October Horror Movie Series-Curse of the Cat People

October 17, 2008

Curse Of the Cat People(1944, RKO); Dir. Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise. Warner Brothers Home Video, 2005.

There is so much that one can talk about when looking at the work of Val Lewton. A troubled man who was rarely given the credit for his artistic accomplishments, either from himself or the people he worked for, Lewton practically went unnoticed as he redefined what horror movies could accomplish through the basic elements of light, shadow, and a tense, moody atmosphere. The fears that Lewton explores in his movies tap into the most basic human psychology(firmly rooted in the writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung) and reveals characters that are troubled and vulnerable. They find themselves in a world where their fears become manifested in the shadows and terror is an unseen entity that other people fail to understand. In this sense, the films of Val Lewton are as much tragedy as they are horror. For those interested in learning more about Val Lewton and his films, there is a great documentary narrated and produced by Martin Scorcese called Val Lewton: The Man In The Shadows.

When RKO studios gave Val Lewton the title Curse of the Cat People to make a movie with, they had originally intended Lewton to make a follow up movie to 1942’s big hit Cat People which had been Lewton’s first picture as a producer. Lewton wanted to make an original movie and name the picture Amy and her Friend.  The studio would not permit it and insisted that Lewton at least acknowledge the previous film, which  we see in the obligatory shot of the cat in the tree in the opening sequence of Curse of the Cat People, the return of Simone Simon’s character Irena, as the ghost who befriends Ann Carter’s character Amy Reed, Elizabeth Russell who appeared briefly in Cat People as the women who speaks to Irena at her wedding reception returns as Barbara Farren, as well as Kent Smith and Jane Randolph reprising their roles as Oliver Reed and Alice Reed. Besides a few references to Irena early on in the film, and a painting of hers that found its way into the Reed’s living room, that is where the similarities between the two film stop and Curse of the Cat People takes on a life of its own as a unique story of a little girl who is lonely, isolated, and misunderstood by adults, especially her father.

These two films are also separated by stylistic differences, some of which comes from having two different directors. Jaques Tourneur(who went on to direct the influential noir Out of The Past and several other films for Val Lewton) directed Cat People and first time director Robert Wise worked on Curse of the Cat People after Gunther Fritsch was unable to complete the film on time. Thematically, Curse of the Cat People is also separated from Cat People by exploring the way a child sees the world as the central idea of the movie. Taking on a child’s voice and using that as the center of a story is a very difficult thing to do well but Curse of the Cat People seems to comfortably adopt that voice and there are several very nice touches to the movie which add to the sense that you are seeing this from the child’s perspective.

Amy does not understand why the other children will not play with her and we get the sense early in the film that she feels like an outcast. She is often lost in a fantasy world where the tree in the backyard is a magic mailbox in which she puts the invitations to her birthday party and is later surprised that no one got them, where after hearing the story of the headless horseman and sleepy hollow(which is where the film is supposed to be set) imagines that she hears the horse riding towards her which in a masterful touch turns out to be a car going over an old bridge, and is drawn to an old house where a woman(played by Julia Dean) lives a solitary life as a former actress who has lost her mind and is cared for by her daughter Barbara, who she torments by refusing to acknowledge that she is her daughter. The isolation of these two women from each other and the world outside of the rundown house, as well as the psychology of their relationship is something that Amy cannot understand and unintentionally finds herself stuck in the middle of.

Amy’s relationship to Irena is puzzling and concerning to Alice and Oliver and with the hints of the events of the previous film that you get within the story, you are almost waiting for the film to veer into repeating Irena’s fate through Amy or some variation that capitalizes on the success of the first film. But that is not the case and Val Lewton and the directors manage to cleverly sneak in a film that looks and feels very little like Cat People. This is no small feat considering how much control RKO had over the picture and how small of a budget they gave Val Lewton to work with. Being able to create a film of such complexity and deep psychological understanding seems even more impressive when you realize how ahead of his time Lewton really was.

Up next director Roman Polanski gives the October Horror Movie Series something to really sink its teeth into with 1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers. Be sure to join us for some good funny bone tickling!

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