Movie: **** out of 5
Extras: **** 1/2
Article first published at Blogcritics.org
Through the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, Universal Studios reigned supreme with a stranglehold on monster movies. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon,
there was no end to what Universal had waiting in the wings to scare
audiences out of their hard earned cash. On the flipside, RKO Pictures and producer Val Lewton tried taking a more cerebral approach after hitting it big with Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Joining forces with French auteur Jacques Tourneur, the two unleashed Cat People, a film that outplayed Citizen Kane by a full week and scared the pants off filmgoers with nothing more than some effective lighting and their own imagination.
Cat People clawed its mark into the pantheon of classic horror
films and has been given the Criterion treatment with stunning results.
Presented on Blu-ray in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Cat People
serves as another example of just how gorgeous black and white film
looks in high def. Considering the amount of low-angled lighting, wall
textures and building facades look every bit as fantastic as the
wardrobe choices. Detail is razor sharp making the film look brand new —
it only takes watching the extra features to see just how good it
looks. There are a few soft focus shots, but it never gets in the way.
Grain is always present with blacks never diving into crush with no
scratches, dirt, hairs, or specks. The uncompressed Mono track is just
as good. While you may have to turn the sound up just a tad to make sure
you hear all the dialogue, there are no hiss or pops to distract. There
are a few instances of the slightest buzzing, but it’s only really
noticeable because you have to turn up the audio above reference level.
There are no alternate audio options — English subtitles are available.
The special features may look scant compared to your typical
Criterion disc, but what they lack in quantity is well made up for in
quality. The best feature is the full-length documentary, “Val Lewton:
The Man in the Shadows” (76 mins). Narrated by Martin Scorsese, New York
Film Festival director Kent Jones provides a fantastic look at the uber
producer’s life. From RKO’s takeover and the butchering of Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons to kickstarting the new low budget horror branch with Cat People.
It’s mentioned that Universal was spending anywhere from $300,000 to $1
million, Lewton knew he could make films just as good for even less. Cat People
was made on a mere $100,000 and grossed around $4 million. They also
understand the difference between horror vs fear — revulsion vs fear. As
good as Cat People is, this doc makes it even more worth the money.
Adding to the documentary is the inclusion of Tourneur’s appearance on the French TV show, Cine Regards
(26 mins). Here Tourneur discusses making the film, along with him
coming to Hollywood to take part in the “film factory.” It’s also fun to
hear him talk about creating the cat effects using just a flashlight
and his hand, and dealing with American censorship with everything from
beds being measured away from each other and kissing being timed to a
mere three seconds. Another treat is “John Bailey” (16 mins) where the
director of photography on director Paul Schrader’s remake discusses
Nicholas Musuraca’s work on the original. The film’s trailer (1 min) and
an audio commentary ported over from the 2005 Warner Bros. DVD release
with film historian Gregory Mank fill in any blanks left from the
aforementioned features. A leaflet folds out featuring a mini-poster of
sorts and an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.
Cat People may be most remembered thanks to its nudity-filled
remake, but the original stands on its own against any of the Universal
monster films. Criterion has given the film an exquisite transfer and a
wealth of special features making it a no-brainer to pick up a copy on
Blu-ray. I can’t see the film looking any better than it does here
outside of a full 4K restoration, but even at 2K, it looks marvelous and
gets the due it deserves bringing the film out of the shadows for a
broader audience. And the best part being right in time for Halloween.