The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: June 26th, 2018
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
We’re never afraid quite like we are as children, when the world is big, wide, wonderful, and terrifying, often all at once. It’s a strange state of being, one where our natural curiosity meets our wide-eyed terror at an equal level, leaving us almost powerless against the horrors of the world: we can’t help but experience them no matter how much we should want to turn away from them. Eventually, we learn to juggle both wonder and fear, but as a child, the two are inexorably intermingled. Few films capture this paradox better than The Curse of the Cat People, Val Lewton’s bizarre follow-up to his previous hit about a woman doomed by her ancestry. Far from a traditional sequel, it’s more apt to say it folds the mythology of Cat People into a childhood fable about one girl’s attempt to not only reckon with both the wonder and terror surrounding her but also
Amy Reed (Ann Carter) is considered to be a strange child to those around her: classmates insist that she’s too flighty and weird to play with, while her father Oliver (Kent Smith) worries that she may have somehow inherited such strangeness from his association with his tragically deceased first wife, Irena (Simone Simon). Her teacher (Eve March) and mother (Jane Randolph) recognize her flights of fancy as typical for a 6-year-old, and largely leave her to her own devices, allowing her to roam about the nearby town. One day, her traipsing carries her to the Farren house, the foreboding neighborhood haunt that spooks away most children. Not Amy, though, who soon finds herself within its walls, befriending Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean), an aging actress whose possible dementia has left her estranged from her daughter (Elizabeth Russell). As the elder Farren regales Amy with ghastly tales of neighboring Sleepy Hollow, she gifts her a ring that she claims will grant any wish. Perhaps with the ghost story lore still lingering on her brain, she conjures up an imaginary friend inspired by Irena’s photograph.
When Irena actually appears before Amy, the film treats it ambiguously by refusing to confirm whether she’s the product of a young girl’s imagination or an actual ghost, returned here to bond with the daughter she could never have. It’s that ambiguity that’s so striking about The Curse of the Cat People, a strange, elusive film that captures Amy’s alienation with this uncertainty, effectively prompting the audience to search their souls to recall a time when they, too, relied on such strange magic to make sense of the world. Many of us, I suspect, are more like her father, a good-hearted but skeptical man who’s had all the whimsy drained from his soul.
The central—and understandable—tension here arises when Oliver refuses to believe Amy’s story about Irena and grows increasingly frustrated at his daughter’s fantasy world. For him, it’s a bout of déjà vu, a painful reminder that he already watched one love of his life lose herself to a wild imagination. In many ways, The Curse of the Cat People is also about Oliver’s reconciliation, as he finds himself swept up into his child’s fanciful whims, drawn in once again by the allure of the perpetually enigmatic Irena. Simone Simon haunts the movie with an indelible presence, her sad eyes clouded with a melancholy longing. “I come from a place of great darkness and deep peace,” she explains to Amy, later adding that “no one can follow” her, effectively adding a faint touch of gloom that all children must eventually sense, even if they can’t comprehend it.
That recognition is a part of Amy’s tale here, and co-directors Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise appropriately lend a storybook quality to it. Lewton’s signature chiaroscuro palette glimmers with a childlike enchantment here: where most of his productions are awash in menacing shadows and fog, The Curse of the Cat People is haunting in the way it offers a glimmer of fading nostalgia and whimsy. Nearly every frame is slightly unreal, almost as if this were a child’s recollection of a dream: it’s gorgeous in its otherworldly lucidity and its picture-perfect compositions, with each new scene giving the impression of turning through a meticulously crafted picture book. Like a fairy tale that descends into a nightmare, The Curse of the Cat People is uncannily sublime in the way it intertwines astonishment with anxiety. Eventually, those shadows do creep up and threaten to encroach upon the purity of Amy’s innocence.
Perhaps fittingly, those shadows lengthen most noticeably around Christmas, the most magical time of year for children. It arrives here full of grace, with a radiant snowfall, cheerful carolers, and a comforting fire on the hearth. Every image is fit for a vintage Christmas card and captures the coziness of a bygone era, at least until the lonely, melancholy strains of the season slink in. A shot of Irena standing alone, looking upon the festivities is especially striking in its sadness and made all the more so by Oliver’s refusal to indulge Amy’s fantasies. Things notably take a sharp turn as the evening’s merriments fade away: you can practically see the embers dying on the fire as Oliver takes down the decorations, effectively mirroring his threat to strip away the magic from his daughter’s life. It’s a fleeting shot, but it masterfully conveys the bummer vibes of Christmas evening, when everyone has left, leaving you with an empty house and a strong case of denial.
The Curse of the Cat People dwells on this achingly bittersweet note and eventually has it to resound to melodramatic levels once Amy flees her home and retreats to the lovely, dark, and deep surroundings. Suddenly, that old bridge from the Sleepy Hollow legend feels truly menacing, as does the Farren house, now revealing its full, gothic potential during the curious climax here. Both story threads merge quite literally as Amy must confront true ugliness of death and jealousy as Mrs. Farren’s daughter—who may not be her daughter at all if the old woman is to be believed—must also confront the unbearable loneliness lurking in her soul. That we’re never sure about the particulars of the Farren’s relationship doesn’t matter; what’s more important is that she and Amy recognize each other as kindred, alienated spirits, brought together here by the actual spirit of Irena.
There’s something wonderfully poignant about the resolution here, which captures the intangible profundity of a Joycean epiphany. Something aches deep in your soul here as you witness a coming-of-age tale quite unlike any other, one that insists on allowing its child protagonist to cling to some semblance of magic and wonder in the face of terror. Christmas ends, but it does so with the reassurance that it will return, diminished though it may be—after all, the film’s final image pointedly finds Irena fading away, leaving you to wonder if there’s no real magic.
When the Criterion Collection announced the original Cat People a couple of years ago, I thought they missed an easy trick by not including Curse as a supplement; luckily, Scream Factory has rectified the situation with its own standalone Blu-ray release. In addition to featuring a stellar transfer, the disc sports a decent amount of special features, including two audio commentaries from film historians Steve Haberman and Greg Mank (who is accompanied by interview excerpts from Simon). Shadows in the Dark documentarian Constantine Nasir provides a newly-produced 30-minute video essay detailing the life and career of Simon, while Tom Weaver moderates a new interview with actress Carter. Some theatrical trailers and stills gallery completes the disc, which represents an exciting foray into classic horror—and Lewton’s legacy specifically—for Scream Factory.
Even if it didn’t include any newly produced extras, it’d be among my favorite releases of the year since The Curse of the Cat People ranks among my favorite discoveries from the past decade. Some will be quick to note that it’s not a “true” horror movie, but I find it more haunting than most in the way it rattles in my mind for days after watching it. While its somewhat tumultuous production (RKO insisted that this largely original tale be a Cat People sequel) gives it a bit of a disjointed quality, it doesn’t matter—this is a movie that resonates deep within the soul by stirring up the distant sensation of childhood that lingers like a phantom limb. If the very thought of it didn't absolutely wreck me, I would watch The Curse of the Cat People every Christmas night, where it'd be the perfect compliment to the magic slipping away into the twilight of the holiday season. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: