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The film opens with the following written quotation from The Anatomy of Atavism a book created for the film purportedly written by one of the characters, Dr. Louis Judd: "Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to the low places, the depression in the world consciousness." It closes with the following sonnet from John Donne: "But black sin hath betrayed to endless night. Holy world, both parts and both parts must die." This was the first production of Val Lewton, a former editorial assistant and West Coast story editor for David O. Selznick. Lewton was hired by RKO to form a unit that would produce low-budget horror films. According to an interview with screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, reproduced in a modern source, the studio allotted a budget of $150,000 per film and dictated the titles to Lewton. Lewton created a production team that at various times included director Jacques Tourneur (who directed Lewton's first three films), editor Mark Robson (who went on to direct five other Lewton films), screenwriter Bodeen and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Under Lewton's patronage, Robert Wise directed his first film, Curse of the Cat People (see below). From 1942-1946 Lewton produced eleven films for RKO, ending with the film Bedlam.
Cat People exhibited what would become known as Lewton's distinctive style of horror. Lewton used low key lighting to create shadows that obscured the horrific events and intensified psychological horror. Variety described Lewton's style as "developments of surprises confined to psychological and mental reactions, rather than the transformation to grotesque and marauding characters" (i.e. the monsters of previous horror genres). According to a modern source, Lou Ostrow, Lewton's supervisor at RKO, was so dissatisfied with Lewton's style on this picture that after watching the rushes from the first four days of shooting, he decided to replace Jacques Tourneur as director. Lewton then appealed to studio head Charles Koerner, who reinstated Tourneur. Later, when Ostrow mandated that the panther must appear in the drafting room sequence, Lewton thwarted Ostrow's attempt to make the horror more explicit by instructing Tourneur to shoot the scene with low key lighting, thus throwing the beast into shadows.
HR news items yield the following information about this production: A July 1942 item places Carl Brisson in the cast, but his participation in the released film has not been confirmed. In August 1942, two units were shooting around the clock to speed completion of the film. During the night, one unit would film the animals for the Central Park sequence, while during the day, the other unit would be working with the actors. The film was such a hit at the box office that it was held over, thus pushing back the releases of the next two Lewton films, I Walked With a Zombie and Leopard Man (see entries below, according to a March 18, 1943 news item. The film's success led RKO to reunite Kent Smith, Jane Randolph and Simone Simon with screenwriter Bodeen for the 1944 film Curse of the Cat People . In 1982, director Paul Schrader made another version of the story, also titled Cat People, starring Natassia Kinski and Malcolm McDowell.