Horror Double Feature – The Wolf Man & Cat People
With the Halloween season in full swing, there is no doubt that people will be seeing their fair share of horror films and suspenseful thrillers throughout the month. For my double feature recommendation, I decided to go a little further back into the vault. I really dig older films, and I especially enjoy older horror movies. Maybe because of the fact that films in those days were restricted in what they could show. While there is certainly a place for gory movies in all of their bloody goodness, I also think there’s a place where tension, atmosphere, and suggestion can also share in the spotlight. With that said, I decided to recommend two films that delve wonderfully into those latter aspects. Those two movies are George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941) and Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942).
I have to confess, I actually hadn’t seen The Wolf Man until I watched it to prepare for this article. This comes as a little bit of a surprise, being that I love those classic Universal monster movies, such as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Now that I have seen it, I would put this on the same level as those other great films. Long before John Landis redefined the werewolf genre in An American Werewolf in London (1981), George Waggner brought to the screen the story of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney), a man returning home to Wales after the death of his brother, only to find himself caught in the middle of a terrible plot. After a brief romantic encounter with the village girl, Jenny (Fay Helm), in which they visit the gypsy fortune-teller Bela (played, appropriately, by Bela Lugosi), Jenny gets attacked by a mysterious wolf. Larry manages to kill the beast and save Jenny, but unfortunately gets bitten in the process. To his dismay, the wolf actually turns out to be Bela as a werewolf. And now the curse that had plagued the gypsy has brought itself upon Larry, putting him and everyone around him in danger.
This is a fun movie, a really fun movie. At just over one hour in length, it moves along quickly and with much energy and tension. I love how Waggner built the suspense here, not even showing Lon Chaney in his werewolf makeup until well past the middle portion of the film. Everything is done through suggestion and atmosphere. Some of the best set pieces of the film were the exterior scenes during the night. Obviously these were shot on a sound stage, but with the ever-present fog, they add a very nice texture of other-worldliness to the mood. Everyone plays their parts well. Lon Chaney is great playing the mild-mannered son and then turning it around to become a snarling, wickedly fun monster. Bela Lugosi is Bela Lugosi; his entire career had been spent playing odd, strange characters, and his short role as the gypsy is no different. It was also a pleasant surprise to see Claude Rains as Larry’s father, Sir John Talbot. Whenever Claude Rains is in a film, he always adds a touch of class to whatever role he takes. Here he plays a father who cares for his son, but can’t bring himself to believe that such an absurd creature as a werewolf can actually exist.
The Wolf Man is a very enjoyable experience that can be viewed multiple times over. It’s not going to shock or startle you, but it’s a constantly entertaining film. And while that movie doesn’t show its monster until the second half, the great accomplishment of Cat People is that it somehow makes you think that you’ve seen the creature, when you haven’t really at all. This was one of—and probably the best—of the horror/suspense/mystery films produced by Val Lewton. Simone Simon plays Irena Dubrovna Reed, a Serbian immigrant who falls head over heels in love with the American Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). While Irena and Oliver do love each other at the start of the film, Irena divulges a terrible secret to him: that she has been haunted by images and dreams of her village, where Satan worshiping and voodoo has led to a belief that humans can somehow change into killer felines, and that she believes she has become victim of that very curse.
Here’s a question: if you meet a person who says that they come from a place where black magic is practiced, and believes that they can change into a cat, what would your first reaction be? This film’s answer—marry them, of course! And that’s exactly what Oliver does, hoping that he can somehow exorcise Irena of her inner demons. The film has become famous in the way it was produced on a low budget. With slim financial assistance for believable makeup effects, Tourneur (along with Val Lewton) decided to build the film more on suspense. They made more use of lighting, making the shadows just as apparent and important as the brightness. The monster is almost always hidden in shadow, and Simon’s transformations were always hinted at instead of shown. It’s impressive at how seamless this all became. Because of the fact that very little is actually seen in the movie, we the audience have to rely on our own imaginations to fill in the blanks, and for that reason alone the movie becomes more effective in what it wants to do.
Take the following, for example. Two key scenes happen in which much is suggested, but what we feel and what we see are two different things. Both scenes involve Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), Oliver’s coworker with whom he falls in love after his relationship with Irena falls apart. The first scene has Alice simply walking down a sidewalk to catch a bus. Notice the way she walks in to and out of the light, and see how Irena (who’s been following her) does the same. Irena is clearly stalking Alice at this point, but we don’t know what will happen when she catches up to her. The use of sound is superb at this point, as we can clearly hear the footsteps of both women on the sidewalk, and sense how the suspense jumps up to a high point when one of those footsteps mysteriously disappears. The other scene involves Alice and a swimming pool. With the sounds of a panther (or something like a panther) quickly heading her way—and with no other way out of the building she is in—Alice does the only thing she thinks she can do to protect herself, and jumps into the pool. The way the darkness circles around the pool area is great at building the tension. We know that Irena (or maybe a “transformed” Irena) is somewhere near, and we don’t know whether or not that shadow in the corner is her, or just a figment of our imagination.
The Wolf Man and Cat People is a double feature that I think people should check out. They won’t have the blood and guts that seem to inhabit nearly every horror film that comes out lately, but they do provide some fun entertainment in less than three hours of total running time. These two movies handle the monster genre in two different ways, but both do it extremely well. The suspense is great and abundant, the performances pitch-perfect, and the direction in both solid and efficient. One other special thing people can do is see how these two films compare to their modern counterparts. Although I haven’t seen them yet, I’d like to see how The Wolf Man stacks up to The Wolfman (2010), starring Benicio Del Toro, and how Jacques Tourneur’s direction compares to Paul Schrader’s in the 1982 remake of the same name.