CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)
Christmas movies do not come any more offbeat than this: a strange, primal and haunting pseudo-sequel to Cat People, the runaway hit film from 1942 that put RKO Pictures back on the map after the studio took a bath on Citizen Kane. Though B-horror movie producer Val Lewton provided coin for the RKO coffers, he was, in his own way, a tortured genius on a par with Orson Welles.
The fact that audiences of the day (perhaps, it has been theorized, troubled by their own psyches as a result of World War II) responded so profoundly to his subtle, unnerving dreamscapes ended up making Lewton himself a bit of a headache for RKO during the making of Curse of the Cat People. The powers that be wanted more curse and more cats, but Lewton was determined to defy the factory-imposed title, sprinkle in only the bare minimum of elements from the original film, and use his sequel as a springboard to explore his own troubled psyche. The result is a story centered on a lonely six-year old girl who loses herself in poignant fantasies and must clash with a potentially violent adult world before she can grow.
The nod to the first Cat People involves picking up Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and his wife Alice (Jane Randolph), as they try to bury the memory of Oliver’s former wife Irena (French actress Simone Simon), who, before she died, had the unseemly habit of changing into a panther. That Alice claims to not be jealous, or harbor any animosity toward her former rival is one of the stilted aspects of a sequel so determined to have no relation to the original that it eschews logic—for anyone who saw that first film can never forget how Irena would have loved to make Alice very dead. However, once we come to know our protagonist, six-year old Amy Reed (the incandescent Ann Carter), and witness the inner sadness that is really driving the story, we can forgive the film for its lapses into that forced exposition so often dropped into the mouths of adults in black and white horror fare. (“Sometimes I feel as if we’re cursed…,” etc.)
Little Amy is shunned by her peers and chastised by her father for giving in to an overactive imagination. Wandering past a creepy old house one day, she is given an heirloom ring, tossed out the window to her by a strange old lady. Back home, the Reed family butler, Edward (played with unpretentious warmth by a West Indian fixture of several Lewton films, a gentleman with the unlikely name of Sir Lancelot) says the ring is for wishing, and so Amy wishes for the one thing she is unable to find: a friend. The friend manifests as the spirit of Irena herself, much to the chagrin of Amy’s parents, who are certain she is imagining everything.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean), the lady in the creepy house, has herself been trapped in a fantasy since an unnamed tragedy befell her and her daughter when the girl was only six. And now, although that daughter, Barbara (the effortlessly supernatural, statuesque Elizabeth Russell), is fully-grown and lives with her, Mrs. Farren’s dementia has her convinced that her own child is an evil imposter. Needless to say, Barbara is resentful of her mother’s budding friendship with the six-year old Amy. Her vengeful anger and Amy’s desperate inner life eventually collide in a finale that is, if a bit obtuse, also quite chilling and emotionally powerful.
The remarkable thing about Lewton’s everyday eeriness is that, whether due to budget constraints or the tenor of the times, all of the themes (alienation, acceptance, forgiveness) are right there, despite being presented almost matter-of-factly, even flatly, and not driven home by the kind of tracking camera move or punctuated editing that might alert us to them today. The deeper, non-horror movie concerns of this Cat People sequel are even explored in visual motifs from fairy tales and quotes from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem about imaginary playmates. (The fact that Lewton wanted the movie to be called Amy and Her Friend certainly sums up his desire to outgrow the horror genre.) What is also remarkable is that all of Lewton’s work has become known as his own, despite the fact that the films were written (both Cat People titles by DeWitt Bodeen) and directed by other people, some of whom, like Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise (who co-directed this picture and would later make The Haunting as an homage), had quite a few distinctive signatures of their own to lend to the productions.
But it was Lewton’s psyche that fueled all of his movies, and the man himself, who died at 47 (some say from the stress of his demons), was often heard to say that he was haunted by ugly visions. One actual, less troubling memory of his childhood makes its way into Curse of the Cat People, in the form of Amy trying to mail letters from a “magic mailbox” inside a tree.
In the end, it is Amy’s world that stays with us. Even at the time, some critics understood that the film was really an exploration of the inner life of a child (a book by that title is even mentioned in the dialogue), and some of the compositions in the back-garden fantasy world of Amy’s encounters with Irena (courtesy of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca) are awe-inspiring. As is Ann Carter’s remarkably nuanced performance. The camera did not shy away from using close-ups of the film’s young star, and it certainly did not have to. Carter conveys so much universal childhood truth in her expressions that we cannot help but be engaged in her turmoil, and feel it as our own.
There are some hokey rough spots in Curse of the Cat People, mostly revolving around the ways in which the script had to be shoehorned into touching at least briefly on the studio’s title. But the power of Lewton’s subconscious is invested in the greater part of the telling, and because the narrative wraps up right around Christmas, it emerges as an alternative holiday film; one for the kid–the lost and lonely kid–in all of us.
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