Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Woman’s Sexuality is a Dangerous Thing to Deny...

Criterion’s Gorgeous Re-Master of Jacques Torneur and Val Lewton’s ‘Cat People’

By LinnieSarah Helpern

(This piece first appeared in Issue 5 of Belladonna Magazine)

All photos courtesy of Criterion

But black sin hath betrayed to endless night. Holy world, both parts and both parts must die. - Holy Sonnets, John Donne

Among those who fancy themselves passionate about the archiving and restoration of classic cinema, it is impossible to deny that Criterion is at the top of the game. Each film is lovingly rescued, sometimes from obscurity, and remastered so that it looks as beautiful as the day it was shot. Generations of movies have been saved by Criterion, many of them horror: The Blob, Peeping Tom, The Brood, and Eyes Without a Face are just a few of the horror classics given the Criterion treatment. Now, we can add Jacques Torneur and Val Lewton’s 1942 supernatural masterpiece, Cat People to that list.

Simone Simon... the most beautiful cat person who ever cat peopled.
The Story: Serbian immigrant and fashion designer/artist, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) has just arrived in New York City, anxious to start a new life. But given her tenuous grasp on the language and lingering connection to her own culture, Irena finds it hard to make connections… that is, until she meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). They fall in love, and get married in short order, but Irena is hiding a terrible fear from her new husband; she fears that she is descended from a race of cat women who turn into actual panthers when they become sexually aroused. Terrified that she might hurt Oliver, she avoids intimacy with him, as Oliver’s co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph) scoots in to try and convince him that he married the wrong woman, for a variety of reasons. Can Irena overcome her fears, or is she truly one of the cat people?

Tourneur did for pools what Spielberg did for oceans.
When it was first released, Cat People was something of a mixed success. Audiences liked it well enough, but critics were split on its cinematic achievements, while the box office takings are a disputed fact to this day. And yet, by 1993, the film had been selected by the Library Congress for preservation due to its cultural and historical significance. Scenes from Cat People have been included on almost every “Scariest Movie Moments,” list, and Robert Ebert called it one of the greatest films ever made. So what changed?

Well, first, film theorists began to analyze Cat People through the twin lenses of female sexual empowerment and the cultural alienation of those who immigrate to the United States. Written by DeWitt Bodeen, based on producer Lewton’s own short story, the film actively approaches so many taboo (for the time… and for now, frankly) social issues, that it’s entirely unsurprising that it went unappreciated for so many years. But now, thanks to a 1982 remake that drew attention to the original, and this stunning Criterion re-master, Cat People has the chance to find the audience it deserves, in addition to the critical acclaim it so richly earned.

Here kitty kitty kitty...
The Restoration: Digitally restored in 2k (which is essentially 2048x1080 pixels, or your standard picture on an HD television), in all likelihood, Cat People looks even better now than it did when it was released. The already-stunning cinematography is enhanced exponentially by the restoration, amplifying the beauty of the black-and-white film. Additionally, the use of shadows that makes Cat People so frightening is amplified by the improved definition, and your imagination can now play with even more of very little. Combined with a superior soundtrack that now makes it easier to understand Simone Simon’s unique accent, this is by far one of the best restorations that Criterion has ever released.

It comes in black, black, or... black! I recommend the black?
The Extras: Criterion’s collection of extras on Cat People is, as always, stellar, and caters to devoted cinephiles. Audio commentary from film historian Gregory Mank also includes excerpts from an interview with actress Simone Simon, who passed away in 2005. Feature-lengthy documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, narrated by Martin Scorsese, is also included, and gives wonderful insight into the often-underappreciated career of producer Val Lewton. An interview with director Jacques Tourneur from 1979, as well one with John Bailey, the cinematographer of the film’s remake, give further insight into the inspiration, feel, and influence of Cat People. Finally, the insert included with the blu-ray, featuring an essay from critic Geoffrey O’Brien, also bears frame-worthy art inspired by the film itself. You will inevitably lose hours to the extras included on the Criterion re-master of Cat People alone.

Whether you are a collector of classic cinema, or just looking for a new horror film to add to your collection, you absolutely can’t go wrong with Criterion’s restoration of Cat People. Let this cinema classic claw its way into your heart…

The Restoration: 5 Lewton busses out of 5
The Extras: 4 Lewton busses out of 5
The Film: 5 Lewton busses out of 5