Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Criterion Collection - CAT PEOPLE on Blu-ray ""

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Criterion Collection - CAT PEOPLE on Blu-ray

CAT PEOPLE (1942; Jacques Tourneur)
This movie is inextricably tied to academia for me. I studied it as part of a horror genre film class in college and it really hooked me back then. Rarely have I seen an old horror film with such ambition and underlying craftsmanship as to transcend its low budget roots.
I've always marveled at how influential this film has been over the years - without as much acknowledgement as it probably deserves. In my class, we studied the film's use of sound "buses" as a device to keep the viewer off balance. In a lot of ways, these are the grandfather of the modern jump scare that we still see in regular practice today. In the case of CAT PEOPLE, they are quite literally buses that pull up out of nowhere, blasting through the sparse moments of absolute silence on the soundtrack for the best effect. CAT PEOPLE is an amazing example of taking a film's budgetary limitations and turning them into creative challenges. Lewton seemed to be a master producer with respect to this. It's obvious enough to say, but of course it is the viewer's imagination that often fills in the most important and affecting details left out of a movie. CAT PEOPLE features one of my favorite frightening sequences in any horror movie and it is a scene where the "monster" remains obscured from view by dark shadows so it can only be heard and not seen. It's an amazingly well made sequence of terror and it still plays well today. That's what so great about the movie though - it plays effectively as a piece of entertainment, and holds its own against the contemporary horror films of the time. Granted, this is a little while after the Universal stuff like FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA - and THE WOLFMAN came out the year prior - so horror was still a popular and sought after genre for audiences back then. I feel like CAT PEOPLE is a classic on the level of the Universal monsters and perhaps only doesn't get mentioned with them because it came from a smaller studio and doesn't have one single character that folks can see as iconic. CAT PEOPLE is as well written (if not more so) than those movies though and Lewton is certainly a huge factor in that. Lewton was a very literary minded fellow you can certainly feel that in the films he produced for RKO. CAT PEOPLE has the overt monster story contained in its title, but it also has this undercurrent sexuality and all this other stuff going on. It's a very layered film and there is an almost poetic quality to some of the dialogue throughout. It's almost kind of a "trick" movie in that the scariest creatures are mostly hinted at and not shown and there is a lot of subtext going on. Also, the cast is quite intriguing and not necessarily filled with big stars. You may recognize Kent Smith, but Tom Conway may be the most known member of the cast for classic movie fans. French actress Simone Simon is perfectly cast as the exotic and sensual Irena and she will stay forever burned onto your brain for her turn here.

If you are unfamiliar with Lewton's genre work from this period, CAT PEOPLE is a nice introduction that will likely inspire you to want to check out more. Also recommended are I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (another film that subverts the expectations that come with its title), THE LEOPARD MAN, THE BODY SNATCHER (featuring a fantastic Boris Karloff performance) and THE SEVENTH VICTIM.
Some folks may not realize it, but this CAT PEOPLE Blu-ray is actually a Criterion upgrade. While CAT PEOPLE did already come out on DVD (in Warner Brother's excellent Val Lewton Collection), it also came out via Criterion on Laserdisc back in the day. I still have that disc and I plan to hang onto it as there is a commentary track featured on it (from Bruce Eder) that has not made the jump to the new Blu-ray. I miss the old Criterion laserdisc commentaries. They are often a bit more dry and scholarly, but they were always informative and gave me a much greater appreciation for the films. Sadly, many of those tracks are seemingly lost now (I've rarely seen them added to the  new DVDs and Blu-ray upgrades that followed) and so I must recommend that hardcore Criterion fans get themselves a laserdisc player to get a sense of what this sort of thing used to be like. Don't get me wrong, Criterion has absolutely stepped up their commentary game since the days of LDs. They were pioneers of the audio commentary as format we all know very well now. I just sometimes miss the stilted and awkward tracks from way back when. 
Special Features:
Lots of nice supplements here. A few have been brought over from previous DVD releases (commentary, Lewton Documentary), but they are certainly excellent and make this disc all the better. One of my favorite new things included is the Jacques Tourneur interview. I have long been a fan of his films (OUT OF THE PAST and CAT PEOPLE being two of his best) so it was quite lovely to see him speaking in person about cinema and his approach to it. The interview runs about 27 minutes and it is really neat. Here's a full list of the disc's features:

-New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
-Audio commentary from 2005 featuring film historian Gregory Mank, with excerpts from an audio interview with actor Simone Simon.
-Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, a 2008 feature-length documentary that explores the life and career of the legendary Hollywood producer.
-Interview with director Jacques Tourneur from 1979.
-New interview with cinematographer John Bailey about the look of the film.
-PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien

The New cover art is by Bill Sienkiewicz

CAT PEOPLE can be purchased on Blu-ray here:
or from Criterion directly:

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