The three collaborations of producer VAL LEWTON and director JACQUES TURNER are glorious testimonies to the power of restraint. I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and CAT PEOPLE are undeniable horror classics and THE LEOPARD MAN from 1943 contains a segment which I think may be the duo’s most successful stab at cinematic tension. In my opinion, it’s downright kindertraumatic…
As the scene begins the audience is well aware that a black panther has escaped captivity and is roaming around the outskirts of a small New Mexico village. Inside a humble abode a young girl named Teresa is goaded by her mother to go out into the night and fetch some corn meal to make tortillas. Teresa pleads with her mother to allow her to skip the chore until morning or until such time as when a leopard is not stalking their village. The battle axe mother insists and soon Teresa is out in the velvet black night on a completely unnecessary (it’s not like ma ran out of smokes) corn meal run.
When Teresa finally gets to the store she finds that it is closed and that the shopkeeper has a similar temperament as her won’t-budge-an-inch mother. The shopkeeper tells Teresa it is too much of a hassle for her to open her door and hand over some corn meal. This means poor Teresa has got to go to the late night joint farther away and also has to cross under a super creepy bridge. After a tense paranoid trek she does make it to the larger store with the more reasonable operating hours. Inside she gets her goods, tells the shopkeeper to stick it on her tab and then whiles away a couple of moments staring at some mechanical birds in a cage that once fascinated her in her youth. Whatever future plans that Teresa imagines while glancing at these birds will never come to fruition. Dare I say that if she had not stopped to daydream she may have made it home alive? Seconds really do count in situations like these!
Now with bag of corn meal in hand, it’s back on the road for our gal and yet another psychologically strenuous confrontation with that creepy bridge in order to return safe. Thanks to the magic of you-tube you can watch what happens to poor Teresa next….
Can you believe that went down? Besides this scene being seriously suspenseful, I think I also love it because it reminds me of the fantasies I would have in my twisted youth. You know the ones, your parents or a teacher forces you to do some menial crap or punishes you for something and then you start thinking about what if this or that happened and then they’d be sorry! You imagine them all crying at your funeral! Boy, that would show them! Sorta like in A CHRISTMAS STORY when poor little Ralphie daydreams about going blind from all that soap his mouth got washed out with! Oh how his parents would wail in regret!
Besides that personal revenge fantasy element I’m sure Teresa’s journey resonates with anyone who has had to walk home late at night by themselves. THE LEOPARD MAN has several other scenes that utilize this universal fear almost as well. (Worse still, one hapless victim finds herself locked in a graveyard!) As it turns out, that kitty you saw in the clip (feline movie star “Dynamite” who also starred in CAT PEOPLE) is really just a scapegoat for a far more sinister threat. The title may have you expecting a B monster movie but as is the case with most LEWTON flicks, it’s merely a lure. THE LEOPARD MAN certainly has its fair share of horrific moments but expect thriller, noir, mystery and quirkily written romance elements as well. In other words kiddies, my advice to you is, never judge a LEWTON film by its title, never wash your kid’s mouth out with soap and never ever get conned into going out on a late night corn meal run!