(In anticipation of the coolest day of the year, this month-long series will offer one recommended horror flick a day up through Oct. 31.)
CAT PEOPLE (1942). The first of producer Val Lewton's series of acclaimed horror films from the 1940s, Cat People remains a small masterpiece of the genre: No less than Martin Scorsese has stated that the movie is "as important as Citizen Kane in the maturation of the American cinema." It was a commercial bonanza for RKO, earning a whopping $4 million return on its $134,000 shooting budget and paving the way for Lewton to retain creative control on his followups. The alluring Simone Simon stars as Irena, an Eastern European immigrant who meets and marries an American architect (Kent Smith). Forced to remain celibate because of an ancestral curse that will turn her into a panther if her emotions are aroused, she grows jealous of her frustrated husband's attention toward a pretty co-worker (Jane Randolph); this in turn leads to the movie's two classic set pieces, one involving Randolph's walk down a dark city street, the other focusing on her nocturnal swim at an indoor pool that's surrounded by menacing shadows and an even more menacing growl. Simon's Irena makes for one of the most tragic heroines ever seen on screen — a woman who, through no fault of her own, is deprived of the love she hungrily seeks. The movie's strong sexual currents and adult subject matter (when you get down to it, this is a film about impotence), amplified by ace director Jacques Tourneur and scripter DeWitt Bodeen, further lift it above the realm of the usual spook show.