The Cat People started with a party. Noted horror and film noir director Jacques Tourneur was approached by a person who identity has disappeared into the archives of history. Just as Benjamin Braddock received career advice that was short and pithy and the point in The Graduate00—plastics—so was the advice that Tourneur received skimpy on the details.
“You should make a movie called `The Cat People.’”
Tourneur passed the suggestion along to producer Val Lewton and that is how Hollywood history gets made. From this bare-bones nugget of an idea for a film, Val Lewton developed an entire mythology about women who are literally transformed large cats against their will. Much like the way that screenwriter Curt Siodmak created much of what is assumed to be ancient folklore about werewolves for his 1941 script The Wolf Man, Lewton’s conceptual background created a very believable origin story for the cat people at the center of his story.
Alas, the cat people legend has not managed to pass into the public consciousness with quite the same force as Siodmak’s invention of the silver bullet and the role of the moon in the transformation of man into wolf. Nevertheless, the creation of folklore would play an important role in positioning of The Cat People as an almost entirely new kind of horror film.
That new kind of horror film was to situate the reality of the myth of a woman being able to transform into a ravenous large cat into the reality of the audience. It was decided early on in the production process that rather than make a traditional horror film which revealed the actual monstrous creature and the violence that it ravages upon its victims, the terror and fear would be induced by suggestion and the conceptual basis of the unseen being scarier than the seen. Of course, part of this conceptual approach had less to do with philosophy than mere economics: the budget for The Cat People was $142,00. To put that number into perspective, consider that the film that won the Oscar for Best Picture in the same year—Mrs. Miniver—was 1.3 million dollars.
The success of the film inspired one of the strangest sequels in film history: The Curse of the Cat People. Two years later all three leading characters reunited—along with the actress who played “The Cat Woman” in one scene playing a completely different character—in a film in the actual titular character Irena appears as a ghost friend to the young daughter resulting from the union of the cat woman widower and his new wife!