Starring: Simone Simon, Tom Conway, Kent Smith
Director: Jacques Tourneur
A beautiful young Serbian woman is wooed by a man, but must resist, because she fears that when aroused by her emotions she will turn into a killer panther…
Well, that’s the idea anyway. What actually happens in this film is a lot sadder.
Opening on Irena, we see a creative vibrant woman, who has no real friends and is far from home. When she meets all-American guy Oliver, she is drawn in out of loneliness, and his life seems much less complicated than hers. As his feelings grow for her she tries to warn him that she and many in her village are cursed to harm the ones they love because they change into cats when they have strong feelings, and can destroy those close to them. Irena fears for her lovers safety, but he feels that she just needs some counseling, and he cajoles her into marrying him.
Oliver wants her change to happen quickly, and in what I felt was a pretty awful betrayal, he confides in a girl at work who has a crush on him, and who recommends a good psychiatrist. All innocence, she asks Irena how her first session went and Irena is ashamed and embarrassed that she has been exposed like that to a stranger. And how did the session go? Well, her mental health professional felt that the best cure would be if she felt aroused, and he comes onto her. It’s really creepy.
I don’t want to say more, because I don’t want to give you major spoilers, but I think at the time this was made people would side with the confused husband, whereas now, he comes across as a cheating, fickle and manipulative guy. Which actually makes the film more interesting. But poor Irena!
Why Is It A Must See: At the time of release, Orson Welles film The Magnificent Ambersons had almost sunk RKO studios, so this film was made on an incredibly tight budget, and re-using sets and props. Because they didn’t have money to create monsters like other studios, they relied on lighting, camera movement and atmosphere to keep you guessing as to what was really going on, and if Irena was mad or telling the truth.
The film was a huge success on release, much to the surprise of the studio which was saved from financial ruin, and the director went on to make some really interesting film noir.
Although Oliver, the husband, is a total jerk and the psychiatrist is rapey, I think that perhaps that’s part of the horror of the film, how quickly things can unravel and how alone and vulnerable Irena is, and yet if she uses her power, she will become something ugly and evil (at least in her own eyes, I think being able to turn into a panther is pretty amazing).
See It If: you’ve ever been misunderstood or cheated on… Or maybe it’s just one for those of you who love vintage horror films.