Val Lewton’s Cat People Is a Hauntingly Beautiful Tragedy

Editor’s note: All throughout October, the vibes get spookier and the nights get longer. It’s the perfect time of year to watch horror movies, whether you’re a year-round horror fan or you just like to watch horror flicks to get into the Halloween spirit. This year at Horror Obsessive, for our 31 Horror Classics Revisited series, we’re giving you one recommendation for a classic horror film each day throughout the month of October. What do you think—is this film a horror classic? What other horror films do you consider to be classics, and what films do you make sure you watch each October? Let us know in the comments below!

What is Val Lewton’s Cat People about? On the most basic level, it’s about a woman who refuses to have sex with her husband or even kiss him because she’s afraid she’ll turn into a panther and kill him, so in one sense, it’s basically a werewolf movie with a panther instead of a wolf. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll see that there’s actually a lot more to this movie than just a creative twist on lycanthropy (or, if you want to be a real stickler, therianthropy).

At its core, Cat People is about the breakdown of a marriage, and it’s pretty tragic. When we first meet the main characters, a Serbian immigrant named Irena and an American man named Oliver, they hit it off right away, and they seem happy together. But pretty soon, the cracks in their relationship begin to show, and it eventually leads to arguably the most heartbreaking finale in Val Lewton’s horror filmography.

Never Been Kissed

Irena and Oliver looking at each other

The first crack in Irena and Oliver’s relationship actually happens before they’re even married. Early on in Cat People, when they’re still just dating, Oliver mentions that they’ve never kissed, and when he says that, you can just about see Irena’s heart drop. She turns her whole body away from him, and her entire demeanor changes from blissfully in love to anxious and scared.

They begin to talk about the “cat people” curse Irena believes her people suffer from, and Oliver dismisses it almost immediately. He sternly tells her that it’s just a bunch of stories and that she’s going to marry him, and Irena seems to happily accept his encouragement.

When you first watch Cat People, it’s easy to simply gloss over this scene without giving it much thought. After all, nothing bad happens, and it ends with Irena and Oliver joyfully embracing again. So how could this be the first crack in their relationship?

The problem, I would suggest, is twofold. For starters, Oliver doesn’t take Irena’s fears seriously, and that’s a huge red flag. Sure, the idea that she might actually turn into a panther and kill him does seem far-fetched, but that’s not the point. He talks to her like a child who just needs to be told there aren’t any monsters under her bed, and no matter how implausible her fear might be, that’s still no way to talk to the woman he loves. It betrays a lack of respect and compassion, and without those two qualities, no man has any chance of being a good husband.

On the flipside, Irena completely ignores her fear of turning into a panther and essentially just puts it off until later, and that’s never a healthy choice. In particular, because she knows it’s going to be a point of contention between her and Oliver, she needs to deal with it now before it becomes a bigger issue in the future, but she doesn’t. Instead, she just lets this fear turn into a ticking time bomb, so it’s no surprise that it plays a huge role in ruining their marriage later on.

Sex and Marriage

Irena drawing a panther at a zoo

As you can probably guess even if you’ve never seen Cat People, that seemingly tiny issue becomes a lot bigger once Irena and Oliver get married. They still don’t kiss, and they don’t have sex either, and this forced celibacy puts a huge strain on their relationship.

Now, I don’t think I need to explain why it’s important for spouses to have sex, but there is one interesting piece to this puzzle that I think usually goes unnoticed when people watch Cat People. The film has some pretty overt religious undertones, and they’re related to the story’s supernatural elements in a somewhat surprising way.

Early on in the movie, Irena explains that her people used to be good Christians, but when they were conquered by a group called the Mamelukes, they slowly became evil and began to worship the devil. They were eventually liberated by King John, but some of the evil people in her village escaped into the mountains, and those people became the source of the curse Irena suffers from.

Interestingly, while most people these days probably associate sexual repression with Christianity, that’s actually not the case in the mythology of Irena’s people. Her curse, which essentially functions as a big metaphor for sexual repression (among other things), comes from the devil worshippers, not the Christians, so the movie isn’t just saying that it’s a good idea for spouses to have sex.

Rather, it’s saying that sex is so good and necessary that refusing to acknowledge its importance in marriage is Satanic and evil, and as a Christian myself, I think that’s spot-on. Despite what some fundamentalist and puritanical groups may say, the truth is that authentic Christianity recognizes how important it is for spouses to have sex (and not just so they can make babies!), and it’s not tough to see why.

Even though Irena and Oliver’s relationship has a bunch of other problems too, the primary reason they eventually split is because they don’t have sex. It’s just that important for spouses, so when Cat People implies that repressing the sexual side of marriage is evil, it’s right on the money.

The Importance of Communication

Oliver and Irena talking

But sex isn’t the only thing Oliver and Irena don’t do. They also don’t communicate much, and at one point in the film, Oliver even admits to a friend that he and Irena are basically strangers to each other. He says that he’s drawn to her and that he has to look at her and touch her when she’s around, but despite those feelings, they don’t actually talk much.

And if there’s one thing that can rival the importance of sex in marriage, it’s communication. Hell, communication is essential in any relationship, romantic or otherwise, so if two people who share a life together don’t talk, they have absolutely zero chance of staying together long term.

Again, I probably don’t need to spend too much time harping on this point, but Cat People does make one subtle implication that’s pretty important. These days, a lot of people view love as a feeling, as something that just happens to you, but that’s quite true. Sure, there are feelings associated with it, and romantic love does start out that way, but if that’s all there is to it, it’s not going to last. If you’re going to love someone every day for the rest of your life, you have to choose to love them and put in the effort to make it work, and communication is a big part of that.

But Oliver and Irena don’t do that at all. Sure, from everything we can tell, they seem to feel all the right things when their relationship begins. Oliver explicitly says so, and Irena’s facial expressions and body language make it very clear that she’s happy when Oliver is around (at least when he’s not pointing out that they’ve never kissed!). So if love were just a feeling, their relationship would be golden. But it’s not. It’s paper thin. It’s just about feelings, but it doesn’t go any deeper than that. They don’t communicate or put in any effort to keep their love alive, so it’s no surprise that their marriage fails.

The Other Woman

Close-up of Alice

All of these problems drive Oliver to seek comfort from his friend and coworker Alice, and that’s pretty much the final nail in the coffin for him and Irena. He tells Alice all about his issues, and he soon begins to show more interest in her than in his wife. To take just one example, there’s a scene where the three of them go to a museum together, and it’s clear that Oliver is having more fun with Alice than with Irena. At one point, he even tells Irena to go to another part of the museum and look at exhibits that interest her while he and Alice look at things they like.

In a word, Oliver basically ends up replacing his wife with Alice, and that’s a recipe for absolute disaster. On top of that, it also pretty much encapsulates all the problems Oliver and Irena have been experiencing throughout Cat People. For instance, since they don’t have sex, Oliver takes solace in an attractive friend and develops feelings for her. Similarly, since Oliver and Irena don’t communicate, Oliver finds someone he’s comfortable talking to.

This all leads to their inevitable split, but before they can finalize it, Irena ends up being killed by, of all things, a panther. Like I said before, it’s quite possibly the most heartbreaking end to any Val Lewton horror film, and in my opinion, it’s the perfect way to cap off this hauntingly beautiful story. Beneath all the suspense and the supernatural scares, Cat People is essentially a tragedy about the death of a marriage, so it’s fitting that the movie would end with the death of one of its main characters as well.

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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