Simone Simon and Kent Smith in a scene from “Cat People.”Photofest
When the producer Val Lewton, a David O. Selznick protégé, set up shop at RKO Pictures in the early 1940s, he turned out a series of horror films that made an asset out of their limited budgets. Without the money for creature effects or showy set pieces, Lewton’s films thrived on storytelling economy and on the suggestive power of shadow-play and elegant single-source lighting schemes.
Lewton’s first RKO production, Jacques Tourneur’s “Cat People,” set a high standard. Added this month to The Criterion Channel’s Collection (the space reserved for editions with all the special features), the film is infused with both exotic mythology and the more down-to-earth motives of passion and jealousy. When a Serbian-born fashion illustrator (Simone Simon) gets involved with a strait-laced suitor (Kent Smith), she worries that their intimacy might ignite a centuries-old curse and arouse the literal killer jungle cat that she believes dwells within her. His interest in another woman (Jane Randolph) has a triggering effect.
Nearly two decades later, the writer-director Curtis Harrington paid homage to “Cat People” with the beguiling B-movie “Night Tide,” which promised audiences supernatural terror but instead delivered an eerie love story involving a carnival mermaid who may be the real thing. In his first lead role, a young Dennis Hopper stars as a sailor who falls in love with the main attraction (Linda Lawson) at the Santa Monica pier, only to discover the unknown fates of her previous boyfriends. Drawing from “Cat People” and the Edgar Allan Poe poem “Annabel Lee,” Harrington conjured a drive-in mood piece, more compelled by the mystical than the macabre. — Scott Tobias
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