When a movie has a title like Cat People you know that the iron law of caveat emptor applies. A title like that does not promise that the film will be classy, nor does it promise to be an in depth plumbing of the human condition. It only makes one promise: sit in front of your screen long enough and your eyes will glimpse some feline-human hybrids. Those creatures might be emotionally rich metaphors or they might be simple minded monsters, but either way, they will be there.
There are a lot of ways that Cat People is terrible. All of the acting is in done in that stiff well enunciated style that Leslie Nielson's spent his entire post-Airplane career mocking. All the leads have dialogue that makes it clear that no one involved with the production has any idea how romance works and they deliver this dialogue so earnestly that they come across less like actual adult professionals and more like little kids who put on their parents clothes as part of a game of pretend.
Also, the pacing is atrociously slow; the movie is a little over seventy minutes long and you don't get a cat-person attacking a person scene until the fifty minute mark - and even that is too little too late, because all that happens is that the cat-person claws up their victim's bathrobe while they are in the pool. (There are probably better uses for shape shifting powers than a middle school bully's idea of a prank.)
But the main transgression of Cat People is that there just aren't any damn cat people in it.
Because the movie is so old I would have been glad to grade whatever cat people we saw on a curve. I could have forgiven it if the cat people were just actors wearing a fake cat-nose and some bad eye make up. I wouldn't have complained if most of the cat-people action was done in silhouette, which is a cheap but effective way to imply special effects. There are any number of cop-outs or half-asseries that I would have accepted. But nope, they don't even go that far. If you added up the time that a cat that used to be a person is visible on screen it would be less than ten seconds.
Hell, there are barely cats in this movie. There's a few trips to the zoo where we see a panther in a cage - panthers being the worst of the big cats for a black and white movie because they just come across as black blobs in a corner - and there's two scenes with a house cat. But seeing a character look at an animal in a zoo or in a pet store is not exactly the stuff that good thrillers are made from. Animals need to be on the loose to be threats, and a "thriller" needs to have threats to work.
I get that the film is trying to be atmospheric in a way that modern films generally aren't. But talking about cat people doesn't create a cat-people-ish atmosphere; the presence of actual cat-people needs to at least be implied for that to work. For most of the movie no one is being stalked from the shadows; they're hanging out on their therapist's couch debating whether believing in the abstract idea of a cat person would mean you were crazy. That's unacceptable. I don't know whether it would be more fitting to squirt the filmmakers in the nose like they were bad cats or to spank them like they were bad people, but they deserve some kind of punishment for making a movie that didn't manage to do the one thing it promised to do.
Winner: The Cat