Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Tom Conway
SUMMARY: In New York City, a young woman named Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is sketching the black panther at the Central Park Zoo. Her drawing interests another zoo visitor, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith); after talking for a while at the zoo, the two go back to Irena’s apartment for a drink. Oliver is curious about both Irena’s accent — she is from Serbia — and her apartment décor, particularly a strange statue. Irena explains that the figure of a man on horseback, impaling a cat on his sword, represents King John of Serbia, and that the cat stands for evil. Serbian legend states that the people of Irena’s village were enslaved by the Mameluks, and consequently began practicing witchcraft and devil worship. King John eventually drove the Mameluks out, but also killed the evildoers in town. However, the smartest and wickedest managed to escape into the mountains. A few days later, Oliver decides to buy Irena a kitten as a present. However, when he gives it to her, the cat hisses and shies away. Irena says that cats just don’t like her, and suggests exchanging it for another pet. Oliver and Irena go back to the pet shop together, but when they walk in, all of the animals begin acting up. The owner states that animals just have a sense about people; Irena volunteers to wait outside while Oliver picks out a bird. Despite their growing relationship, Irena refuses to kiss Oliver, telling him that she is afraid she will lose control of herself; it is implied that if this happens, Irena believes she will turn into a panther.
Oliver believes that Irena’s beliefs are merely superstition, and convinces her to get married. However, at a dinner following the ceremony, an odd-looking woman walks up to Irena and speaks to her in Serbian, which clearly unnerves Irena. She becomes even more cautious around Oliver, avoiding any physical contact with him. Believing that she is overreacting, Oliver arranges for Irena to see Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), a psychiatrist. Under hypnosis, Irena talks about her past; when she comes to, Dr. Judd tells her that her beliefs about the cat people are a result of childhood trauma. Irena disagrees, and decides not to go back to Dr. Judd; when she returns home, she finds that Oliver has talked about her issues with his assistant, Alice (Jane Randolph). Irena is extremely disappointed in Oliver, and becomes jealous of Alice. As Irena’s strange behavior continues, Oliver begins to spend more time with Alice, and confide more in her. Eventually, Alice admits that she loves Oliver. Irena has already inferred this, and begun tailing the two; one evening, she follows Alice home from a restaurant until Alice senses danger and gets on a bus. Later, a number of sheep are discovered killed nearby; tracks from the pen first look like paws, then seem to turn into heels. When Alice does get back to her apartment, she goes swimming in the basement pool, only to again have the feeling that somebody is watching her. While in the pool (in the darkened om), Alice sees the shadow of a large animal walking around the pool; when the lights are eventually turned on, Alice finds Irena waiting for her. Irena leaves, and Alice wonders if she imagined the animal, but discovers that her robe has been shredded. After this, Irena willingly goes back to Dr. Judd, and decides to risk things to keep Oliver. However, Oliver tells her that he has fallen in love with Alice, and wants a divorce. He then returns to the office, where Alice is also working; the pair are soon cornered and threatened by a large, unseen (and angry) animal. Oliver manages to scare it away, and Alice calls Dr. Judd to inform him of what has happened. Just then, Irena arrives for her appointment. Dr. Judd finds himself too attracted to Irena, and kisses her — causing her to change into a panther and attack him. She kills the doctor, but he stabs her in the shoulder with his cane sword. Oliver and Alice rush over, but Irena is already gone. In human form, she returns to the zoo and uses a stolen key to open the black panther’s cage; once released, it attacks and kills her.
MY TAKE: Just the title of this movie is enough to inspire skepticism and derision, much like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. This film was better than I expected, but still rather corny. Basically, it’s a bad story with some innovative techniques that make up the difference. First of all, the whole turning-into-cats thing is never really explained; Irena talks about the people of her village turning to devil worship and witchcraft, but how did they go from that to cats? And, since it’s implied that this trait is passed down through generations, how do cat people have children, if they kill anyone they feel passion for? Like I said, it’s a rather ludicrous story. However, there is an admirable amount of tension that builds up, mainly because you never actually see Irena in cat form. Much like the shark in Jaws, this unseen aspect adds mystery — personally, I found myself wondering for quite a while if she really was just nuts. The other good thing about not showing Irena in cat form is that you don’t have to try to create that, so we probably avoided having to see a human dressed in some really terrible cat getup. It is a little disappointing, though, as I thought surely we’d see her at the end. I thought she actually appeared to be a rather small cat, which raised the question of what everybody was so scared of. Yes, big cats are scary, but housecats are not overly so (unless you have one of those cats from hell like on TV). It’s a little better than I expected, but I couldn’t get over the lunacy of the plot.
Fun fact: If you thought Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) looked familiar, it’s probably because he resembles his more famous brother, George Sanders. Sanders was known for playing smooth but unscrupulous men in movies like Rebecca and All About Eve. Once I figured this out, it totally made sense that I never trusted Dr. Judd.