Academic journal article Literature/Film Quarterly

The Transformation of Woman: The "Curse" of the Cat Woman in Val Lewton / Jacques Tourneur's Cat People, Its Sequel, and Remake

Academic journal article Literature/Film Quarterly

The Transformation of Woman: The "Curse" of the Cat Woman in Val Lewton / Jacques Tourneur's Cat People, Its Sequel, and Remake

Article excerpt

You take her to a restaurant, say, or a show.

on an ordinary date, being attracted

by the glitter in her slitty eyes and her catlike walk,

and afterwards of course you take her in your arms and she

turns into a black panther

and bites you to death.

And before your eyes it turns into the woman you love.

her breast implaned on your sword, her mouth dribbling blood

saying she loved you

but couldn't help her tendency.

from "Curse of the Cat Woman," by Edward Field

Only one film ever frightened me as a child: Cat People. Unnerved by that woman who turned into a huge, deadly black panther, I watched in amazement as the luxurious black cat stalked her rival across the bridge, ultimately cornering her in the YWCA pool. Imagining myself as Alice, treading water unsteadily amidst the dancing black shadows on the wall, I wondered just how long my feet would avail me-while all along, the slinky black body, intent on my destruction, circled around me silently, ominously. Somehow, never quite comfortable with the film's ending, or the good Alice, I felt despair, not victory, at the cat woman's demise. Left with that final, unsettling vision of the cat woman's husband and her deadly rival peering down at the huddled black mass, I left the theater agitated, not quite understanding why.

Ever since the 1942 horror classic Cat People appeared on the screen, audiences have thrilled to the miraculous transformation of the mysterious Irena into a giant, black panther. Indeed, people like me have found the film somewhat problematic. Nonetheless, critics have applauded the film: The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural considers the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur Cat People the best film ever made of supernatural transformation. 1 Since the film's inception, novelists and poets alike have been inspired to recapture the essence of the enigmatic cat woman:

The psychiatrist . looks at her. Irena feels that same mixture of repulsion and desire for him, because he's good-looking, like I told you, a sexy guy. And here something strange happens. She throws herself into his arms, because she feels so abandoned, nobody wants her, her husband's forsaken her. And the psychiatrist interprets this as a sign that she's interested in him sexually, and to top it off he'll be able to rid her of those strange ideas about being a panther woman. And he kisses her, and they press up against each other, embracing and kissing, until all of a sudden she . . . she kind of slips out of his arms, looking at him through half-closed eyes, green eyes glittering with something like desire and hatred at the same time.... And she drops down to the floor, and the psychiatrist tries to defend himself, but it's too late . . . and before you know it she's transformed into a panther, and he just manages to grab the poker from the fireplace to defend himself, but the panther's already pounced on him, and he tries to strike with the poker, but she's already ripped his throat open with her claws and the man's already fallen to the floor with his blood gushing out. (Puig 39)

Such is Molina's remembrance of the Val Lewton's/Jacques Tourneur horror classic, which Molina relays to his cell mate, Valentin, in Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman. Even in the retelling of the film's familiar plot, the reader's attention remains riveted.

Indeed, man's simultaneous attraction to-and fear of-the panther woman deserves further exploration by film critics. Lewton's film has, to date, generated two other films: the 1944 sequel, Curse of the Cat Woman (Sullivan 109),2 with its "Disneyesque plot" (Dante 84), only loosely connected to the film's original, and the Paul Schrader 1982 remake, a montage of various types of slasher movies, replete with incestuous violence. This connection between woman and cat is not new, of course, having its antecedents in ancient Egypt (Walker 148). …

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