandate to produce potboilers on a budget—which is exactly the conditions that producer Val Lewton was working under at RKO when instructed to produce a series of cheap horror films. Cat People was the first and remains the best known, an unqualified, heavily atmospheric success that is owed in one part to Lewton’s resourcefulness and also to the skillful efforts of director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, whose respective masteries of film noir shadow, lighting and framing illustrate exactly how to produce suspense from the suggestion of supernatural terrors, rather than their literal appearance.

The story of Cat People revolves around Serbian-born fashion illustrator Irena, a coldly detached woman who has lived her life under the certainty of a curse in her lineage, a taint in her bloodline. She believes that she is descended from a race of heathen, devil-worshiping magic users in her native Serbia, and that if she allows herself to express emotions with any sort of intensity, be they sexual passion or righteous anger, that she will lose control and become an animal. Is Irena simply an over-stressed woman, reacting to society’s expectation that someone in her position be demure at all times, rather than “hysterical”? Or do her passions really put the lives of those she loves in danger? In uncertainty lies suspense.

Cat People is one of those rare Hollywood films that often finds its discussion revolving entirely around a producer—in this case, Val Lewton. Although it is true that the film is based on a short story penned by Lewton (The Bagheeta), and that the producer tended to rewrite the screenplays of those films he oversaw, the film also belongs to director Tourneur in equal measure. His moody, claustrophobic use of light and shadow in Cat People presaged many of the techniques that would be used heavily in the film noir genre in the decade to follow, lending weight to scenes that would sound incredibly simple on paper. “A woman walks home late at night, not sure if someone is following her” is a sequence that has appeared in countless thrillers, but rarely so effectively as in Cat People, as Jane Randolph steps in and out of isolated pools of light on abandoned streets, islands of safety against something ephemeral and wild that always seems just out of frame. The sequence is famously broken in the end by the jarring arrival of the so-called “Lewton Bus,” with a sudden discharge of air that is credited by some film historians with birthing the modern “jump scare.” Certainly, the sequence wouldn’t look out of place in almost any modern horror film. The famous pool sequence likewise gets most of its mileage out of the uncanny play between the glittering refraction of light and the superbly unnerving sound design of a big cat’s heavy breathing, rather than anything the audience can physically see. You can feel the influence of this particular scene in the conclusion of a horror film like It Follows, which also makes use of the unique, reflective light conditions of an indoor swimming pool.

For working within such tight parameters, it’s a thing of beauty. In Lewton’s own words, the films he produced at RKO contain only the following: “A love story, three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence. Fadeout. It’s all over in 70 minutes.” But he was significantly underplaying the talent of everyone who worked on those pictures, including his own. At a time when American horror films were becoming more formulaic, Lewton and Tourneur were making the absolute most out of their limitations.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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