Review Of The Curse Of The Cat People

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/13/07


  Rare is it when a sequel outshines its original film. Rarer still is it when that sequel and the original are both considered B films. Films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or Aliens, have been posited as greater than the first films in those series, although there are good arguments back and forth, but they were both big budget A films. In watching Val Lewton’s RKO produced, 1944 black and white, 70 minute long masterpiece, The Curse Of The Cat People, I think there’s little doubt that it’s superior to the very good film that preceded it, 1942’s Cat People. Even people who agree with my assessment of the later film’s superiority, however, often miss out on the reasons why. More on that in a bit.

  This film’s closest companion, in terms of filmic kinship, would not be made by Lewton, however, nor by any other American nor European filmmaker. It would take almost a quarter century, but 1968’s Japanese Godzilla’s Revenge (Gojira-Minira-Gabara: Oru Kaijû Daishingeki)- another sequel to a B horror film, put out by Toho, and about a latchkey urban child who is bullied and retreats into the fantasy world of Godzilla, is the only film that is nearly as accurate and sensitive in its portrayal of life from the view of a sensitive child- although that is a definite male take on the subject matter. This film’s real and palpable sense of girlhood puts you in the moment with its lead character, and it all works. And, on top of that, The Curse Of The Cat People is an even better film than Ishîro Honda’s great kid’s film.

  It is heavily dependent upon a great screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen, who seamlessly moves the story of Oliver and Alice Reed (Kent Smith and Jane Randolph) up a good seven years from the original. The two lovers, who survived the terror of the earlier film, imposed by the feline charms of his first wife Irena (Simone Simon)- a murderess who may or may not have been capable of shapeshifting into a panther, are now suburban residents of Tarrytown, in upstate New York. This allows for the working in of Washington Irving’s The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow mythos. They now have a beautiful blond daughter who is moody and a loner. Her name is Amy, and she is played by Ann Carter, in one of the greatest performances by a child. Amy is both bright, yet totally naïve. She still believes whatever her parents tell her, such as putting letters in a tree’s knothole, because he dad told her, at three, that it was a magic mailbox. Thus, none of her friends come to her birthday party, after she told them they were invited. They never got the invitations, so shun her when she next meets them. As they run away, and Amy follows them, she comes upon a classic old haunted house, where an enigmatic old woman, Mrs. Julia Farren (Julia Dean), tosses down a ring of friendship to Amy.

  This is just what Amy desires: a friend (which is what Amy means in French). What she needs, however, is recognition of her individuality. Only her teacher recognizes this, and throughout the film the character of the teacher is used as a prod to push the tale along, and give exposition to the backstory of the first film. The woman who tosses her the ring turns out to be a lively old lady with a background in the theater, who melodramatically tells Amy the tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, and has seemingly disowned her own daughter, Barbara Farren (Elizabeth Russell), whom Julia claims died in an accident at the age of six- the same age Amy is.

  Naturally, Barbara comes to resent Amy, as the young girl quickly takes her place in her mother’s heart; and this telegraphing of where that hatred will leave is the film’s only real flaw. Yet, since it plays out so wonderfully, it’s a very minor flaw. But, the old woman is not the only friend that Amy makes. Like many bright and engaging children, she conjures up an imaginary friend, that she eventually crafts into an image of her father’s first wife, after she discovers a photo of her, and hears her name. This is a key fact of the film that adds to its psychological realism. Before we see Amy discover Irena’s photo, and hear her name, the friend she conjures is discarnate and invisible. Only after these revelations does Irena become visibly embodied- and that almost 37 minutes into the 70 minute film. Clearly, she is not the same jealous and disturbed character from the first film, although Simon is still as lovely as ever. This fact also heightens the sense that the whole action of the film takes place in Amy’s mind, since ‘Irena’ seems to be a different character from Oliver’s first wife.

  The only person in the film that seems to have an accurate read on Amy’s state of mind is her teacher, Miss Callahan (Eve March), who initially tells her parents that when Amy’s loneliness is ended, so will be her need for an invisible friend. The teacher even quotes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, The Unseen Playmate:


When children are playing alone on the green, 
In comes the playmate that never was seen. 
When children are happy and lonely and good, 
The Friend of the Children comes out of the wood. 


  Yet, March’s performance is just one of the good ones by the adults. Also turning in excellent performances are Sir Lancelot-a Lewton mainstay, as the Reed’s Jamaican domestic, Edward. In Lewtonian fashion, the role is in no way demeaning. Well before the civil rights movement, Edward is shown as intelligent, respected, and talented. The two Farren women are also well portrayed by Dean and the sexy Russell- a longtime Lewton collaborator (she played the ‘other’ cat woman in Cat People). Kent Smith and Jane Randolph are good, as well, although in diminished roles from the first film.

  Smith really earns his pay, though, in the last scene of the film. After Christmas, and when Irena tells Amy that she has to go away (ostensibly to force Amy to grow up), Amy takes off into the snowy woods behind the family house. There, whilst crossing a bridge, we get the patented Val Lewton bus (i.e.- an effect that makes one believe that something will happen, but doesn’t; and named after a scene in the original Cat People, where Irena stalks Alice, and you think she’ll pounce, only to have the hiss of a bus come instead). This time, we see Amy hear horse’s hooves, and believe it is the Headless Horseman coming to get her, only to have it turn out to be an old automobile.

  She then makes it to the Farren manse, not long after Barbara vows to kill Amy if she returns. Mrs. Farren attempts to hide the little girl, and they head upstairs. Yet, the old woman has a heart attack and dies. The lights even fade out when she is dead. Then, Barbara slowly rises up the staircase, with a grim look on her face, claiming Amy even stole her mother’s last moments from her. She orders Amy to come to her. Amy impotently cries for daddy. Then, Irena seems to reappear, and her image merges over Barbara’s. Seeing the woman she originally set out to recover, a weeping Amy walks down the stairs and hugs Barbara, repeating the words, ‘My friend.’ Barbara wants to strangle the girl, but softens, and hugs her- perhaps the first affection she’s had and shown in years.

  The state police, the Reeds, and Miss Callahan soon arrive, and when the family gets home, Oliver asks Amy if she sees Irena in the snowy backyard. She says she does, and waves to her. Oliver, while not even looking that way, says he does too, after giving Amy her first spanking, earlier, when she refused to say she lied about seeing Irena. The tone in Smith’s voice conveys everything he is feeling. That the tale all occurs around Christmas, and against the backdrop of Irena’s pagan singing in counterpoint to Christmas carols, is yet another deft touch.

  The DVD of the film is the second half of the Warner Brothers DVD of Cat People. The two films are part of a five disk, nine film (including one documentary on the works of Lewton) package called The Val Lewton Horror Collection, which has all the classics made between 1942 and 1946. The features for Curse Of The Cat People are a theatrical trailer and a commentary by horror film maven and historian Greg Mank, who gives a terrific commentary that, while scripted, is concise, ebullient, and informative. He seems to love the film and know every detail and nuance of it. Yet, he never comes off pedantic, but as a film lover. This is simply one of the best film commentaries out there. The DVD print of the film is also sterling, a big improvement over the merely adequate print used for Cat People. It is in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, yet even though it’s 65 years old, the scenes look as crisp as if filmed yesterday.

  Not only is the look contemporary, but so is the narrative. The cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca is top notch, and the morph of Barbara into Irena is still effective. An early scene of a male classmate of Amy’s, who accidentally kills a butterfly she likes with his hat, is very subtly animated. Her reaction- an angry slap, is dead on realistic and apropos for the character we see unfold. The contrasts of black with white, and all the subtle shades of gray between, is outstanding. The directors of the film were journeyman Gunther Von Fritsch, who fell behind schedule and went overbudget, and Robert Wise, who was promoted from RKO editor on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), to finish the film. Both shot an almost equal load. The commentary by Mank claims that Fritsch directed what are the more pedestrian scenes, while the climax, and scenes within the Reed household, were all Wise’s work. The next year Lewton had Wise direct The Body Snatcher. He then went on to a long career that would include directing such film classics as The Day The Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Sound Of Music, and The Andromeda Strain. That the man, despite two Oscars as Best Director, is never mentioned in conversations about great directors is odd- to say the least, and his lack of recognition is almost criminal. Yes, he has no trademark style, the way a Bergman or Scorsese film does. Yet, all he did was churn out consistently good, and occasionally great films for half a century. This was his very first.

  Many critics, however, have overlooked this film, and denied its connection to the original film, thus revealing how little most film critics are worth. The narrative of this film is strikingly like the original, with Amy as a pre-adolescent Irena- both are imaginative, creative females, searching for the love of Oliver Reed, and both are forced to fit in with their peers. This time, however, the female succeeds, with the first film’s female’s help- although that’s a bit assumptive, since we are never really given clues as to whether Amy’s vision of Irena is real or imagined. The ending suggests that it’s imagined, for Oliver still cannot sense Irena’s force, even as most critics believe Irena’s ghost is ‘real.’ I state, however, that nothing in the film suggests this is so.

  Another aspect of the film that is taken as a given by most critics is the idea that Julia Farren is a delusional old woman when she claims that Barbara is an imposter. Yet, we never really know the truth of that claim, and there is a suggestion that it might very well be true. Several times, when we see Barbara skulk away from Julia, we see her descend down the stairs, to the place where- in such a grand mansion, the servant’s quarters would be. It could very well be that Barbara is an imposter trying to con a delusional old woman out of her fortune.

  The final and most important aspect of the film that most critics are wrong in is when they claim it is not a horror film. They often wax on that while the original was a horror film, the sequel is merely a psychological fantasy, whose title was unfortunately the starting point that Lewton was given. Yes it is a psychological fantasy, and yes, its title was preordained by the RKO brass (who were shocked at Lewton’s subversion), but it is also a horror film, and a great one, at that. What is any more horrific than the loneliness a little six year old girl can feel whilst being alone in the world? As proof, just look at the sublime face and reactions of Ann Carter. The dew in her eyes, when she gazes off at her companion (before it morphs into Irena) prefigures the look of the lead character in Akira Kurosawa’s great Ikiru by almost a decade.

  Although she never acted past her teen years, she turns in one of the flat out greatest acting performances in child acting history. Forget the Culkin kids or Haley Joel Osment, Carter is simply supernal and mesmerizing every second onscreen, and owns the film. Yet, she is never hammy, always natural, and always engaging, even when shown in shots running by herself. Then there are the scenes in the backyard, first alone by a pond, then with Irena, in a lovely fairy tale gown; again hinting that she is a child’s idea of a grown up friend- although the ravishing Simon is simply gorgeous in it. Another clue to Irena’s provenance being in Amy’s mind is that when she first leaves Amy, we do not see her ‘pop’ out of existence- like so many other movie ghosts, in that almost clichéd aspect of filmic vocabulary. We see Amy plead from her bed, rise from it, then walk to the window where Irena is standing. Yet, the camera passes behind a chair, and between the viewer, and Amy and Irena. When it emerges on the left side of the screen, Irena is gone, and Amy is alone.

  The Curse Of The Cat People is a truly great film, and is considered a B film only because of its budget. Yet, very few films, A or B, American or foreign, pack as much punch and psychological realism into it, especially at a child’s level. Not even Ingmar Bergman ever came close to depicting the pre-adult mind with such depth. That this all occurs in a horror film, which is also every bit as much a family film as more recent classics, like My Dog Skip or October Sky, is a testament to both Lewton, and especially Wise, who, in his film debut, greatly uplifted the more pedestrian work of the man he replaced, and sent his own career into film history. Alas, Ann Carter faded from the film business, just like Gunther Von Fritsch, or her character’s idée fixe, Irena, did. Growing pains can really suck.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Houston Literary Review website.]


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