Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Cat People [1942]

US movie (1942). RKO. Pr Val Lewton. Dir Jacques Tourneur. Screenplay DeWitt Bodeen. Starring Tom Conway (Dr Louis Judd), Jane Randolph (Alice Moore), Simone Simon (Irena Dubrovna), Kent Smith (Oliver Reed). 73 mins. B/w.

Man-about-town Oliver meets Serbian immigrée fashion illustrator Irena at the zoo, courts her and marries her. But she refuses consummation because convinced by old-country legends that physical passion may make her shapeshift (> Shapeshifter) into a big Cat and destroy her lover. Reed sends her to disbelieving psychiatrist Judd while himself, in enforced abstinence, swiftly shifting his affections to doting colleague Alice. Yet Irena's fears are justified: unknowing of what occurs when she is in cat form, she threatens Alice and finally, when Judd kisses her to disprove her fears, kills him. She herself dies trying to make common cause with a panther at the zoo.

This is normally billed as a Horror Movie – and was so treated by sensationalist advertising on release – yet, beautifully scripted and photographed, it is in fact a classic example of cinematic Dark Fantasy: nothing is explicit, all merely alluded to, as it takes its traditional premise and, with superb understatement and not a little poignancy, follows it through to a conclusion that seems inevitable.

CP was followed by Curse of the Cat People (1944), not thematically a sequel; likewise Cat People (1982) was not a true remake, although Cat Girl (1957) came closer. A Technofantasy treatment of a similar theme was Dangerous Desire (1992), in which a man injected with the DNA of a cat develops all sorts of feline characteristics, such as flamboyant promiscuity, hyperacute hearing and loathing of water; he makes a career as a ballet dancer before his amorality brings his downfall. [JG]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.