It's not often that a movie, made almost twice my age ago, has the power to chill my blood. I do watch classic horror movies very often, at least two per week, but not with the aim of having my blood chilled. I endlessly admire their efficiency in storytelling, their full use of their sometimes smaller budgets, the familiar faces that crop up time and again. I enjoy identifying the horror tropes, so often reused, the angles used by directors such as James Whale and Roy William Neill to convey their sympathies for any given monster.
Perhaps I'm just wired that way. To me, the horror movies of the 30s and 40s are like comfort food. It's relaxing to be in the company of one. What an oddity, this movie then, and yet what a thrilling treat to have one's expectations confounded. For here, in Jacques Tourneur's 'The Leopard Man' in 1943, is the film in which everything was altered for the horror movie. From here on in, ironically, they weren't safe anymore.
You'd think I'd be cautious about making such a bold statement, but I instinctively know that I am right for one very good reason. It's odd to think, but up until 'The Leopard Man', there'd never been an actual serial killer portrayed on the screen.
Oh, there were killers. There were even madmen, but there was always a purpose, be it revenge or jealousy, or because the act of killing would fulfil some devious plan set in motion by a cracked mind.
What there wasn't, before this movie, was a killer who killed because the thought of putting someone to death excited on an almost sexual, sub-conscious level.
It begins innocuously enough. In a sleepy New Mexico border town, a nightclub promoter, Jerry Manning, hires a leopard to publicise and accompany his singer, Kiki. When the leopard breaks free, the whole town is panicked. A young girl is mauled to death, and the authorities vow to track the animal down, but then a second girl is killed. Jerry soon begins to suspect that there may be an altogether more chilling presence in the town, preying upon women in the dead of night.
The first murder is terrifying. A young girl, Teresa, constantly scolded by her mother for being lazy, is sent out to buy cornmeal. She is reluctant to do so, because she is afraid of meeting the escaped leopard, but her mother physically ejects her from the house, bolting the door behind her and vowing not to let her in until she has returned with the cornmeal.
What follows is a masterclass in suspense, as Teresa creeps through the town's shadows, terrified of meeting the cat, only to find the store closed. She must now venture to the other side of town to buy the cornmeal. To say any more would spoil the surprises of what comes next, but I can honestly say that it's one of the most genuinely disturbing scenes in classic horror.
You may also suppose, that such a horrifying, yet masterfully directed sequence would somehow detract from later scenes of tension, a large planet's gravity tugging away at neighbouring constellations. This isn't the case. At least two more murders come, perfectly pitched and paced, and each with their own share of emotional resonance and distinctive horror.
The technical brilliance displayed by Jacques Tourneur is these scenes is breathtaking, and that's to say nothing of his grip on the telling of the story itself; the slow building of dread, the lengthening shadows of terror stretching like fingers over the very scenery. The characters leap from the screen; the devious Clo-Clo, the tragic Teresa.
And what of the resolution, taking place against a ghastly procession of murmuring, hooded figures drifting slowly against a barren, nature-torn landscape, their heads bowed, candles flickering gently as the night sets in. It's here that the culprit reveals their hideous motive, that the reason for the killings, was that there wasn't a reason. Could there have been a reason more terrifying? And still, the figures trudge slowly on. The image could have been torn from the Book Of The Dead.
The horror lingers, long after the film has ended, a pervading, heavy, nightmare of a film; the tragic fates of its victims all too resonant. It could so easily have been a run-of-the-mill quickie horror, but the source material, Cornell Woolrich's superb 'Black Alibi', and the superlative direction from Jacques Tourneur, truly one of horror's icons, elevate 'The Leopard Man', in my estimation, to one of the all-time great chillers.