Pop Culture at its Best

The Films of Val Lewton: ‘Cat People’ and ‘I Walked With a Zombie’

Cat People

Val Lewton, Russian émigré turned horror master, was a reporter, pulp novelist and MGM publicity writer before moving into film. He spent the 1930s as David O. Selznick’s story editor, directing second unit work on A Tale of Two Cities (1935) and script doctoring Gone With the Wind (1939), warning Selznick it would be “the mistake of his life.” While not Hollywood’s most prescient man, Lewton’s professionalism earned Selznick’s respect, and their collaboration led to RKO offering Lewton a producing job in 1942.

RKO was reeling from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, an expensive flop forcing a refocus on low budget films. Charles Koerner headed the studio’s B Unit, envisioning a horror series inspired by Universal Studio’s successful franchises. Where Universal culled from established literature (Dracula, Frankenstein), RKO worked from Koerner’s whim: he created a title and left the filmmakers to handle trivia like plot and characters. He also restricted Lewton to a $150,000 budget and 75 minute runtimes.

Complaining that all obvious monsters (vampires, werewolves, mummies) were exhausted, Koerner noted that “nobody has done much with cats.” Therefore, Lewton’s first film must be The Cat People. Lewton deadpanned to writer DeWitt Bodeen: “If you want to get out now, I won’t hold it against you.” Bodeen demurred, and the two began crafting something palatable from the absurd title. Eventually Lewton, who appropriately had a pathological fear of felines, dusted off his 1930 short story, “The Bagheera,” for a plot.

Val Lewton

Lewton assembled a formidable team, not only Bodeen but director Jacques Tourneur, Lewton’s sailing buddy and collaborator on A Tale of Two Cities. Mark Robson, future director of Peyton Place and Lost Command, served as editor; cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca (Stranger on the Third Floor) provided atmosphere. Their unit became a tightknit group welcoming everyone’s input. “When you saw the finished product,” Lewton’s secretary Jessie Ponitz remembered, “you felt that it all had something to do with you.”

Lewton’s films transcended both budgetary and title restraints. He couched horror within recognizable situations, their monsters an outgrowth of relatable human problems, violence inferred rather than shown. Lewton explained his formula: “Take a sweet love story, or a story of sexual antagonisms, about people like the rest of us… and cut in your horror here and there by suggestion, and you’ve got something.”

Cat People (1942) meets all of these criteria. The story features Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a fashion designer from Serbia who falls for American draughtsman Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). The two fall in love and marry, but Oliver finds Irena’s eccentricities increasingly hard to handle. She’s obsessed with Serbian myths of “cat people” transformed from humans to panthers by their repressed desires; she visits leopards at the zoo and fills her house with feline artwork, including a statue of King John impaling cats. When Oliver shifts attentions to his coworker Alice (Jane Randolph), Irena’s overcome by jealousy.

It takes neither Freud nor a film scholar to spot Cat People‘s undertones. Irena’s terrified of her sexuality, living alone in her apartment and refusing to sleep with Oliver after their marriage. Despite her wishes to become an ordinary housewife, her neuroses (or rational fears?) prove too powerful, sublimating her sex into felinity. Oliver can’t connect with Irena as a person, instead becoming “drawn” to her in a way chummy, straight-talking Alice can’t inspire. Self-doubt and sexual repression drive Cat People, embodied in a ferocious transformation.

Cat People Sketch

Lewton grounds this metaphor by humanizing his protagonists. Oliver and Alice spend much of the film at the office; even Irena sketches fashions between love scenes. While Oliver and Alice contemplate their unsettled relationship, Irena turns to a psychiatrist (Tom Conway) with unsavory designs. These interactions are credible enough that, at times, horror seems almost secondary. After Universal’s melodramatic monsters and German Expressionism’s nightmare creatures, Cat People‘s ordinary people with real problems struck a chord. Few can relate to Dracula, but Irena and Oliver’s marital discord seems universal.

While the male cast is workmanlike, Simone Simon (star of RKO’s The Devil and Daniel Webster) does an excellent job suggesting Irena’s otherworldliness, sensuality and vulnerability. It’s a difficult mixture which Simon sells through underplaying: her terror at being identified by a Serbian emigrant (Elizabeth Russell), her disconnect from Oliver, her sadistic joy at terrorizing Alice. Jane Randolph proves equally appealing as “the new kind of other woman,” down-to-earth yet sensitive, more “adult” than the fantasy-driven Irena.

Tourneur’s direction proves a stark lesson in minimalism: budget restrictions forced him to reuse sets from The Magnificent Ambersons and various Ginger Rogers vehicles. Regardless, Lewton creates a wonderful cinema of suggestion: Irena’s heard in off-screen roars and ambiguous shadows, suggesting psychological rather than physical terror. RKO demanded an explicit transformation, which is brief enough not to ruin the film. Tourneur and Mark Robson edit the scene that even with a real panther prowling about, its presence is ethereal. This ambiguity remained a Lewton trademark, offering audiences a choice between supernatural and mundane.

Cat People Dream

Everyone remembers Cat People for several set pieces. There’s an early scene where Irena terrifies a pet store, later cribbed for The Birds and The Omen. Alice walks through Central Park at night, menaced by an unseen creature. Tourneur shows her harshly spotlighted against the sidewalk haunted by shadows and swirling leaves. It’s a horrifying reverie punctuated by a classic jump scare, as a bus jolts Alice to reality Later, Alice hears cat shrieks and watery shadows at a swimming pool, only to find Irena taunting her. The revelation seems a comfort, until Alice finds her robe clawed to tatters.

Filmed in long takes with no music or dialogue, only eerie footsteps and growls, Cat People makes a strong argument for restraint. Paul Schrader’s execrable 1982 remake literalizes Lewton’s subtext into lurid sex and graphic gore. Lewton’s version is all the better for being discrete. It’s the rare horror film that respects viewers enough to both trust them with realistic characters, and let them fill in the story’s blanks.

Cat People proved a surprise hit, grossing $8,000,000 against its $137,000 budget. If Lewton expected gratitude, he was disappointed. Koerner told him that “the only people who saw that film were Negroes and defense workers,” before revealing his next title: I Walked With a Zombie. Robert Wise claimed that Lewton’s face paled upon hearing Koerner’s latest diktat. Nonetheless, he enlisted Tourneur and screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray to craft another classic, using Inez Wallace’s same-titled American Weekly article as inspiration.

I Walked With a Zombie

I Walked With a Zombie plays largely as a voodoo Jane Eyre. Nurse Betsy Connell (Francis Dee) is assigned to the West Indian island of Saint Sebastian to treat comatose heiress Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon). Her husband Paul Holland (Tom Conway), scion to a sugar company, seems more interested in wooing Betsy than curing his wife; Wesley Rand (James Ellis), Paul’s half-brother, a resentful drunk. Unable to cure Jessica, Betsy takes servant Alma’s advice (Theresa Harris) that the island’s voodoo rituals may hold a cure. Instead, the natives shun Jessica as a zombie, doomed to a living death in punishment for her family’s transgressions.

Zombie makes startling use of voodoo, grounding its horror in a racial-colonialist context. Torneur stages convincing rituals that provide a spooky centerpiece: whether used for good or evil, voodoo’s a cultural touchstone for blacks resentful of white exploitation. Hence also Sir Lancelot’s cheeky troubadour, who mocks the Hollands with a song predicting “shame and sorrow for the family,” and the figurehead of St. Sebastian pierced with arrows which serves as a fetish. If Lewton views superstition as humanity’s fatal flaw, he employs it here as a symbol of defiance. Recall that Haiti’s bloody revolution against France began as a voodoo-inspired slave revolt.

The zombie elements provide the requisite scare moments, including the iconic scene of bug-eyed Darby Jones stalking Jessica or a creepy climax involving a voodoo doll. But Jessica’s curse seems psychological rather than magical, at least until the ending. The Hollands personify colonial arrogance: Paul’s a suave playboy, Wesley a nervy drunk, caretaker Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett) embarrassingly credulous towards native beliefs. Their tawdry melodrama proves as destructive as native voodoo: smug and self-absorbed, exploiting the natives while destroying themselves.

Zombie Darby

Besides its subversive edge, Zombie benefits from a stronger cast than Cat People. Francis Dee is endearingly rational and sweet; Tom Conway’s charming cad, far more compelling than his Cat People character. There are good supporting turns from Edith Barrett, James Maxwell as an arrogant doctor and Theresa Harris as a friendly maidservant. Sir Lancelot, who penned his own calypso ballad, later appeared in Lewton’s The Ghost Ship (1943) and Curse of the Cat People (1944).

Despite drawing mixed reviews (The New York Times attacked it as “a dull, disgusting exaggeration of an unhealthy, abnormal concept of life”), I Walked With a Zombie proved another hit for Val Lewton, another example of that unlikely auteur turning leaden material into cinematic gold. These masterpieces raised a curtain on a decade of remarkable films: some great, others underwhelming, all memorable.

Note: These articles draw primarily on Joel E. Siegel’s Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror (1973) and Edmund G. Bansak’s Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career (2003) for biographical information and background.

2 Comments
  1. FictionIsntReal says

    I thought Cat People was based on an Algernon Blackwood story.

    1. Christopher Saunders says

      You’re right, Lewton used Blackwood’s “Ancient Sorceries” for the backstory about Irena’s village, I should have acknowledge that. But Lewton’s short story (which I inexplicably misspelled – should be “The Bagheeta”) predates Cat People by 12 years so it’s obviously an idea he’d toyed with himself.

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