When you hear a title like “THE LEOPARD MAN“, it likely conjures images of the Syfy Channel’s bevy of science fiction schlock like monstrous snakes fighting mega alligators, Sharknados, mythical beasts and half-human half-whatever hybrids. The name definitely doesn’t suggest a film as sophisticated and expertly crafted as THE LEOPARD MAN truly is–the sensational title merely serves to arouse your interest and get you into the seats of the theater. Most directors wouldn’t have the ingenuity to avoid crafting a hokey literal vision of a title like that but Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton were going to prove otherwise.
In the 1930s, even with The Great Depression going on, Universal Studios began banking big on their first leg of monster pictures, the fantastical black and white nightmares provided much-needed escape from the real devastation of the times. Hollywood had gotten a wake up call after the successes of DRACULA (1931) and FRANKENSTEIN (1931): there was money to be made in horror films. So Hollywood did what it does best..it cashed in. Come the beginning of the 1940s, Universal showed no signs of losing it’s good fortune following with the success of THE WOLF MAN (1941). Meanwhile, RKO Studios was beginning to crash due to the mass amounts of money lost in Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Despite the fact that both films are now considered film classics , they nevertheless caused the studio to bleed out more than it could regain.
RKO needed money fast and horror was going to save them. In 1942, after they realized how large a cash cow the genre could be, Val Lewton was appointed head of the horror department under the agreement that he turn out some quick profits for them on tight budgets. With the aid of his director, Jacques Tourneur, the teams’ debut, CAT PEOPLE, became a well-received hit. If you’ve seen CAT PEOPLE, you’re already aware of the creepy spell the duo’s films can put you under. THE LEOPARD MAN follows in the same form, crafting a subtle piece of terror that kick-starts with a surprisingly nail-biting sequence (for 1942).
Tourneur and Lewton had already proven with CAT PEOPLE that our imagination is capable of
conjuring images more terrifying than anything the screen could show us but now, without realizing it, they were about to introduce to Hollywood a new device to shock your audience–the “jump scare”. Interestingly enough, THE LEOPARD MAN was the first film to utilize the technique of drawing your attention to one spot of the screen, only to have a loud noise or scare come from the other. It was pretty innovative. As we all know, this is something we still see in modern horror today and when a film uses it well, like THE EXORCIST or HALLOWEEN, it’s still incredibly effective.
The more I revisit the film, the more I find to appreciate. It’s storytelling is unique; there’s no main protagonist and the narrative passes from one person to another seamlessly. The most charismatic character, a girl named Clo-Clo, is the catalyst for everything that goes awry. She’s obnoxious,arrogant and difficult to sympathize with. Yet, after a tarot-reader continues to warn her of a “black figure” in her future, we dread every shadow in the alleyway and fear the rustling in the bushes. By the time we root for her–it’s too late.
Tourneur and Lewton created a film that surprisingly gets under your skin and stays there a while. It’s more elegant than it’s “B-Movie” origin would imply and rightfully deserves it’s place in film history, even if it’s not as well known as CAT PEOPLE. Jacques Tourneur would make one more film with Val Lewton, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). Their three films together are undeniable classic horror films. Jacques would go on to direct the satanic horror classic, NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957), while Val would produce three more films for RKO with Boris Karloff which were also fantastic films. If you’re interested in seeing where the monsters of today came from, this is a good place to start.