VAL LEWTON HORROR SERIES #6: THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE [1944]

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Directed by: ,
Written by:
Starring: , , ,

USA

AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY [REGION ‘A’ ONLY] AND DVD

RUNNING TIME: 70 mins

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera

After the death of his first wife Irena, Oliver Reed eventually married former co-worker Alice Moore and they now have a six-year-old daughter, Amy who spends too much time daydreaming, no matter how much Oliver tries to encourage her to make friends and cope with reality. Then Irena begins to appear to her, and the two strike up a friendship. Meanwhile, in the same neighbourhood, Barbara Ferren is going insane because her aged mother Julia refuses to acknowledge her as her daughter and thinks she’s an impostor.…

These Val Lewton films take place in a weird kind of cinematic universe; there are connections linking them besides many of the same cast members turning up again and again, but they seem to have been deliberately designed to puzzle and certainly don’t make sense in a rational fashion. But here we have an actual Lewton sequel, with three characters who are definitely the same three main characters in Cat People. There are references to that film’s events, events which haunt this one. However, it’s still rather strange, first and foremost because there are no references to – well – cat people despite the studio-imposed title. In fact you can watch and get as much out of this film if you haven’t seen Cat People at all. I recall viewing some of it as a teenager very late one night and being rather bored; I’m not sure if I even finished it. But now I reckon that I’ve just watched a movie that’s rather wonderful. Not a full-on horror film but certainly partly one, it’s an poignant, delicate and rather ambiguous look at childhood imagination which doesn’t provide much in the way of answers to what’s going on but which should deeply touch anybody who was something of a lonely child. I certainly was, and I totally identified with Amy’s isolation, and her need to drift off into fantasy which is movingly yet subtly portrayed. Alongside it is a darker look at madness which may seem out of place to some but which for me provides an interesting counterpoint to the main story – a story which after all centres on what is seen and what is real – as well as allowing for some of that Lewton suspense to appear, even if the usual devices are thinner on the ground in this one. But there are a lot of questions – though in the right movie this can be a good, rather than bad, thing.

So RKO finally convinced Lewton to make the sequel to his biggest hit after several attempts. Screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen had co-scripted Lewton’s The Seventh Victim, though it seems that Lewton had even more of a hand in the script than normal, incorporating elements of his own childhood where he was a lonely dreamer, and wanting the title to be Amy And Her Friend. The initial director was Gunther von Fritsch, who’d only directed shorts before. However, he fell behind schedule, having got only halfway through the screenplay in twenty days of filming, so RKO assigned film editor Robert Wise to take over; yes, the same Robert Wise later responsible for West Side Story, The Haunting, The Day The Earth Stood Still etc., while Lewton developed sinus trouble probably caused by stress over this very personal project. Little Ann Carter had a tooth fall out so was asked not to smile for the rest of her scenes; hence her strange but effective ‘look’. Executives insisted on some tiny additions, while some details which made the plot clearer were removed, similar to what happened with The Seventh Victim, though it’s unclear whose decision this was. What certainly is clear is that Lewton decided to reshoot the climax which originally had Irena lock Barbara in a room to have a more ambiguous finale where there are two interpretations for what we see, and one in which love overcomes threat. The film had gone way over budget despite the re-use of sets from The Magnificent Ambersons, and RKO, who’d wanted and expected something far more like Cat People, weren’t too pleased with the result, releasing it in many places as the bottom half of a double bill with Action In Arabia. It made the least money out of all the Lewtons and RKO decided to hire Universal’s Jack Bruce to oversee Lewton’s last three horror productions as well as a certain Boris Karloff.

Amy is first seen in her class being taken by Miss. Callahan for a walk with talk of Sleepy Hollow, and it’s nice to see some location shooting, at Malibou Lake, California; the tiny studio-added cat-related vignette as two boys pretend to machine-gun a moggy sitting on a tree branch stands out because of its back projection. Amy doesn’t enjoy and therefore tends to ruin games, so she chases after a butterfly, seemingly having found a potential friend, but a boy kills it, so she slaps him, and you can understand her action even if it could be considered to be wrong. “She could almost be Irena’s child” says Oliver when told about his daughter’s behaviour. Indeed I wondered the same for a few seconds until I remembered that Oliver and Irena never consummated their marriage because of her fear that she’d turn into a cat. One thing that was both surprising and pleasing to me were how much better Kent Smith and Jane Randolph second time round in their parts. Smith wasn’t awful before but was just a tad bland and Randolph was plain lousy, but here they’ve both substantially improved even if they don’t really possess the chemistry together a married couple ought to have. Oliver still insists on having the painting Irena once had on the wall of her apartment [Goya] hanging up in the living room; this is a bit odd seeing as wife number two would surely [and understandably] have complained about this, and as Oliver is no longer in love with Irena, though he’s still tormented by memory of her, seeing his first marriage as a bad thing. Amy’s birthday party comes along but none of her friends show up. It’s very sad, but the reason is not that nobody wanted to come; it’s that she posted the invitations in a hole in a tree trunk that Oliver called a ‘magic male box’ when Amy was three. Oliver isn’t happy with Amy and doesn’t believe her most of the time. He tells her to be more sociable, but she’s ignored by her classmates, and your heart well and truly goes out to her, largely because of Ann Carter’s very natural performance; no typical Hollywood cutesy moppet emoting here.

There’s a great scene where Amy says “I wish for a friend” and her surroundings briefly become night and leaves start to fall, indicating the arrival of Irena, after which Amy is seen by her parents running around looking unusually happy. Her garb seems curiously sexy considering what she was like in Cat People, but a deleted scene has Amy reading a book and ‘creating’ the ghost by combining a photo of Oliver’s first wife with an illustration of a princess in a similar costume. Why was this scene removed? It would have explained a bit. But then it may have suggested far stronger that the apparition which visits Amy may not actually be Irena, and therefore be more likely in her own head, even though we do see the shadow of Irena’s head when Irena doesn’t. Maybe Irena, feeling guilty about what happened with Oliver, has temporarily returned from the grave to help him by helping his daughter out? Simone Simon is so ethereal, and the montage of the two playing games is so heartwarming, as is when Christmas carols are sung in the house by guests [who look oddly menacing] but Amy would rather listen to Irena singing the vocal version of her theme. There’s been feeling in all of Lewton up to now, never exploding into full-on sentimentality, but it’s always been present. We’re allowed to truly care about his characters, their issues, their relationships. Here, without becoming saccharine, it’s finally allowed to truly burst free, so that when one friend has to inevitably say farewell to the other because childish things do eventually have to be put away, it may be hard to stop a tear or two from falling. The scene is like one in the even more moving The Ghost And Mrs. Muir from the following year, while the story shares elements with another Dewitt Boden-scripted film, The Enchanted Cottage, where another lonely female has an imagination so strong that it might blur the line between what’s real or imagined.

While it’s probably clear by now that the sugar is undercut by melancholy, that Amy may be a little mad, and I will also say that she’s haunted by the tale of the Headless Horseman, hearing the sound of a horse galloping three times, most notably when she hears approaching hoofbeats which turns into a shadow passing her and then cuts away to show it is only a vehicle. However, you may be wondering where the rest of the dark stuff is. Well, it largely concerns the subplot of Amy visiting the house of the elderly Julia Farren, who throws a wishing ring down to Amy from her bedroom window, and her daughter Barbara. Barbara initially seems very sinister, especially as she’s played by Elizabeth Russell who made a memorable cameo in Cat People as a possible cat person or even lesbian. But when we learn that her mother is becoming senile and thinks that she’s impersonating her dead daughter, we feel for the poor woman who’s maybe being driven mad herself by this treatment, and wonder if this is what Amy may grow up to be like if her father continues to be unsympathetic to her. Amy exploring their garden and a room is both eerie and has a fairytale feeling of wonder, and the climax with Amy trapped in the house with a murderous maniac is pretty tense, though the way things are resolved is awkward, even if one likes the idea of love overcoming threat. Some material was cut that clarified the mother/daughter relationship. Lewton sure liked making things vague, which has both positive and negative aspects.

The conclusion is surprisingly bold for the time in that it shows Amy’s ‘madness’, which may or may not go as she gets older, being totally accepted by both her parents rather than being magically cured. The line, “a first spanking, it’s an important occasion” leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but then this was made when beating a child was considered an unpleasant necessity. On the other hand it’s nice to see Sir Lancelot, the singer in that extraordinary calypso scene in I Walked With A Zombie, get a much bigger screen role as Edward, Oliver’s butler and cook, and it’s a really warm performance. The lush interiors from the Orson Welles picture make this film seem far more expensive than it is, while the garden where so much of the vital action takes place works fine as just a mundane bit of outdoors and a magical world, courtesy of cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca doing his usual terrific job despite not being required to indulge as much in the typical Lewton movie shadowplay. It’s impossible to tell which footage is Wise’s and which is von Fritsch’s; even though Wise went on to to become a major filmmaker and von Fritsch certainly didn’t, the film is mostly seamless. Composer Roy Webb gives us much more music for this one, but he relishes being allowed to create a more conventionally romantic score which underscores actions and emotions more; his two main themes are memorable and haunting. Just because it’s only slightly horror doesn’t mean that The Curse Of The Cat People should be overlooked. I think that it’s a more fully achieved work than Cat People and a major entry in the Lewton series, as well as probably being Lewton’s most personal. It’s very affecting in a mostly unassuming and low-key way, and more than anything else reminds us of the need to dream and get away from reality – whatever your age. I bet this is one of Terry Gilliam’s favourite films.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

 

About Dr Lenera 3017 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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