(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: Cat People delivered the first significant jump scare of the sound era and created one of cinema’s most enduring scare techniques; the Lewton Bus.)
The jump scare gets a bad rap. It’s understandable; when used liberally for cheap thrills, the jump scare comes across as an easy crutch to create unearned horror. Overuse of them renders them ineffective and impotent. There’s an artform to the jump scare, though. If you’re a regular reader of this column, then you know the most chilling and memorable moments of fright take a lot of time, planning, and forethought to prepare. It requires technique.
Among the early pioneers and masters of scare crafting is legendary producer Val Lewton, whose first mission once hired by RKO Pictures was to run a new unit dedicated to horror B-pictures with A-picture quality. He was inspired by Universal Studios’ monster movies’ massive success but felt he could achieve similar success with a fraction of Universal’s budget by building fear of the unseen or suggestive horror. Lewton’s first assignment under RKO Pictures was 1942’s Cat People. Operating with a minuscule budget, Cat People is constructed entirely out of fear and implied dread. Lewton’s brand of building tension out of nothing is perfectly encapsulated in Cat People’s most famous scene, featuring a scare so potent that it birthed a new jump scare technique lovingly dubbed “the Lewton Bus.”
Serbian-born fashion illustrated Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is recently transplanted to New York City, where she knows no one. She meets marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), and the pair quickly fall in love. Irena and Oliver get married soon after, but their wedded bliss gets interrupted by Irena’s budding fear that she will transform into the predatory cat person of her homeland’s fables if they are intimate together. When Oliver confides his marital concerns to his extroverted assistant Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), it triggers Irena’s curse.
Lewton assembled a team of filmmakers he’d worked with in the past for his first RKO Pictures project. That included director Jacques Tourneur, editor Mark Robson, and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, though Lewton always prepared the final shooting script himself.
The Story So Far
While sketching a panther at the Central Park Zoo, Irena catches Oliver’s eye. He walks her home, and she invites him inside for tea, where she regales him with stories of her village in Serbia. Namely, of the belief that some villagers turned to Satanism and their evil gave them the ability to transform into cats. Irena believes herself to be descended from this evil line. Oliver chalks it up to silly superstition, and he proposes marriage soon after they fall in love.
Irena refuses to consummate their marriage, though, fearful that the physical intimacy will trigger her curse and transform her into a panther. At first, Oliver is patient with his new bride but eventually persuades her to seek professional help from psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway). Dr. Judd attempts to convince Irena that her fears are unfounded and stem from childhood trauma, while Oliver divulges his marital woes to his confident and beautiful assistant Alice. When Irena learns of this, she takes it as a betrayal. Alice then confesses to Oliver that she’s in love with him while out to dinner. Irena sees the pair at the restaurant and, with jealousy, decides to follow them.
Oliver and Alice leave the restaurant. She declines his offer to walk her home and heads for the bus stop alone. Alice begins her journey home on the empty, darkened street, moving in and out of the warm glow of street lamps. The clacking of Alice’s heels breaks up the eerie silence. She’s unaware that she’s being followed, at first. Irena closes in, picking up speed to catch up to Alice. The faster and louder clacking of high heels clues Alice into her presence as she pauses to listen. She turns but sees no one. Unnerved just the same, Alice walks at a brisker pace, checking behind her to spot her pursuer. Still nothing. Panic sets in, and she sprints to another streetlamp before daring to turn around once more. What sounds like a rumbling growl of a cat builds into a roaring hiss, delivering a massive jolt to both Alice and the viewer. The startling noise marks the sudden arrival of a bus, not Alice’s stalker, effectively breaking up the tension with a significant scare.
The lighting, pacing, camera work by Nicholas Musuraca, and editing are crucial to crafting this significant scare. This scene is saturated with shadows, with the glow of street lamps piercing the pitch black night at regular intervals. It builds atmosphere instantly with the camera following Alice’s every move as she darts in and out of the shadows. The camera captures the stalking at every angle in this well-choreographed scene. Edited together masterfully by Robson, the wide shots capturing Alice’s vulnerable exposure out in the open are intercut with close-ups of her walking cadence as well as her expressions of mounting fear. All work in tandem to build suspense. That the scene is devoid of sound, save for the footsteps, enhances the tension.
By this point in the narrative, the audience expects Irena to transform into a panther at any moment. It naturally instills an expectation that Alice faces imminent danger. As Alice’s frantic watch seems to stretch out long enough to make her death seem close, the tension bursts with a fake-out scare – while Alice looks to screen left for her stalker, the bus barrels in from screen right and screeches to a halt.
This Lewton Bus scare established an essential jump scare technique that’s been emulated countless times in the decades since; the slow build-up with a sudden, shocking release via misdirection and a loud burst of sound. The key difference here is that Lewton knew how and when to employ this technique. Cat People only boasts two major scares, and the bus scene marks the first of them. Jump scares work like a pressure release valve. Once the tension mounts to unbearable levels, a jump scare instantly releases it and allows the audience to momentarily catch their breath. It’s an invaluable tool in horror, but it takes a master to wield it. This vital scene birthed one of horror’s most influential techniques.
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