Tag Archives: DeWitt Bodeen

‘Cat People’ And The Fear Of Sexual Consequences

In a genre typically considered “for the guys,” it’s time to give a nod to the ladies. Uterus Horror is a subgenre of horror films that focuses on the uniquely female experience of puberty and the act of coming into your sexuality, using horror elements to emphasize and/or act as a metaphor for that experience. These films are often ignored in theaters but quickly develop cult followings. Columnist Molly Henery, who named and defined the subgenre, tackles a new film each month and analyzes how it fits into this bloody new corner of horror. 

One of the most common themes of Uterus Horror films is an innate fear of some big change at a pivotal point in a young woman’s life. This can be going through puberty, falling in love for the first time, or having their first sexual experience. It is a deeply rooted fear of what a woman’s body is capable of that has been passed down from generation to generation. Two films that demonstrate this quite well are the 1942 and 1982 versions of Cat People.

The original Cat People, released in 1942, was directed by Jacques Tourneur (I Walked with a Zombie, Curse of the Demon) and written by DeWitt Bodeen (The Curse of the Cat People, The Seventh Victim). In this film, the audience is introduced to Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a Serbian immigrant working in New York as a fashion illustrator. While sketching a black panther at the zoo, Irena meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). The two quickly form a relationship, but Irena is reserved and holds something back. Eventually, she reveals to Oliver that she is descended from a race of cat people. Unfortunately for her, this means sexual arousal will cause her to transform into a panther, so she can never have sex with Oliver. Oliver, not truly believing her story, still asks her to marry him and the two are wed. 

The rest of 1942’s Cat People depicts the downward spiral of Irena as she continues to remain celibate, even in marriage. Oliver begins to turn to his co-worker, Alice (Jane Randolph), for a friendly comfort that eventually leads to romance. Irena’s jealousy and sexual frustration lead to her stalking Alice as if she were prey; she then visits her psychiatrist (Tom Conway), kissing him to trigger her transformation. She kills the psychiatrist to return to human form, then goes to the zoo to release the panther. The panther kills her as it escapes, before being hit by a car itself. When Oliver and Alice find a dead panther where Irena’s body would be, they realize she was telling the truth.

On the surface, Cat People is a cautionary tale about female sexuality. While men are typically allowed to be sexual creatures and give in to their baser instincts, women are told to be prim and proper while hiding their sexuality. Irena is the type of extreme case favored in horror—giving in to her sexuality results in her transformation and someone else’s inevitable death. Cat People approaches this trope differently, using the transformation as an allegory for a woman’s most basic sexual impulses. Typically, when we see this kind of transformation in horror, it is more closely connected to puberty and the major bodily changes people experience. 

While the Uterus Horror themes in the 1942 version of the film are a bit more subtle, the 1982 remake of Cat People expands on these ideas and even introduces some new ones. Directed by Paul Schrader (First Reformed, Dominion) and written by Alan Ormsby (Deathdream, Popcorn), 1982’s Cat People uses much of the same plot of the original film, with a twist. Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) travels to New Orleans to reunite with her long-lost brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell). Irena grew up in the Canadian foster care system while Paul spent his childhood in psych wards. 

After her first night in a new city, Paul vanishes, leaving Irena all alone. Without informing his sister, Paul goes to meet a sex worker and attempts to kill her after transforming into a black leopard. Unfortunately for him, he is caught and placed in the New Orleans Zoo, which Irena visits later that day and meets zookeeper Oliver (John Heard). Much like in the original film, the pair quickly spark a romance, but virginal Irena always shies away from being intimate with Oliver. 

There are a few aspects of the 1982 film that make it quite different from its 1942 inspiration. One of these differences is that Irena doesn’t know the truth of her heritage—Paul does. In order to become human again and escape his imprisonment in the zoo, black leopard Paul kills a zookeeper by ripping off his arm. When he reunites with Irena, Paul reveals the truth about them, explaining that having sex will cause them to turn into black leopards and they can only return to human form after killing. The only way to have sex without transforming is to sleep with each other.  

This brings us to what is likely the biggest change between the original and 1982 remake. After Irena rejects Paul’s advances and flags down a cop, it is discovered that Paul has a cage in his basement filled with human remains. The police speculate Paul is into some strange rituals where he has been feeding young women to a caged leopard, but Irena now knows the truth. When Oliver takes Irena away from the city to hide from Paul until he can be apprehended, she does everything she can to not sleep with this man she clearly loves. Even when her arousal becomes almost unbearable and she starts to feel herself change, she runs into the night naked and kills an animal rather than risk harming Oliver. 

By adding the character of Paul, the audience gets a very telling juxtaposition. On the one hand, you have Irena. She is sweet, loving, and would do just about anything to avoid having sex, especially after Paul explains their ancestry. She doesn’t want to change. She is fearful of it, especially if it means she risks killing the man she loves. And then there’s Paul. He knows the truth of what he is, yet he relishes in it. He knows having sex will cause him to change into the black leopard. He also knows that the only way he can become human again is by killing. Instead of trying to avoid this, Paul purposefully seeks out sex workers, runaways, and any other woman whose disappearance he believes will go unnoticed. He sleeps with these women knowing he is going to kill them. 

Eventually, Irena agrees to go with Paul because she knows it means sparing Oliver’s life. Unfortunately, Oliver and his coworker Alice (Annette O’Toole) interrupt this exchange. Paul is far enough in his aroused state that he turns into the black leopard and tries to kill Oliver, but Alice manages to shoot leopard Paul with a shotgun just in time. When he dies, Irena realizes she is now more alone than she has ever been in her life.

Irena’s continued affection for Oliver, and a growing jealousy of his friendship with Alice, cause her to become more and more catlike. It gets to the point where she can’t hold herself back anymore and she sleeps with Oliver. Afterward, when she transforms, she runs away rather than hurt the man she loves. Black leopard Irena escapes to Oliver’s country home and kills the caretaker to become human again. When Oliver finds her, she begs him to kill her. He loves her too much to kill her, so instead Irena asks Oliver to sleep with her once more so she will transform, and she can live “with [her] own kind.” He agrees, and Irena is shown once more as a black leopard at the zoo, gently eating from Oliver’s hand. 

This ending emphasizes Irena’s humanity in contrast to Paul. Paul died trying to get everything he wanted, without any regard for the lives he destroyed. Irena fought this nature and chose to live a solitary life as a leopard to keep from killing, even though she knew it meant never being with the man she loved again. 

Both versions of Cat People have quite tragic endings; both films also seem to emphasize the dangers of sexuality, with the 1942 version especially focused on controlling female sexuality for fear of its consequences. Conversely, the 1982 version shows Irena and Paul side-by-side with the same fallouts of their sexuality, but instead the film emphasizes the vast difference in how men and women deal with these aftermaths. In both, women are forced to withhold their sexual desires while men, even Paul, are allowed to act out their impulses without any real fear of the repercussions. Each version of Irena is forced to carry the generational burden of purity and self-control, which is a burden rarely, if ever, placed on men.

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‘The Seventh Victim’ Is a Tragic Tale of Mental Health

Content Warning: This editorial contains details around suicide and mental health that could be triggering for some.

I first tried to kill myself when I was 17. I took a whole bottle of Tylenol, thinking it would somehow pacify the chain-rattling demons prancing inside my skull. It didn’t. I just threw up a thick, black slime for an entire day. I’ve battled constantly with mental health ever since—and some days it’s like living inside a giant, swirling thunderhead. Two months ago, on a particularly depressive afternoon, I was scrolling through a list of films produced by Val Lewton and stumbled across a title of which I had never read: The Seventh Victim (1943). The film, director Mark Robson’s debut, presents itself as a witchy film noir—but it quickly morphs into a tragic tale around mental health.

Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) is a young woman attending the posh Highcliffe Academy, a Catholic boarding school in Britain. When she’s called into headmistress Mrs. Lowood’s (Ottola Nesmith) office one morning, she learns that her only living relative—an older sister named Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), a cosmetics company owner—has not paid her tuition in six months. In fact, the academy can’t track down Jacqueline at all, and Mary heads to New York to find her sister.

Before she departs, school teacher Mildred Gilchrist (Eve March) gives her a strangely stern talking to. “Mary, don’t come back. No matter if you never find your sister. No matter what happens to you. Don’t come back,” she utters with a peculiar sadness. “My parents died when I was a pupil. I left as you are leaving—but I didn’t have courage. One must have courage to really live in the world.”

And so begins the film’s fascinatingly existential text.

With a script from DeWitt Bodeen and Charles O’Neal, The Seventh Victim opens with an intertitle inscribed with a profound line from poet John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 1: “I run to death, and death meets me as fast / And all my pleasures are like yesterday.” Death, it seems, plays as an omnipresent god throughout the film, eerily positioning the classic murder mystery as a devastating exercise in human frailty. Those struggling with mental health—as I’ve frequently done—seem to leap towards death at an alarming rate, fleeing from the squelching heat of inner anguish.

We learn very little about Jacqueline from her own lips. What we hear, from business endeavors, familial relationships, and frequent talk of suicide, is always spoken about through other characters—as if she is already a ghost wandering through life without purpose or connection to the living. Jacqueline is simply a vessel for mental health in its rawest form. With no voice or agency of her own, she is a shell of the vitality she may have once possessed. She sinks further and further into depression, and not a single person tosses her a life preserver. 

Once in New York, Mary rummages through city streets for breadcrumbs that could lead to her sister’s discovery. First, she heads to La Sagesse Cosmetics, where she learns Jacqueline sold the company to former manager Esther Redi. It’s here where Mary stumbles into a young woman named Frances Fallon, who tips the newfound sleuth off to the local hot-spot, Dante’s Restaurant, where Jacqueline has purported to dine. “It’s almost as if I’ve never known my sister,” Mary laments.

Jacqueline shrouds much of her life in secrecy, including treatments from therapist Dr. Judd and a marriage to well-to-do attorney Gregory Ward. Mary forges ahead. Her investigation leads to both these men; they are prominent fixtures in Jacqueline’s life who do not or will not see the severity of her condition. Mary then discovers a startling revelation: her sister has become part of a cult called the Palladists. Mary’s descent into the dark Satanic underworld mimics that of her sister’s slump into depression.

“Your sister had a feeling about life—that it wasn’t worth living unless one could end it,” Gregory confides in Mary. He also divulges that he helped Jacqueline rent a room above Dante’s—in which is stored a single chair and a hangman’s noose. “People who commit suicide don’t talk about it,” he adds. “That room made her happy.”

Gregory’s first statement is flawed—and perhaps outright dangerous—but there is truth in the second. After I bombed an audition in college, my mental health spiraled out of control. Feeling worthless, I took a stroll to the only bridge in town, thinking of ending my life that night. That moment haunts my memories: the cool night air, the moon’s silver glow decorating my skin, and the swelling ground as I peered over the edge. I even climbed upon the railing; I had every intention of jumping but there was something in knowing I could that gave me a jolt. I could at any moment end life on my own terms. Jacqueline finds solace in that room from that same sense of control it offers.

The cult, to whom Jacqueline ran seeking compassion and community, quickly turns on her like a den of vipers. In one of the film’s most unsettling scenes, the congregation gather around her and taunt her to drink a glass chalice filled with poison. “Jacqueline, you spoke so often of ending it all. I can’t understand why this must be so difficult,” one member speaks with an icy tongue. Another chimes in, “It’s your obligation, your duty.”

Jacqueline refuses. Frances, a cult member (and also Jacqueline’s lover), collapses into tears, blubbering, “I can’t let you die!” When Jacqueline finally raises the chalice to her lips, Frances—in an act of defiance against the cult’s orders—smacks it from her grasp. In the 1940s, LGBTQ+ people could be arrested and killed for existing, and this cultural touch point offers important context for Jacqueline’s depression.

The cult eventually frees her, and she wanders back to her apartment. There, she has a final conversation with her neighbor, a terminally-ill woman named Mimi, and the film’s thesis strikes like hot iron. “I rest and I rest, and still I’m dying,” she tells Jacqueline, who replies: “I want to die. I’ve always wanted to die.” Mimi has no choice in her death, and Jacqueline has all the choice in the world.

When Mimi leaves for the night for one last hurrah (“I’m going to laugh and dance and do all the things I used to do,” she vows with weary determination), the chair in Jacqueline’s apartment clatters to the ground. She ends her life like she always wanted to. Her voice cuts over the scene, with her repeating the opening sonnet: “I run to death, and death meets me as fast / And all my pleasures are like yesterday.”

The Seventh Victim profoundly captures the tragedy that befalls so many in the world. In using horror film techniques—mood, atmosphere, murder, a cult—Robson refocuses the beautifully tragic poeticism of living and dying. Society has long made a mockery of mental illness, often casting sufferers as villains in their own story. The real horror here is neither Jacqueline nor the Satanic cult, but our culture’s sick disdain for the walking dead.

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