The sad reality of Cat People (1942)


Last year’s Horror Month DOUBLE BILL focused on the similarities between The Invisible Man (1933, dir. James Whale) and The Wolfman (1941, dir. George Waggner). If one wanted to stretch that, Cat People (1942, dir. Jacques Tourneur) could have also been included. Larry Talbot, in particular, shares common traits with Irena Dubrovna that go beyond the obvious animal motifs and, in my opinion, there is no reason why Cat People shouldn’t stand proudly alongside The Wolfman as one of horror’s most interesting psychological pieces.

In Cat People, Serbian sketch artist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) believes she is a ‘cat person’, who will turn into a black panther if she gives into her sexual desires. When she meets American engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), the two quickly develop feelings for each other and, after the initial courtship, she tells him about ‘the curse’. Despite this, the two of them decide to get married, and, sure enough, her biggest fears come back to haunt her…

A psychological thriller that makes the most of its stunning cinematography (Nicholas Musuraca, who else?) and trick visuals, Cat People is, above all, a tale of alienation, sexual repression, frustration and loneliness. Irena Dubrovna is surely one of horror’s best realized heroines, not least because she represents everything human beings fear. Her tortured, terrified nature, ‘foreignness’ and immense sexual desire for her husband, which she knows can never come to fruition, all conspire to make her the misunderstood oddity that she is; she harbours so many repressed emotions at once, it’s easy to see why this is such a poignant psychological thriller. When one considers, in particular, that the horror aspect of it comes from the fact that we don’t actually see anything at all, and that all of it is achieved through an impeccable use of lighting and powerful suggestion, this seems to fit into the whole ‘it’s all in your head’ motif. Irena seems to be in a constant struggle to overcome her own thoughts, to let go of her perceived notions about herself, and to be understood. She consults with Dr Louis Judd (Tom Conway), but sadly, nothing works. Her husband can’t seem to be able to figure her out and ends up giving up on her and going back to the ‘safe option’ that is Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), his co-worker. It is, of course, logical that the film’s two most iconic moments feature Irena stalking and mentally torturing Alice. The first one sees Irena following her rival through a park, in a chilling, prolonged moment, beautifully framed by Musuraca’s visuals, after which Irena wipes her mouth with a handkerchief, only to succumb to her guilt later. The second one takes place in a swimming pool. A cat eerily follows Alice through the dimly-lit pool area and, when she jumps in, she starts hearing growling noises. Shadows start to take form and Alice screams, horrified. Suddenly, the lights come back on and we see Irena standing over Alice on the edge of the pool, menacingly, almost threateningly. These two moments signify the shift, the thing Irena is afraid of, but can no longer fight. After this, Irena finally falls victim to herself…

Could all of this be but a strong finger-wagging at society and its rules? Most definitely. A nod at the consequences of isolation, repression and self-loathing through a surprisingly sympathetic main character? Certainly. Irena Dubrovna’s victimhood is a testament to horror’s brilliant takes on society, people and their shortcomings, and Cat People is undoubtedly among the very best of the bunch.



When I covered The Spiral Staircase (1946, dir. Robert Siodmak) a few days ago, it dawned on me just how versatile Robert Siodmak was. In fact, he was so prolific, he may have overshadowed the success of his younger brother Curt Siodmak, the subject of this year’s Classic Horror Month’s SCREENPLAY BY.

Born in Germany in 1902, Curt Siodmak earned a PhD in Mathematics, before becoming a reporter and writer. In 1927, he was hired as an extra on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and thus was able to get a story on Lang and his film. In 1929, he invested his royalties from his books in the silent fim People on Sunday (1930), a docu-style chronicle about the lives of four Berliners on a Sunday. The film was – get ready – co-directed by his brother Robert, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann, and written by himself and Billy Wilder – I’d have fainted at the mere sight of all that talent in one room!

In 1932, Siodmak wrote the novel F. P. 1 Doesn’t Answer, later adapted into a film, and in 1937 he moved to Hollywood. His most profilic period was arguably the 1940s, during which he wrote the classic science fiction novel Donovan’s Brain, as well as the screenpays for The Invisible Man Returns (1940, dir. Joe May), The Wolf Man (1941, dir. George Waggner), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, dir. Roy William Neill), I Walked with a Zombie (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur) and Son of Dracula (1943, dir. Robert Siodmak), among others.

He continued to write throughout the following decades, and in 1998 he won the Berlinale Camera at the Berlin International Film Festival, before passing away in 2000 at the age of 98.

The Spiral Staircase (1946)


After last year’s takes on Nosferatu, Freaks, The Most Dangerous Game, The Invisible Man and The Wolfman, I thought this year’s Classic Horror Month should focus on the psychological horror flicks and what better film to start with than The Spiral Staircase (1946, dir. Robert Siodmak)?

Written by Mel Dinelli and based on the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White, The Spiral Staircase is set in 1906 in a small Vermont town, where Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a mute woman working as a carer for the bedridden Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore in an Oscar-nominated performance), becomes terrorized, as does the whole town, when a killer on the loose is thought to be targeting disabled women. Rounding up the cast, we have George Brent as Professor Albert Warren (it was either that or a lawyer, or doctor, or something along those lines, as was customary for George Brent), Gordon Oliver as Steven Warren, the black sheep of the family, Rhonda Fleming as Blanche, his love interest, Kent Smith as Dr Parry, Elsa Lanchester as Mrs Oates, the housekeeper, and Sara Allgood as Nurse Barker.

As the opening sequence shows us this cute small town, we are immediately made aware of the ‘evil lurking in the suburbs’ trope, which, in my opinion, is one of the best realized tropes in cinema and one that never gets old. Sure enough, no less than fifteen minutes later, the mood changes and we feel like we’ve been thrust into a Wilkie Collins novel. Robert ‘King of Atmosphere’ Siodmak went all out with this one and gave us one of the spookiest and eeriest films of the decade, with some of the most terrifying visuals in cinema, courtesy of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. This, along with The Killers (1946) clearly shows that Siodmak owned 1946. But more than just a stunning piece of gothic horror and a clear influence on the later slasher and serial killer genres, The Spiral Staircase also functions as a turn-of-the-century family drama, with the right dosage of sibling rivarly between Albert and Steve, as well as Mrs Warren’s dismissal of them both. Perhaps more significantly, however, is the fact that The Spiral Staircase it is also a survival tale. Helen, a role I refuse to believe Olivia DeHavilland did not audition for, is our heroine and we root for her entirely. As she fights to find her place as well as her happiness, her mutism stands in the way and she seems to be constantly reminded of it – she even imagines a wedding in which she is unable to say the words. Throughout the film, we are clearly on her side. We want her to get out of the house, we want her to be able to warn everyone about the evil that threatens to make itself known, and we want her to get her voice back more than anything. As the world proves itself to be cruel and unforgiving through the use of a serial killer who targets women for their disabilities, The Spiral Staircase is a story about the resilience of the human spirit, perserverance, and the obstacles that need to be overcome and, by the end of the film, Helen is rewarded and so are we.