First of the classic horror trilogy by producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, about a shy woman (Simone Simon) who falls in love but fails to tell her boyfriend of a family curse that may turn her into a big black panther that kills to survive.
With little budget to work with, Tourneur used shadows and unrelenting terror to produce a unique kind of horror film that some fans prefer to the traditional "monster movies."
Now here's Joe Bob Briggs:
(From Joe Bob's Ultimate B Movie Guide)
Stylish psychological thriller whose reputation has grown over time, mostly due to director Jacques Tourneur's expert photography. French actress Simone Simon plays the young New York fashion designer who can't have sex with husband Oliver Reed for fear that she'll turn into an animal while aardvarking. But when Oliver goes to the gorgeous Jane Randolph for comfort, Simone's anger gets the best of her and her panther self traps the hapless Other Woman in a darkened hotel swimming pool. Psychiatrist Tom Conway also finds out what beasts lurks within a woman's breast when he tries a little hanky-panky with his patient--and gets torn to shreds. It all leads to the panther cage at the Central Park Zoo. Considered a low-budget programmer by RKO, it made $4 million on an investment of $119,000 and launched the exploitation career of producer Val Lewton.
"Cat People" availability on video and on DVD from Amazon.com
Followed by sequel "Curse Of The Cat People" produced by Lewton in 1944 but directed by someone else as more of a fantasy than horror. "Cat People" was also remade in 1982 by Paul Schrader as a sex fantasy/horror film in which Nastassia Kinski turns into a literal vicious beast when she has sex, so she only has sex with her brother, since he suffers from the same curse. Leonard Maltin says of that version, "Schrader seems more concerned with camera angles and nudity than coherent storyline...Sexy, bloody...but uneven and ultimately unsatisfying."
The Leopard Man
In this follow-up Lewton/Tourneur film, a black leopard escapes from the zoo followed by some grisly murders. The leopard is found dead, but the murders continue. Based on the novel, "Black Alibi" by Cornell Woolrich. Cast includes Broadway actress Margo, the inspiration for Margo Lane in radio's The Shadow, which adapted this same novel for a Shadow episode.
I Walked With A Zombie
Third, and some say best, Lewton/Tourneur horror collaberation has nurse (Frances Dee) sent to Haiti to treat catatonic wife of troubled Tom Conway. She decides to take the woman to a voodoo ritual for "healing." Leonard Maltin calls it an "Exceptional chiller with rich atmosphere, mesmerizing story." The story is said to have been loosely adapted from the novel "Jane Eyre," the classic story of a crazy wife kept locked in the attic (which Orson Welles adapted as an episode of his Mercury Theater radio series, though he was accused of enlarging his role as the husband in his 1944 movie version)
"I Walked With A Zombie" availability on video and on DVD from Amazon.com
Jacques Tourneur also directed the Twilight Zone episode "Night Call," based on a Richard Matheson short story that had a different ending. Scary phone calls plague an elderly woman in a wheelchair (Gladys Cooper), eventually traced to an unlikely source (the cemetery). It was scheduled to air on 11-22-63, but pre-empted that week by the Kennedy assassination. C.S. Lewis, author of Chronicles of Narnia, died the same day. Cooper had previously starred in Twilight Zone ep "Nothing in the Dark" in which Robert Redford visited her as the Angel of Death.