Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)

Ostensibly a sequel to the 1942 horror classic, Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People (1944) is in reality a completely different kind of tale. It's not really a horror movie and not really a sequel to the original film, even though it brings back most of the characters from the earlier outing and carries over some of their concerns. RKO producer Val Lewton, along with directors Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise, engage in cinematic sorcery to weave this sad, sweet story out of the leftover bits of a psychosexual nightmare, but there are still some moments of terror to be found, especially in the sinister performance of Elizabeth Russell as a daughter scorned to the brink of madness.

Ann Carter plays our young protagonist, Amy Reed, whose loneliness and dreamy ways frustrate her father, Oliver (Kent Smith), largely because of his obsession with normalcy after the tragic death of his strange first wife, Irena (Simone Simon). Amy's mother, Alice (Jane Randolph), also worries about Irena's legacy, which she thinks of as a curse visited on Amy, but both parents are counseled by Amy's teacher (Eve March) to have more patience with their only child. Longing for friends, Amy visits an eccentric old lady, Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean), but she also begins to see the kindly ghost of Irena, who comforts her when she feels most rejected and alone. When Amy follows Irena into a winter storm, she encounters real peril, especially when her arrival at Mrs. Farren's house leads to tragedy.

RKO wanted a sequel to Cat People to cash in on the low-budget horror's success, but as always Val Lewton had something different in mind. Instead of another story of sexual repression and bestial transformation, The Curse of the Cat People offers a ghostly fairy tale that delves into the psychology of children and their imaginary friends. Amy is a sad Alice wandering through a dismal Wonderland, where adults make little sense with their contradictory commands to believe and not believe what they tell her. Rejected by other children and keenly aware of her failure to be the child her father expects, Amy feels drawn toward Irena, who becomes a friendly playmate and confidante. We never know for sure if Irena is real or imaginary; she tells Amy things that suggest knowledge that Amy couldn't possibly have, but the ambiguity is typical of Lewton's best films.

Whether she's a cat woman, an imaginary friend, or a sympathetic ghost, Irena is never the source of terror in this story. The most frightening characters are Mrs. Farren and her daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), who make for a Gothic duo of feminine domestic dysfunction. Mrs. Farren likes Amy, but she's clearly mad, fashioned in the Miss Havisham mold in her creepy Victorian home. Russell, who had appeared briefly as a fellow Serbian cat woman in Cat People, here has a larger and more tragic role as the daughter whom Mrs. Farren rejects as an impostor, claiming that her real daughter died years ago. Jealous of Amy and driven to the edge of insanity by her isolation and suffering, Barbara swears she will murder the little girl for usurping Mrs. Farren's affection. Ironically, Barbara serves mostly as a foil for Amy, showing the consequences of parental rejection and neglect. Unless Oliver and Alice change their ways, Amy might become as damaged as Barbara, even if Barbara doesn't kill her. The ending underlines the ways in which Irena, Amy, and Barbara are all connected, and if it doesn't put a lump in your throat you haven't been paying attention.

Oddly enough, The Curse of the Cat People is also a Christmas movie, and it hints at Lewton's deeply literate sense of story with its references to Irving's Sleepy Hollow and the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson. For more of Lewton's eerie best, see I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), and Bedlam (1946). Ann Carter's other work as a child actor includes The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) and Song of Love (1947), but she made her final film appearance at the tender age of 16. Look for the bewitching Simone Simon in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and La Ronde (1950), and see Kent Smith in The Spiral Staircase (1945) and The Damned Don't Cry (1950). If you want more classic horror with Elizabeth Russell, try The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and Weird Woman (1944); she also has an uncredited role as a ghost in The Uninvited (1944).