The original 1942 version of CAT PEOPLE – producer Val Lewton’s gem of atmospheric ambiguity – is about a Serbian woman named Irena (Simone Simone) who fears that she will turn into a lethal feline if sexually aroused. Unlike Paul Schrader’s horrendous 1982 remake, this is a classic of subtle horror, emphasizing shadowy shudders rather than violent shocks. Apart from a handful of fleeting shots (inserted at studio insistence), director Jacques Tourneur keeps things cagey regarding whether Irena truly changes or is simply suffering from a superstitious delusion; thus, CAT PEOPLE is more a study in psychological terror than outright horror. It is also one of the best films ever built around the fascination and fear of the feline, her used as a symbol of female sexuality, which might erupt into homicidal mania if uncaged.
Irena is introduced sketching a leopard in a zoo, which is clearly her soul mate: a symbol of dangerous female sexuality, kept locked in a cage lest it escape and wreck havoc. At night, lying awake in her apartment, she is disturbed by the none-too-distant cries of the savage beast, which we must assume gives voice to her own inner “cat,” which Irena is desperate to keep locked away inside.
Irena marries Oliver, but she refuses to consummate the relationship, fearing the consequences. When her husband seeks solace from another woman, Irena’s jealousy is aroused, and she stalks her rival, leaving behind a bathrobe that seems to have been torn by a wild cat’s claws. Eventually, Irena seeks help from a psychiatrist, who tries to disprove her fear by kissing her. Irena kills the doctor, before returning to the zoo and unleashing the panther, which strikes her down.
Offering a visual and symbolic contrast is John Paul Jones, the domestic pussycat who is associated with Alice Moore, the rival for Oliver’s affections. Jones serves a double function: In the time-honored tradition of horror movies, his dislike of Irena signals that there is something uncanny about her (witness similar scenes in The Werewolf of London and House of Dracula). Also, the cat’s cuddly cuteness seems to symbolize a tamed female sexuality that is not a threat to men -and is therefore safe to be let out of the box, unlike the lethal leopard, which must be kept caged.