Through the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, Universal Studios reigned supreme with a stranglehold on monster movies. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, there was no end to what Universal had waiting in the wings to scare audiences out of their hard earned cash. On the flipside, RKO Pictures and producer Val Lewton tried taking a more cerebral approach after hitting it big with Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Joining forces with French auteur Jacques Tourneur, the two unleashed Cat People, a film that outplayed Citizen Kane by a full week and scared the pants off filmgoers with nothing more than some effective lighting and their own imagination.
In Cat People, a young Serbian woman, Irena (Simone Simon), meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) at the zoo. The two make their way back to Irena’s place where Oliver is betwixt by Irena’s collection of Serbian figurines. Here she tells him stories of her culture’s beliefs in “cat people” who can change their appearance due to witchcraft. Oliver dismisses the stories as silly folklore, looks past the “crazy cat lady” persona, and the two wed. Things start to take a turn for the supernatural when Oliver’s co-worker Alice starts to make advances on him, while Irena’s psychologist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) starts to make his own on her. Little do they know, that Irena’s beliefs may be more than what’s in her head, putting everyone in possible danger.
Cat People clawed its mark into the pantheon of classic horror films and has been given the Criterion treatment with stunning results. Presented on Blu-ray in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Cat People serves as another example of just how gorgeous black and white film looks in high def. Considering the amount of low-angled lighting, wall textures and building facades look every bit as fantastic as the wardrobe choices. Detail is razor sharp making the film look brand new — it only takes watching the extra features to see just how good it looks. There are a few soft focus shots, but it never gets in the way.
Grain is always present with blacks never diving into crush with no scratches, dirt, hairs, or specks. The uncompressed Mono track is just as good. While you may have to turn the sound up just a tad to make sure you hear all the dialogue, there are no hiss or pops to distract. There are a few instances of the slightest buzzing, but it’s only really noticeable because you have to turn up the audio above reference level. There are no alternate audio options — English subtitles are available.
The special features may look scant compared to your typical Criterion disc, but what they lack in quantity is well made up for in quality. The best feature is the full-length documentary, “Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows” (76 mins). Narrated by Martin Scorsese, New York Film Festival director Kent Jones provides a fantastic look at the uber producer’s life. From RKO’s takeover and the butchering of Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons to kickstarting the new low budget horror branch with Cat People. It’s mentioned that Universal was spending anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million, Lewton knew he could make films just as good for even less. Cat People was made on a mere $100,000 and grossed around $4 million. They also understand the difference between horror vs fear — revulsion vs fear. As good as Cat People is, this doc makes it even more worth the money.
Adding to the documentary is the inclusion of Tourneur’s appearance on the French TV show, Cine Regards (26 mins). Here Tourneur discusses making the film, along with him coming to Hollywood to take part in the “film factory.” It’s also fun to hear him talk about creating the cat effects using just a flashlight and his hand, and dealing with American censorship with everything from beds being measured away from each other and kissing being timed to a mere three seconds. Another treat is “John Bailey” (16 mins) where the director of photography on director Paul Schrader’s remake discusses Nicholas Musuraca’s work on the original. The film’s trailer (1 min) and an audio commentary ported over from the 2005 Warner Bros. DVD release with film historian Gregory Mank fill in any blanks left from the aforementioned features. A leaflet folds out featuring a mini-poster of sorts and an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.
Cat People may be most remembered thanks to its nudity-filled remake, but the original stands on its own against any of the Universal monster films. Criterion has given the film an exquisite transfer and a wealth of special features making it a no-brainer to pick up a copy on Blu-ray. I can’t see the film looking any better than it does here outside of a full 4K restoration, but even at 2K, it looks marvelous and gets the due it deserves bringing the film out of the shadows for a broader audience. And the best part being right in time for Halloween.