Werebeasts Week: Cat People (1942)

It turns out Irina has a secret… If the movie title hasn’t already tipped you, she’s a cat person!

October is Horror Movie month, where we let down our hair and celebrate all things macabre and scary! Not that we don’t during the rest of the year, but still… HORROR MOVIES! People who don’t like horror are encouraged to check back November 1st for less bloody and/or disturbing films. For everyone else, let’s put on our galoshes and WADE INTO THE MIRE!

Hello and welcome to Werebeasts Week here at Late to the Theater! This week’s selections are hairy, scary, and usually unfairly judged – They just want to be understood! Or fed! Either way, we’re looking at people who sprout fur, fangs, and bad attitudes this week, so make sure your shots are up to date and you’ve packed a doggie bag. Let’s get going!

Today I’ve got a real treat for y’all: 1942’s inspired and yet totally banana-balls Cat People. It’s a delightfully weird little film that bears only a passing resemblance to the 1982 remake that starred Natassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell and is totally ripe for the MST3K treatment, if it hasn’t already happened. Because it’s just so gosh darn fun and I need to discuss it, there will be spoilers. 


Let’s jump in, shall we?

Cat People first pinged my radar when I was writing a paper for a film class in college; I forget what class and what the paper was about, other than movies and feminism probably, but I found an article bemoaning how unfeminist the sexy remake of Cat People was. That’s pretty much all I knew about the original, that it was more feminist than a movie that came almost 40 years later. I could never seem to find a copy until someone brought it over to my house to watch. Having seen it, (or more accurately, beheld its glory), I can say that I both agree and disagree, but that discussion feels more serious than I feel like delving today.

Though the movie is weirdly progressive in some ways, it was still the 1940s and the setting comes across in numerous ways. For one thing, everyone smokes. Constantly. To the point where it was kind of incredible. In one scene, two people are in a room together awaiting a third, and because they are smoking have managed to fill the room to the point where it looks like a sauna. And no one remarks on this! No one cares! Most incredible of all, Simone Simon, who plays Irina, lived to the ripe old age of 94 despite constant exposure to cigarettes. Although maybe back then they were just plain tobacco and didn’t contain formaldehyde and such like today’s do.

So let’s break this story down.

“Room to move around? Grass? Trees to climb? Sell it somewhere else, COMMIE. He has air, he’s fine.”

After the credits, we open on a city zoo. A young woman, our protagonist Irina, is sketching some black panthers in depressingly small cages. Again, it was the 40s and most people still thought of animals as some kind of particularly energetic vegetable. Anyway, she finishes her drawing but isn’t pleased with it, and makes a half-assed throw toward the trash. Oliver, a guy standing nearby, picks up the ball and strikes up a conversation with her, while casually tossing her wadded-up drawing on the ground, again because it was the 40s. The flirting is strong with them, and they leave the zoo. The wind unwinds the drawing, revealing that it is a panther impaled on a sword.

This drawing is good for one trip to the middle school guidance counselor.

Now… I have questions. Nothing about Irina indicates that she is in a metal band or otherwise interested in weird shit. Being Serbian and therefore a foreigner isn’t a ‘get out of suspicious behavior’ free card, although that ‘Oh, foreigners!’ card is played again later. But this is exactly the sort of thing you do in a good story, hook your audience so they’re intrigued, and a cheerful, pretty girl drawing weird-ass pictures is as good a hook as any.

Irina takes Oliver back to her place, which rather surprised me; it seemed like a refreshingly realistic and adult depiction of courtship back in the day, rather than the ‘The only men I’ll ever be alone in a room with are my doctor, my father, or my husband’ horseshit that a lot of movies pretend was the norm. Fun fact: people boned outside of marriage back then. But anyway!

They hang out and talk, and Irina tells him stories of her homeland, which are about a king who impaled cats on his sword. The Freudian implications are so rich and thick you could stand a spoon up in them.

Yes, this statue of a dude holding aloft a sword with an impaled cat is a totally normal thing for people to have in their homes.

Incredibly, after a month of courtship, Irina and Oliver are married. I’d chalk that one up to the 40s again, but let’s be real, even back in the day they’d be like ‘Well let’s wait at least two moon cycles and check if the harvest is bountiful before moving in. You might snore or have Bolshevik leanings.’

But here’s the kicker: they never have sex! 

RIGHT?!?!? That was my face too. I mean look at that guy up there; that is the face of a man patiently listening to foolishness in the hopes of getting to smash later. And then, bless his heart, they come back from the wedding and go into their separate bedrooms. *sad trumpet sound*

Irina isn’t ready, she says. And hey, it might have derailed the movie a bit if Oliver was nominated for the Most Patient Dude Ever award, but still. He totally is the Most Patient Dude Ever, and continues to dote on her. He buys her a pet monkey, which hates her, and so they exchange the monkey at the pet store (the 40s again! people bought monkeys in pet stores!) for a little bird.

Oh, this should turn out well…

While Irina is playing with the bird, she accidentally kills it by scaring it to death. Which wouldn’t be the weirdest thing to happen, except she takes the little bird’s body to the zoo and tosses it to one of the panthers to eat. Like you do.

It turns out Irina has a secret… If the movie title hasn’t already tipped you, she’s a cat person! Cursed to turn into a black panther if she has sex… or something. The rules are kind of vague. The marriage begins to crumble.

I would also hazard Irina’s failure to own decorative accents that aren’t deeply unsettling is another factor in the crumbling relationship.

Meanwhile, Oliver is hanging out with his best friend and coworker, Alice, and complaining to her about his unhappy marriage. Although Alice seems cool, she also suggests Oliver send his wife to a psychiatrist to get to the bottom of Irina’s problem. Oliver agrees.

And now we meet a real wonder of cinema: the most incredibly shitty psychiatrist I have ever seen in a movie. I mean Dr. Judd is so bad, it’s kind of breathtaking. In almost the same breath, he dismisses Irina’s beliefs in Cat People, asks her creepy questions about her relationship, and chalks up her problems to being foreign. It’s… it’s just kind of bewildering.

Irina comes home from the psychiatrist understandably in worse shape than before, and things aren’t improved when she sees Alice and Oliver hanging out in a restaurant. She changes into a black panther offscreen and menaces Alice in a darkened park, but Alice is saved at the last minute by the arrival of a timely bus. Later Irina menaces her in a dark pool at night, in a scene that has become somewhat famous.


I do have to mention one detail I found incredibly hilarious, and yet ballsy: the transformation from panther to woman is shown in a series of footprints that start with cat paws and progress to high-heeled shoes. With NO FEET in between! Irina’s entire being changes, including her clothes! MAGNIFICENT.

Things continue to go downhill for Irina and Oliver, and there are more scenes of Irina menacing Alice and Oliver in her panther form. Creepy Psychiatrist Dr. Judd becomes involved, and comes to their rescue by breaking into Irina’s apartment, declaring his love for her, and trying to rape her, which sets off her Panther Switch. She kills him and flees to the zoo, opens the panther cage, and lets the panther kill her. Alice and Oliver live happily and smokily ever after.

Apparently there is a director’s cut version where Irina lives, and even though I haven’t seen it I do prefer that idea. That way, the movie has been about Irina and her struggle. She’s an interesting character: an immigrant with her own job and nice apartment, and she deserved better than entering a frustrating marriage, being attacked by a lunatic mental health professional, and killed. One could even argue that Oliver was the damaging influence, since her life led to disappointment and eventual disaster after becoming involved with him.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the many outdated flourishes, I really enjoyed this movie. Its use of shadows was evocative and left much to the imagination, and I really did feel sorry for Irina and Oliver’s doomed relationship. Again, the period setting provides enough ‘Wait, did that just happen?’ moments to fascinate a casual viewer. Fans of things like MST3K and Rifftrax will find plenty of fodder to riff on while still enjoying a tightly written story.

So that was Cat People! I hope you enjoyed this fascinating yet tragic entry in Werebeasts Week. Please join us Monday for our first entry in Shark Week, Jaws 2!

Have a great day!




Author: jennnanigans

Orlando-area writerly person.

5 thoughts on “Werebeasts Week: Cat People (1942)”

  1. I love movies from the 40’s! Especially film noir. Irina is a classic femme fatale, but suffered from being a dirty, dirty, lycanthropic foreigner…

    Smoking in movies fascinates me. From the 40s all the way to the 90s, you saw practically every character chain-smoking Marlboros and Lucky Strikes like the North Korean missiles were on the way. I remember distinctly the 80s movie “Tootsie”, with Dustin Hoffman, and the rampant chain smoking by all the actors in every scene surprised me, it was almost as if the director was paid per cigarette smoked on the screen.

    Unfortunately, the longevity of some smokers was not due to cigarette additives; there have always been additives in frightening amounts since soldiers were issued them in WWII. Sometimes, people just win the genetic lottery, live to their 90s and never cough despite a two pack a day habit just whereas some poor souls get aggressive terminal lung cancer after a year or two of starting. There’s no telling.

    1. Still, I’m willing to bet whatever they were putting in cigarettes in the 40s was closer to the tobacco people had been smoking for centuries than whatever is in smokes today. But yes, some people do win that genetic lottery.
      Yes! They smoke in their office! It’s amazing!
      Irina is billed in the poster as femme fatale, but her persona is more bubbly and plucky. I guess I always associate femme fatales with Lauren Bacall, sort of bordering on sulky and vampish, but on looking at the definition just now it does say someone who ‘ensnares’ their prey. I’m not even sure she falls into that category, but it’s splitting hairs at that point (hurrr PUNS).

    1. Totes! And hopefully this has you curious to check out the original – it makes for an entertaining evening!

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