24 September 2010
Although I watched this for its reputation of remaining scary without "showing the monster," what actually struck me was the characterization. They're all sympathetic, not flat at all (though a bit hokey), especially poor tortured Irena, consumed by passions and a fear of those passions -- so irresistible to men that even her shrink turns into a creep who must have her, but unable to love for fear of devouring anyone she loves -- whether out of an uncontrollable impulse toward violence or a monstrous jealousy, it's a little unclear. The whole movie she keeps telling people the truth, but nobody will believe her. In fact this debate consumes the story so much that much of the tension comes not from waiting for someone to die but from wondering if maybe she is crazy after all, and maybe she keeps letting that leopard at the zoo out instead. Plenty of clues cleverly point to that, leaving both possibilities -- that she's a Serbian cat-woman, or that she's a looney with a stolen key to the leopard cages -- perfectly feasible right up to the final moments of the film.
I've no doubt some pretty intricate theories can be pulled from this film -- anthropological, gender studies, metaphors about married life and jealousy and fidelity -- but I was actually watching for more surface reasons. I wanted to see tension and horror; I wanted to see character arcs. I was given both. Some things when watching felt a little aw-shucks and movie-real (as opposed to real-real, I guess?), but upon reflection they worked for the story pretty well.
Great photography, nice pacing, decent story. Not terribly scary (but I bet it was for its time) and not terribly deep (but not so shallow as to feel like a B-movie). It did everything it aimed for, and smartly. Very little to complain about, actually. Nice work, Tourneur & Lewton!