CAT PEOPLE is the first and probably most well-known of the films Val Lewton made for RKO pair him up for the first time with Jacques Tourneur, who made the excellent film noir OUT OF THE PAST. Made on a small budget with mostly contract players, CAT PEOPLE works on a very subtle level, playing on unseen fears and smoldering emotions rather than out-and-out monster fright.
Simone Simon plays Irena, a fashion artist from Siberia who fears an ancient curse placed upon her village for their satanic worship. The curse is that she will turn into a vicious panther when her passion is aroused. This proves to be problematic for her husband Oliver (played by Kent Smith) - how do you keep a marriage alive when your wife will not show even the slightest bit of physical affection? The scenario is further complicated by Oliver's growing feelings for his co-worker Alice, Irena's growing fascination with the panther at the local zoo, and her doctor's growing fascination with her. There are great little moments that emphasize mood over effect - the frenzy in the pet store when Irena tries to enter with Oliver, Alice being stalked by something as she walks home late at night - all are used to slowly build a sense of unease as you watch and try to figure out what happening. Is the curse real? Did Irena let the panther out of the zoo?
CAT PEOPLE wisely keeps the answer ambiguous until the end, and also plays on the frustrations, sexual and otherwise of the characters as much as the supernatural elements. It's amazing to watch how they dance around the obvious censorship board in the 40's. My favorite scene may be when Irena and Oliver are on either side of a door, trying to ignore the passions practically bursting inside them. Oliver stands on one side, his face a grimace of confusion and anger. Irena, on the other side, slowly crumples to the floor while looking up at the place where Oliver's eyes would be. It's a powerful moment, and one of many in CAT PEOPLE.