BADass SINema Unearthed - Blu-ray Review
- Published Date
- by Loron Hays
When it comes to the history of horror, there are few years as important as 1942. That was the year RKO switched gears and turned away from artists like Orson Welles. They pulled The Magnificent Ambersons out from under his feet and went on the hunt for showmen, not auteurs. They needed crowd-pleasing hits that didn’t cost an arm and a leg to produce. They wanted thrills. What they found was a Russian-American pulp novelist (and former David O. Selznick employee) who was as eager as they were to tweak the established horror formula. With the guidelines that the films under his supervision should come under budget and they’d get to name them, producer Val Lewton made the case for low-budget thrillers and, singlehandedly, saved RKO AND the horror genre itself.
Val Lewton. Now, there’s a class act. He wasn’t in it for posterity. There are no recordings of him and only a few of the screenplays he wrote are actually credited to him. His work – laden with powerful and mysterious female characters – speaks for itself. Regardless of the director, every single film he produced became synonymous with HIS NAME. That’s the only lasting influence that matters in the entertainment business. His premiere work on Cat People – from final (uncredited) screenplay to lighting – is top-notch and made minimalist horror a thing of beauty.
Cat People is the story of the romance between two perfect strangers who just so happen to meet at the Central Park Zoo. Serbian-born Irena Dubrovna (a very eye-catching Simone Simon) is drawing a panther for her fashion designs. She makes an error, wads up the illustration, and spots a trashcan. She aims, shoots, and misses. Thankfully, marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) is there for the save. They two strike up a conversation. Within months, the two are married, but there’s a problem. Irena is a cursed woman. She cannot unleash her passion without a HUGE transformation and so she makes Oliver wait and wait and wait on the actual consecration of their marriage.
Poor Oliver, right? No kissing. No touching. No sex. He understands...until he doesn't. Thankfully, there is his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph, another looker) to commensurate with. The two, already friends, soon discover they have feelings for each other. Irena – already isolated thanks to her growing animal-like qualities – will have none of it and sets out on her own to keep her man within her control.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur (before be became a marketable name in the business) and filmed by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, Cat People, about a young woman who is cursed to turn into a panther if she gives into her carnal desires, made bank at the time of its release, yet was received with inconsistent praise from contemporary critics. Turned off by its zippy style and modest pool of acting talent, they were quick to point out how remarkable the production was for its use of shadows, angles, and lighting. Maybe they were put off by the very first use in cinema of the jump scare. Dubbed the "Lewton Bus", this trick of startlement and distraction from what we are expecting to happen is a precious moment in film history. It is, in fact, still studied today for its collision of sound (in which the brakes of a bus are mistaken for the sound of a panther) and vision (one woman hunting another woman down a street) with expectation (an attack). In one moment, modern cinema is born.
Effectively ambivalent in its handling of a failed marriage, Cat People and its razor-sharp claws can still, after all these years, sneak up on you and ATTACK. It is now available on blu-ray thanks to a fine 1080p handling from Criterion.
MPAA Rating: Not rated.
Runtime: 73 mins
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writer: DeWitt Bodeen
Cast: Simone Simon, Tom Conway, Kent Smith
Genre: Horror | Thriller
Tagline: A Kiss Could Change Her Into a Monstrous Fang-and-Claw Killer!
Memorable Movie Quote: "There are some things a woman doesn't want other women to understand."
Theatrical Distributor: RKO Radio Pictures
Release Date: December 25, 1942
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: September 20, 2016
Synopsis: Simone Simon stars as a Serbian émigré in Manhattan who believes that, because of an ancient curse, any physical intimacy with the man she loves (Kent Smith) will turn her into a feline predator. Lewton, a consummate producer-auteur who oversaw every aspect of his projects, found an ideal director in Jacques Tourneur, a chiaroscuro stylist adept at keeping viewers off-kilter with startling compositions and psychological innuendo. Together, they eschewed the canned effects of earlier monster movies in favor of shocking with subtle shadows and creative audio cues. One of the studio's most successful movies of the 1940s, Cat People raised the creature feature to new heights of sophistication and mystery.
Available on Blu-ray - September 20, 2016
Screen Formats: 1.37:1
Subtitles: English SDH
Audio: English: LPCM Mono
Discs: 50GB Blu-ray Disc; Single disc
Region Encoding: Locked to Region A
The new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, is a beauty of black-and-white photography. The grain level is perfect. The details are crisp and there’s no flaw in the 1080p picture. It. Is. Golden. The black-and-white film is shadow-heavy and the transfer holds thick lines in place. Nothing bleeds. It is surprisingly clean given the age of the film, without any over-processing lending the picture an artificial appearance. The film is still allowed to breathe and retains a level of grain that ensures an authentic and credible appearance. Even the darkest of scenes are rarely problematic, with the blacks proving extremely solid and lighter grays visually stunning.
Recorded in 2005, film historian Gregory Mank, - with excerpts from an audio interview with actor Simone Simon – provides a series of good insight about the filming and the legacy of the movie.
Narrated by Martin Scorsese, the documentary about Val Lewton is a must-see. It explores the life and career of the producer and dives into a solid explanation as to why he is considered a legend by today’s standards. There is an archival interview (from 1979) with director Jacques Tourneur about the making of the movie. A new interview with cinematographer John Bailey, the film’s original trailer, and an essay by critic Geffrey O’Brien rounds out the collection. Complete with new artwork from artist Bill Sienkiewicz, this release is a MUST OWN.
- Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows
- Interview with Jacques Tourneur
- Interview with cinematographer John Bailey