Recently, horror movies have relied much on the use of gore and violence to achieve the effect of fear in their viewers. In their beginning, however, gruesome death scenes and blood were not synonymous with horror films. Rather, they relied heavily on real chills and preyed on the subconscious and very real fears of the viewers at the time, occasionally making pointed, political statements. A few well known horror films have stood the test of time, despite an industry oversaturated with horrors. Before the genre became a target of ridicule and riddled with clichés and stereotypes, there was Cat People and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, both films that were among the first to terrify audiences. Sixty and seventy years later, they are both still relevant titles that are recognized today by more than just movie enthusiasts. While they center on completely different ideas, many traits can be found in both films that may give some insight to their success.
First of all, Cat People and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are similar in the way that they are both shot in black and white. Given both films, especially Invasion of the Body Snatchers which was released in 1956, were made long after color began to be found in films, making them black and white was a conscious decision made by the directors. From a cinematic standpoint, the visual features of both films contributed to the creepiness we see when viewing them. The black and white is a technique that affects the lighting, making even scenes shot during the day appear dark and foreboding, as we have already seen in noir. The lighting used on the principle characters is harsher than what it would have been had color been used, given the contrast to the practically black set. All of this must have been taken into account by the directors during production to get the effect they had been looking for.
These two films are also similar in their use of violence and gore, being the lack thereof, in their climactic scenes. Both horrors insinuate that rather gruesome things are happening to the people they are centered on, otherwise viewers would have nothing to fear. This, for the most part, has not changed over the years in regard to the mass portion of horror movies being produced yearly. What sets Cat People and Invasion apart from the others is that the entirety of violence being insinuated is left completely up to the imagination. In Cat People, we know that the psychiatrist has been mauled and killed by a black panther but we never see the attack, aside from the silhouette on the wall and the sound of his screams. In Invasion, aliens are replacing humans by mimicking their appearance and taking over their lives as unemotional and distant shells. What happens to the original person when they are replaced is never disclosed, only that they are replaced in their sleep. The thought of what could have happened to these people is worse than any visual the filmmakers could have come up with.
Both Cat People and Invasion of the Body Snatchers have stood the test of time despite a tired industry mass-producing horror movies. Rather than relying on jumps and suspenseful music to scare viewers, both films appealed to the subconscious fears of the people of the time, making statements about the wrongs of society. While it may have been difficult for people to decipher this meaning while viewing the films, they have been analyzed thoroughly and their subtext deciphered. It is widely believed that this is the reason they have lasted so long as relevant horror films, and why they are named as trailblazers for the scary movies of this generation.
Cat People is a psychological horror that appeals to people’s repressed sexuality, especially a woman’s. The movie centers on Irena, a foreign woman, who falls in love with an engineer, Oliver. Their courtship is short-lived and they marry very soon after their first meeting, despite Irena’s belief that she is descended from a race of people who transform into panthers when sexually aroused. This belief prevents her from consummating the relationship with Oliver, though she loves him, as it makes her fear for his life should she become a panther and attack him. Neglected, Oliver turns to his friend Alice and falls in love with her, leading to the end of his marriage with Irena, who has been seeing a psychiatrist, Judd, in order to get over her fear of the “curse” she is afflicted with. It becomes startlingly clear that this curse is not just a figment of Irena’s imagination as she uses it to torment Alice while she is alone in the pool and to murder Judd when he makes sexual advances towards her. To conclude the film, Irena opens the panther’s cage at the zoo and allows herself to be killed by it.
To continue, in the 1940’s, when Cat People was released, women were rarely seen as anything more than domestic, virginal wives. This is actually one of the first films to feature a monster that is female, given females were not usually painted out to be terrifying; even Irena was beautiful before she was mauling people to death as a panther. Irena’s fear of arousal reflects the normal woman’s aversion to sex, as is expected of her. While it is normal for a man to want and pursue sex, a woman’s gender role is to keep her virginity and shy away from anything sexual. Even a fairly innocent kiss from Judd, the psychiatrist, turns Irena into a monster with a desire to kill. (Feminism, 1)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is another psychological horror that reflects its viewers worry about conformity and the loss of their humanity. In the movie, Miles Bennell, a doctor, returns home at the bequest of his assistant, who notifies him that a great deal of local, panicked residents are asking to see him. He soon hears the worries of people, that he is not quick to believe, that their relatives are not who they say they are, rather they are now devoid of emotion. After Bennell investigates and finds nothing wrong, he sees a humanoid figure taking on the features of his friend Jack in Jack’s home and a similar occurrence occurring in the home of his girlfriend, Becky. These humanoid bodies vanish before they can be seen by police, but Miles finds copies of himself, Becky, Jack, and Jack’s wife, Teddy, in his greenhouse. Soon, Miles finds himself the last of everyone in town to not be replaced by the alien invaders or “pod people.”
Furthermore, around the time of the release of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the fear of communists in the United States forced people into a conformity they were unhappy to fit into but were too afraid to refuse. McCarthyism had made everyone afraid to express individuality or be peculiar in any way, since anyone who was would have been blacklisted as a communist. In the wake of the Cold War, those in the media expressing controversial ideas would be incarcerated. Their politics were dangerous and to eliminate the possibility of being jailed, everyone had to conform to what society thought they should be. This created a fear of conformity since it was producing generic human beings, or “pod people” like the movie illustrates, those without feelings or thoughts of their own. (Nixon, 2)
In conclusion, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Cat People are ideal examples of exactly what it takes to make a horror movie timeless. They are clearly different from recent horror movies. Rather than using the techniques that have become so tired to us now, an entirely different horror is derived from Invasion and Cat People specifically. Without the gore and violence we see so often in current horrors, they deliver chills from fears we already have rooted within us. For this reason, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Cat People will continue to deliver for years to come.
Nixon, Rob, and Jeff Stafford. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Turner Classic Movies. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 May 2015.
“This Is a Discussion of Feminism in Film, Specifically in the Two Version of the Horror Movie.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 5 May 2015.