This is the first and perhaps best known collaboration between producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, and is considered an early horror classic. I watched it about a year ago, a day after watching the Paul Schrader remake. Since then I’ve become a mini Lewton fanatic, and since buying the Val Lewton boxed set, I knew I’d have to watch this one again. In the meantime I had watched Tourneur’s wonderful I Walked With A Zombie and the sequel to this movie, Curse of the Cat People, and I have to say that while this one is admirable, I think those other two are a bit stronger.
Here’s the deal: the exotically beautiful Simone Simon plays Irena, who meets and marries this bland whitebread guy Ollie. The problem is that she is convinced that, because of a curse on her Serbian village, if she is kissed [read: fucked] or becomes angry that she will turn into a panther and devour her lover. Ollie thinks she’s nuts and tries to be patient, but his case of magna-blueballs sends him into the arms of mousy, meddling co-worker Alice. This makes Irena angry. And you wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.
The first half-hour is fairly slow going. We have the courtship with Ollie [which happens over months but seems to take two days], and no clear explanation of what Irena thinks the details of the curse are, so there’s not too much to draw one in. However, the movie is just placing the strands that are going to be drawn in ever-tighter in the second half. First, Irena is sent to psychologist, where her curse is at last fully described, but then the psychologist starts coming on to her in a creepy way. He says that she is afraid of unleashing evil upon the world—giving the movie the majority of its unsettling themes by examining the validity of equating female sexuality with a devouring evil. There are also phallic images of swords and keys, one that will destroy the evil woman/panther and her sexuality, one that will unleash it into the world. Like almost all of the Lewton films, the main interest here, and the real source of the film’s power, IS the subtext. I guess his films are rare in that what he is SUGGESTING is far more powerful and memorable than what happens or what he is explicitly saying.
This film also features the wonderfully, shadow-laden noir-ish B&W photography we’ve come to expect, but two wonderful suspense set pieces. The first is the famous [and MUCH imitated] walk through Central Park that occurs just past the halfway mark, and the second is the also-famous scene in which Alice huddles in the center of a swimming pool, afraid that Irena in panther form is stalking around its edges. This scene is notable for creating suspense without showing anything out of the ordinary—much like the original The Haunting by Robert Wise, whose first movie was the sequel to this one.
If you like this movie you MUST watch the sequel, Curse of the Cat People, which is a very different, but equally interesting film. You should also watch I Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man, both also directed by Tourneur, and both [but especially Zombie] featuring the same wonderful photography, stunning set pieces, and thick stew of disturbing sexual themes. You will also see a number of the same peripheral actors appearing in all four. All that said, having reviewed them all now, I think I prefer Curse and Zombie to Cat People. I think the subtexts are richer, deeper, and more fully thought-out in those films, though Cat People’s stands up to them by just being more potent and immediately compelling. Nevertheless, please, please, I BEG of you, watch Curse of the Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie.
Anyway, a definite classic of early horror. If you’ve never seen any of the Lewton films—and you’re able to slow down, not expect any gore or explicit terror, and get into the disturbing themes—you have a lot of viewing fun ahead of you.
CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE is the sequel to this film. It has a completely different storyline, but is every bit worth watching.
CAT PEOPLE  is the remake by Paul Schrader, which is very different from this version, but kind of fun in a lurid, 80s kind of way.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is the second Lewton / Tourneur film, and is flat-out wonderful in every respect… creepy, atmospheric, excellent scenes and a disturbing subtext… you’d better watch it or I’m gonna come out there and kick your ass.
THE LEOPARD MAN is the third and final Lewton / Tourneur film, and is the least successful overall, but still has amazing sequences and a creepy psychological subtext.
THE VAL LEWTON HORROR COLLECTION is a boxed set that collects all of these films [except the Schrader remake of Cat People], plus a few more, and is definitely worth its relatively low cost.