At the Central Park Zoo in New York City, Serbian-born fashion designer Irena Dubrovna makes sketches of a black panther. She catches the attention of marine engineer Oliver Reed, who strikes up a conversation. Irena invites him to her apartment for tea. As they walk away, one of Irena's discarded sketches is revealed to be that of a panther impaled by a sword.
At her apartment, Oliver is intrigued by a statue of a medieval warrior on horseback impaling a large cat with his sword. Irena informs Oliver that the figure is King John of Serbia and that the cat represents evil. According to legend, long ago the Christian residents of her home village gradually turned to witchcraft and devil worship after being enslaved by the Mameluks. When King John drove the Mameluks out and saw what the villagers had become, he had them killed. However, "the wisest and the most wicked" escaped into the mountains. Oliver is openly dismissive of the legend even though Irena clearly takes it seriously.
Oliver buys her a kitten, but upon meeting her it hisses. "Cats just don't like me," Irena explains and she suggests they go to the pet shop to exchange for it. When they enter the shop the animals go wild in her presence. The shopkeeper says that animals can sense things about people. It gradually becomes clear that Irena believes she is descended from the cat people of her village, and that she fears that she will transform into a panther if aroused to passion.
Despite Irena's odd beliefs, Oliver persuades her to marry him. However, during the dinner after their wedding at a Serbian restaurant, a catlike woman walks over and asks Irena if she is "мојa сестрa" (moya sestra, "my sister"). Fearing something evil within her and dreading what could happen, Irena avoids sleeping with her husband. He is dismissive about her fears until she confesses that after she accidentally killed her canary she felt compelled to throw it into the panther's cage. He then persuades her to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd. Irena tells Judd of her childhood, revealing that the other children had called her mother a cat person, and her father had died mysteriously. Judd tries to convince her that her fears are of a mundane nature, and stem from these childhood traumas. When Irena returns from her consultation with Judd, she discovers that Oliver has confided their marital problems to his attractive assistant, Alice Moore, and she feels betrayed.
At work, Alice confesses to Oliver that she loves him. After Irena chances to see Oliver and Alice seated together at Sally Lunn's, a restaurant, she follows Alice as she walks home alone through one of the Central Park transverses. Alice becomes uneasy sensing an unseen someone or something behind her. Just as she hears a menacing sound, a bus pulls up and she boards it. Soon after, a groundkeeper discovers several freshly killed sheep. The pawprints leading away turn into imprints of a woman's shoes. Irena returns to her apartment looking dishevelled and exhausted; she is shown shortly afterwards weeping in the bathtub.
That night Irena dreams of Dr. Judd dressed up as King John speaking of "the key." Soon afterwards, Irena steals the key to the panther's cage that the zookeeper left in the lock.
Irena, Oliver and Alice visit a museum, and Irena is angered when the former two shut her out while looking at model ships. That evening, when Alice decides to use the basement swimming pool of her apartment building, she is stalked by an animal shown only by its shadow. She jumps into the pool to keep the creature at bay. When Alice screams for help, Irena turns on the lights and claims to be looking for Oliver. Alice emerges wondering if she had imagined the whole thing until she finds her bathrobe torn to shreds.
After a talk with Dr. Judd, Irena tells Oliver she is no longer afraid, but Oliver tells her it is too late; he has realized that he loves Alice and plans a divorce. He meets with Dr. Judd and Alice at Sally Lunns; Dr. Judd tells them that if Oliver had his marriage annulled he would free of responsibility from Irena, but Oliver insists that he means to take care of her even if this means he can't divorce her. The three arrange to meet Irena at her apartment, but she doesn't show up. Later at work he and Alice are cornered by a ferocious animal. Oliver holds up a T-square (which is in the shape of a cross) and tells the beast to leave them in peace in the name of God. Oliver and Alice manage to get out of the building but not before smelling Irena's perfume.
Alice calls Judd to warn him to stay away from Irena, but he hangs up when Irena arrives for her appointment with him. Attracted to her, Judd forgets his medical ethics and kisses Irena passionately. She transforms into a panther and kills him. When Oliver and Alice arrive, Irena slips away in her human shape and goes to the zoo. There she opens the panther's cage with the stolen key and allows herself to be killed. The panther escapes, but is accidentally run down and killed by a taxi. Oliver and Alice find Irena lying dead on the ground. Oliver says, "She never lied to us."Simone Simon as Irena Dubrovna Reed
Kent Smith as Oliver Reed
Tom Conway as Dr. Louis Judd
Jane Randolph as Alice Moore
Jack Holt as The Commodore
Elizabeth Russell as Serbian woman in restaurant (uncredited)
Alan Napier as Doc Carver (uncredited)
Theresa Harris as Minnie, waitress at Sally Lunds café (uncredited)
Cat People was the first production for producer Val Lewton, who was a journalist, novelist and poet turned story editor for David O. Selznick. RKO hired Lewton to make horror films on a budget of under $150,000 to titles provided by the studio.
The film was shot from July 28 to August 21, 1942, at RKO's Gower Gulch studios in Hollywood. Sets left over from previous, higher-budgeted RKO productions—notably the staircase from The Magnificent Ambersons—were utilized. Costing $141,659 ($7,000 under budget), it brought in almost $4 million in its first two years and saved the studio from financial disaster.
Near the end of the filming of Cat People, two crews were working to finish the picture on time, one at night, filming the animals, and one during the day with the cast.
Cat People was the first collaboration of director Tourneur with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Their later collaboration on RKO's Out of the Past (1947) would again be regarded as seminal for its genre, in this case the film noir.
Lewton and his production are credited for inventing or popularising the horror film technique called the 'Lewton Bus'. The term derives from the scene in which Irena is following Alice. The audience expects Irena to turn into a panther at any moment and attack. At the most tense point, when the camera focuses on Alice's confused and terrified face, the silence is shattered by what sounds like a hissing panther—but is just a bus pulling up. This technique has been used many times since. Any scene in which tension is dissipated by a mere moment of startlement, a boo!, is a 'Lewton Bus'.
Cat People was released in 1942. It was reissued theatrically in 1952 by RKO.
The picture's box office receipts are disputed. Film historian Edmund Bansak has estimated the box office for Cat People at $4 million domestically and $4 million in foreign markets, almost 60 times its estimated budget of $134,000. Film historians Chris Fugiwara and Joel Siegel also put the domestic box office at $4 million. Variety estimated its rentals in 1943 as $1.2 million.
But film historian Richard Jewell specifically dismisses the claims by Bansak, Fugiwara, and Siegel, saying the film had a domestic gross of $535,000 and a domestic profit of $183,000.
Contemporary reviews for Cat People were mixed. Monthly Film Bulletin stated that Cat People was "A fantastic story, reasonably produced and directed." Variety stated that the film is "well-made on a moderate budget outlay" and relies upon "developments of surprises confined to psychology and mental reaction, rather than transformation to grotesque and marauding characters for visual impact on the audiences." Variety said the script would be "hazy for the average audience in several instances, [but] carries sufficient punch in the melodramatic sequences to hold it together in good style", and said Tourneur "does a fine job with a most difficult assignment." The Monthly Film Bulletin complemented the photography and acting, saying that Simone Simon "only partly succeeds in interpreting the part of Irena, but lighting and camera work and sound recording help to make her performance adequate."
Bosley Crowther (New York Times) wrote a negative review in which he described the film as a "labored and obvious attempt to induce shock" and said that its themes are explored "at tedious and graphically unproductive length". Crowther commented on Simon's acting, stating that actresses who are trying to portray "[feline] temptations – in straight horror pictures, at least – should exercise their digits a bit more freely than does Simone Simon". BoxOffice found the film to be "Grim and unrelenting, this is a dose of horror best suited to addicts past the curable stage" and noted that the film was "definitely not for children, young or old ... Potent stuff, straight from the psychopathic clinic."
In retrospect, critics agreed on Cat People being a landmark in the horror genre. William K. Everson dedicated a whole chapter to the film and its successor The Curse of the Cat People in his book Classics of the Horror Film. Paul Taylor in Time Out magazine remarked Lewton's "principle of horrors imagined rather than seen", its "chilling set pieces directed to perfection by Tourneur" and Simon's "superbly judged performance". TV Guide's review of the film praised the film's cast:
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.
Bravo awarded the film's stalk scene the 97th spot on their "The 100 Scariest Movie Moments", while Channel 4 awarded the scene the 94th spot on their "The 100 Greatest Scary Moments" list.
In 1993, Cat People was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". Also, the New York Museum of Modern Art holds a copy of the film in its collection. Critic Roger Ebert has included it in his list of "Great Movies". As of July 16, 2012, the film holds a 91% Fresh rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.
In a retrospective review, Richard Combs (Monthly Film Bulletin) compared the film unfavorably to other Lewton productions, stating that "it is perhaps easier to prefer the more mellow, less heavily fingered fantasy of Curse of the Cat People, and even the reconciled ambitions of The Ghost Ship."
Horror director John Carpenter, however, found the film and Lewton's techniques (in particular the Lewton bus and the theme of implying the monster's presence rather than showing it) highly overrated, quipping that "Jurassic Park done by Val Lewton would be nothing!" in the BBC documentary series A History of Horror.
Much has been said of Lewton and Tourneur’s use of shadows in lieu of an actual monster in the film. This is very much in contrast to competing horror films being produced by Universal at the time. J. P. Tollette in his book Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton speaks to the meaning of the extensive use of shadows in the film:
“While engaging our imaginative participation, the absence marked by those dark patches speaks of a fundamental – and disturbing – relationship between man and his world: it signals a black hole or vacant meaning in the physical realm which, in spite of man’s natural desire to fill it with consciousness and significance, persistently and troublingly remains open.”
Lewton accepted the assignment of producing a follow-up film called The Curse of the Cat People in 1944, which retained Kent Smith and Jane Randolph's characters, and showed Simone Simon either as a ghost or else as the imaginary friend of the couple's young daughter. A remake of the first film directed by Paul Schrader and starring Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard and Annette O'Toole was released in 1982. In March 1999, a second remake of the film was announced as a co-production between Universal Pictures and Overbrook Entertainment. The proposed remake, to be written by Rafael Moreu, would be updated to the present day and set in New York.
In the US, Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People were issued as a double feature DVD or as part of the Val Lewton Horror Collection DVD box. In 2016, Cat People was reissued on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection. Foreign DVD editions have been released in France (as La Féline), Spain (as La mujer pantera) and Germany (as Katzenmenschen), while in the UK the film has been licensed and released on DVD by Odeon Entertainment (OEG).