Release Date(s)1942 (September 20, 2016)
Studio(s)RKO Pictures/Warner Bros. (Criterion – Spine #833)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: A+
Considered one of the best and most influential horror films ever made, Cat People (1942) was created by producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, each of whom made an indelible mark on cinema, both as entertainment and an art form. An RKO production, the film received mixed reviews from critics but apparently did well enough with audiences that a sequel, The Curse of the Cat People, was later produced. Paul Schrader also did a remake of the original film in 1982.
The story concerns a young fashion designer named Irena (Simone Simon), who falls in love with a man named Oliver (Kent Smith) that she meets while sketching animals at a local zoo. After spending time together, it’s soon apparent to Oliver that there’s something not quite right about Irena. She believes that she’s a descendant of a race of mythic cat people from her Serbian village. Irena’s jealousy towards Oliver’s assistant, Alice (Jane Randolph), eventually becomes the catalyst for a twist in their relationship and possible confirmation of her true nature.
Cat People’s story, and the way it’s told, were radical for their time. Accused of putting controversial themes into his films, Lewton was always pushing the envelope artistically, while still maintaining his work as mainstream entertainment. But audiences got something completely different than what they were used to in this film. The stalking scenes, for instance, were revolutionary and influenced many later horror films, with their lack of score and the use of jump scares. Even the way Tourneur chose to stage and shoot those scenes wasn’t customary. All of these choices eventually became a part of our overall film language.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Cat People is that we’re never 100% sure about Irena. There are many instances of her having cat-like eccentricities, including not getting along with other animals, but she never fully transforms on-screen. It could simply be that she’s mentally unstable and needs professional help, but it’s never set in stone, which makes the character more fascinating and memorable. Unfortunately, things like this weren’t fully appreciated at the time of the film’s release. Historians, as a point of conjecture, have disagreed over the years about how well the film actually did financially. Successful or not, Cat People is still with us all these years later, as it and many other Val Lewton productions are considered masterpieces of suspense and storytelling.
Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release contains a newly-restored 2K digital transfer scanned from a 35mm safety fine-grain master. Cat People’s beautiful noir-ish cinematography has been captured stunningly in this presentation. The black and white image boasts tremendous depth, which is on full display here with a very even grain structure and an immense amount of fine detail. Both blacks and brights are solid with lovely shadow detailing. Brightness and contrast levels are also perfect. There are next to no film defects leftover, nor have any inappropriate digital enhancements been carried out. A single audio track is available, in English mono LPCM, and it’s all you’re ever going to need. It may reveal its age technically, but dialogue is always clean and clear, and score and sound effects come through well. It’s still an effective track, particularly during the stalking scenes. Hands down, this is the best that the film has ever looked and sounded. And if you need to use them, optional subtitles are available in English SDH.
Extras-wise, there’s an audio commentary with film historian Gregory Mank, which contains excerpts from an audio interview with actor Simone Simon; Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, the terrific 2008 documentary about the legendary producer; Ciné Regards, Cat People, an interview from a 1977 French TV program with director Jacques Tourneur; John Bailey on Cat People, an interview with the film’s cinematographer; the original theatrical trailer; and a fold-out paper insert with a poster on one side and an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien on the other.
Now that Criterion has managed to dip into the Warner Bros. vaults, and deliver Cat People on Blu-ray in such fine form, here’s hoping they also tackle the other films in the Val Lewton catalogue, all of which are deserving of this label’s treatment. With a fantastic Blu-ray release like this, one salivates at the possibilities. Definitely pick this disc up if you haven’t already.
- Tim Salmons