Significant as the first of the literate, understated horror films Val Lewton produced for RKO in the 1940s, CAT PEOPLE is also notable for playing with audience imagination by refusing to show made-up movie monsters a la the Wolfman or Mr. Hyde. Although earlier films had linked horror

and sexuality, Tourneur's study of a woman tainted by an ancient Balkan curse was arguably more explicit in this direction than any previous film had been. The result is a haunting and subtle film, filled with desires gone awry and everyday settings turned inexplicably nightmarish.

Immigrant sketch artist Irena Dubrovna (Simon) and all-American architect Oliver Reed (Smith) fall in love and marry after a brief courtship, but Irena won't consummate the union for fear that she will turn into a panther compelled to kill her lover. When Oliver confides in co-worker Alice Moore

(Randolph) though, Irena's jealousy proves equally effective in precipitating her "transformation." The disbelief of cynical psychiatrist Dr. Judd (Conway) proves likewise ineffective against the powers unleashed by Irena's psyche.

Beautifully directed by Tourneur and carefully paced by screenwriter Bodeen, the film opens in mundane New York settings, only occasionally hinting that evil is about (e.g. a feline woman at a bar, the reaction of the animals at a pet store to Irena's presence). Once Irena's darker side begins to

manifest itself, however, the film's pulse quickens and so does the viewer's. Perhaps most famous are the justly celebrated sequence where Irena stalks Alice along a park path at night (featuring the marvelously jarring cat-like hiss of bus doors) and the brilliant set-piece when Irena surrounds

the terrified Alice at a darkened indoor swimming pool with the cries of a ferocious panther.

Superbly acted (with Simon evoking both pity and chills), CAT PEOPLE testifies to the power of suggestion and the priority of imagination over budget in the creation of great cinema. The film was Lewton's biggest hit, its viewers lured in by such bombastic advertising as "Kiss me and I'll claw you

to death!"--a line more lurid than anything that ever appeared onscreen. Forty years later Paul Schrader would remake the original, failing to learn any of the lessons which Lewton had taught.