Monday, October 25, 2010

Horror = expressionism

Cat People (1942), is a seminal horror film for three reasons; it is the first produced by Val Lewton, and because it was produced by Lewton, a sensitive soul who eschewed Universal-style monsters, Cat People emphasized (a) scare sequences using the power of suggestion and (b) horror based on everyday fears, insecurities and neuroses.

Horror stories are always ridiculous, which does not make them less compelling. Nowadays, when we know longer believe in fairy godmothers, frog princes or walking mermaids, we happily exchange stories of vampires, zombies and malevolent space aliens, all of which are equally impossible and fantastical as the fairy story characters we've discarded. I suppose in the first half of the twentieth century, monsters were like wicked foreign countries declaring war from somewhere afar, and we need only kill them as soon as they get close enough. Today our worst enemies spring from our own families, or worse still, from the inside of our own heads, and we must not go outside, or up the stairs or fall asleep, lest we be overtaken.

And while Cat People is not the first psychologically based horror film (we know of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) at least, it brought the trend into the mainstream in the 1940s, interrupted briefly in the 50s for space aliens who represented communist invaders, only to roar back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the monsters were our friends and neighbors, lovers and spouses. Whatever, the theme, horror is the genre that takes the invisible, the unspoken, the suppressed, the unseen, the inner state and renders it into a visible, audible tangible form. Where the Lewton films broke away is by providing the least amount of visual and audio information possible and requiring the audience to supply more of the connection between the real horror inside and the melodrama outside.

Cat People is the great grandma of the modern style of horror. Put aside the fantasy element about turning into a cat--this is a story about a woman raised to believe that sex will destroy her and the man she makes love to. Seems contemporary, that "sex is bad" thing. It's the basis of almost every teen horror movie since the 1970s. The old horror films may not be frightening anymore, but they are disturbing and sometimes even shocking. (Certainly the lesbian undertones of Cat People are unmistakeable and unsettling even today.)

In the clip posted above, starting at about 4:55 or so is the beginning of the most famous sequence in the film, referred to in 1952's The Band and the Beautiful, excerpted in Martin Scorsese's Journey Through American Film and weakly imitated in the 1982 remake. A woman is terrified by her own fear that her sexual rival has the power to transform into a large killer cat. Note how benign each separate shot in the montage is, especially the shots of walls and corners. Also how ominous the echoing dripping water. Sadly, the person who chopped the film up for YouTube did not let this sequence run to its payoff, when the swimmer discovers that her terry robe has been torn to shreds, as if by the claws of an immense cat. This sequence made audiences scream aloud in 1942 and 1943. Maybe it won't have that effect on you, but viewed with the proper respect in the right circumstances, it should at least creep you out.

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