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CAT PEOPLE/CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Simone Simon, Ann Carter, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Elizabeth Russell
Directors: Jacques Tourneur, Gunther Von Fritsch, Robert Wise
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-screen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Commentary tracks, trailers
Length: 143 minutes
Release Date: October 4, 2005

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.

- The Unseen Playmate, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Films ****

August 21, 1942 was a day of note for Val Lewton, RKO's promising new film producer.  It marked the completion of principal photography for Lewton's first effort, Cat People, and while post-production would continue for several more months, Lewton was certain that his director Jacques Tourneur and he had created a fine film together.  Unfortunately, Lewton was less certain how audiences would react to his revisionist take on the horror genre.  After all, Cat People was a horror film without monsters, blood, or extensive special effects.

An early screening for RKO's studio bosses had not gone well at all.  Furthermore, at Cat People's first exhibition for a preview audience, Lewton was crushed to discover that his meticulously-crafted film was being preceded by a cheerful Disney cartoon about a cute little cat.  When the audience even began to make mocking little meow sounds during the cartoon, sheer dread gripped the novice producer, who was in attendance.  However, once the lights dimmed and Cat People began in earnest, a strange thing occurred.  The audience grew deathly quiet, and soon uneasy shrieks and nervous gasps began to emanate from the audience at all the appropriate moments.

The preview was not an unmitigated disaster as Lewton had feared, and after Cat People was theatrically released in December 1942, positive word of mouth about this frightening film quickly spread.  This little film with no budget would become a smash hit, virtually saving RKO from near-bankruptcy (just as a horror film about another furry critter, an ape in that instance, had done one decade earlier for the studio).

Cat People represented a new brand of thriller - the psychological horror film.  The film's "high concept" revolved around a race of Serbian people forever doomed to transform into murderous big cats (leopards, panthers, etc.) during moments of extreme, aroused emotions.  In the film, an American man, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), falls in love with and marries a foreign woman, Irena Dubrovna, who is possessed by atavistic fears, rational or not, that she is descended from just such an inhuman race.

Irena is a Balkan-born dress designer now living in the urban jungle known as Manhattan.  She is a loner, having never known true love or sincere companionship.  French stage and screen star Simone Simon was signed to portray the conflicted young woman, and her foreign mannerisms only accentuate Irena's own sense of alienation and solitude.

To further stress the sensational aspects of the film's title, feline imagery abounds in this film.  Tiger lilies decorate a florist shop.  A Goya painting of cats adorns the wall in Irena's apartment.  A statue of the cat-like god resides in a museum.  When Irena is first introduced, she is drawing a portrait of a caged black leopard; this same animal will hypnotically draw Irena back again and again throughout the film as though fixating upon her mind that she is kindred to this great feline.

Despite the film's ludicrous premise, at its core it remains a tragedy, not so much for Irena's growing fatalism but more so for Oliver's cruel abandonment of her during her time of need.  Instead of offering comfort and support for his new wife as she struggles to confront and overcome her fears, Oliver unfaithfully runs into the open arms of a seemingly less complicated female co-worker, Alice (Jane Randolph).  However, Alice is, in her own words, "the new type of other woman" and ultimately somewhat predatory in her opportunism, too. 

In one sense, Irena may be seen as the film's villainess, a woman who may be perhaps exactly what she believes herself to be - a vicious cat-woman.  On the other hand, Oliver can be viewed as the villain.  After all, his insensitive actions (or inactions) drive Irena from the normalcy of her quiet life along an unstable, emotional path that leads to the film's poignant, if inevitable, outcome.  Jealousy and the rage of a woman scorned perhaps play as much a role in providing the narrative suspense in Cat People as any suggestion that Irena is a true monster in disguise.

Cat People is generally attributed with having the grand-daddy of all "boo!" moments in horror films.  Lewton called such sudden moments of terror "busses" and included them in his films whenever possible.  In one of Cat People's most sequences, an apprehensive Alice is walking along a dark and lonely sidewalk, fearful that she is being stalked by an as-yet-unseen beast.  Suddenly, there is a loud cat-like scream on the soundtrack.  The inference is that something terrible is about to leap out of the shadows and attack Alice...when in reality the sound is merely the shriek of brakes as a bus suddenly appears into the frame and comes to a halt before a visibly relieved Alice.  Hence, the "bus" scene.

Such "boo!" moments are now familiar territory for horror films, but Lewton is to be thanked for devising this supreme "smoke and mirrors" technique of creating terror.  Of course, Cat People succeeds not just because of one or two cheap thrills.  It is a triumph of psychological suggestion further heightened by director Tourneur's distinctive usage of shadows and evocative cinematography to impress upon audiences a sense of growing, nightmarish unease.

After the success of Cat People, Val Lewton had very little time to rest.  Lewton's superior at RKO, Charles Koerner, was a non-visionary and a dullard, and he seemed to take a perverse delight in dreaming up preposterous titles for Lewton's films.  Even before shooting had started on Cat People, Koerner had already informed the dumbstruck producer that his next project would be based on a lurid article by columnist Inez Wallace called "I Walked with a Zombie."  As Lewton's own wife would admit later, "I would never go to see a movie called I Walked with a Zombie unless someone dragged me there."

Production on Lewton's third film, The Leopard Man, started only four months after the completion of shooting for Cat People.  In terms of style, photography, and ambiance, The Leopard Man might truly be considered the sequel to Cat People.  However, as Cat People had still to be theatrically released, no one at RKO yet possessed any inkling of the true impact either of Lewton's first two films would have.

The RKO studio bosses took notice once the box office returns started to pour in for Cat People.  Talks of a sequel were quickly in the works, and soon, Koerner delivered another outrageous title to Lewton - Curse of the Cat People.  Lewton originally resisted the idea of a sequel (after all, Cat People had been a completely self-contained film which left no room for a sequel), but Koerner was insistent.

So once again, Cat People's three main characters were reassembled for the new film.  Curse of the Cat People would take place several years after the events of the first film.  Oliver and Alice, hold-overs from Cat People, would now be a married couple with a young daughter, Amy, living in the sleepy hollow rural milieu of Tarrytown.  As for the mysterious "cat-woman" herself, her image would appear in paintings or old photographs scattered about the house.  More significantly, "Irena" would become young Amy's new imaginary friend.

The original director for Curse of the Cat People was Gunther Von Fritsch, a talented but overly fastidious documentarian.  Von Fritsch failed to grasp the nuances of expedient, budgetary filmmaking, and when principal photography slowed to a crawl, jittery RKO studio bosses became very anxious about cost overruns.  They finally presented Lewton with an ultimatum - fire Von Fritsch or...fire Von Fritsch.  Robert Wise, originally the film's editor, took over directorial duties, in the process learning valuable lessons about filmmaking which would later appear in his first full feature as director, the highly successful The Body Snatcher.

In truth, Curse of the Cat People is a wonderful and sweet film about childhood that suffers greatly from its misleading official title.  Its true and secret name, one supported by Lewton and even uttered in the film several times, is Amy and Her Friend, a more accurate description of the film and its gentle tone.  As Amy, Ann Carter even provides one of the great child performances on film, an unforgettable and poignant portrayal of loneliness and longing.

Unfortunately, Amy's father, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), is the same stupid fellow who apparently didn't learn much from his first marriage to Irena in Cat People.  Now an impatient and oblivious parent, he is frustrated that Amy seems to exist in her own dreamy world of imagination (this, of course, from a man convinced that his first wife had been a big cat out to kill him).  Paradoxically, in Cat People, Oliver had accepted Irena's curse as real in the end, but in Curse of the Cat People, he disregards the whole matter as figments of his (or Irena's) overly-fervid imagination.  Having told his young daughter that the tree in their back yard is a "magical mailbox," Mr. Reed later expresses surprise and dismay when no one shows up for Amy's birthday party (obviously because Amy has placed all her invitation cards in a knob of the tree!).  Oliver later punishes Amy when she states that her new invisible friend is real and resembles Irena.  Mr. Reed is reacting less to his own child's obvious desire for companionship or even a more loving family environment and more so to his own lingering fears and guilt about his regrettable past.  Really, Reed, and not his daughter, is the confused individual in this film.  One might even suggest that again, as in Cat People, Oliver Reed, who should be supportive of those he purports to love, is again the true villain of Curse of the Cat People.

To be honest, the common link between Cat People and Curse of the Cat People is illusory at best.  The promotional campaign for this film featured such crazy taglines as "The Black Menace Creeps Again!" and "Sensational Return of the Killer-Cat Woman!"  These claims were outrageously misleading, the very antithesis of truth in advertising.  Any actual connection between the two films is purely cosmetic.  There are some stuffed cats in an old woman's house.  In one scene, a couple of boys chase a cat up a tree.  Oliver and Alice Reed are recurring characters from Cat People but are basically supporting characters in this film.  Oddly enough, pictures of Irena abound in the house, despite the Reeds' impression that she was not a particularly good person.  Furthermore, the suggestion that somehow the spirit of this presumably bad woman has returned to become Amy's pure-hearted imaginary playmate is ridiculous, as is Oliver's fear that she means Amy harm (contrasting his own stated belief that Amy's friend is only imaginary).  Again, Oliver reveals himself to be a confused parent who doesn't know what he believes.

Is Amy's friend real or not?  Does "Irena" even begin to possess one of the characters in this film, perhaps to continue her "evil" ways...or perhaps not?  These may seem like important questions helping to link the two films together, but ultimately, they are irrelevant and just red herrings.  The story is told almost entirely through Amy's point of view, and for Amy, her friend is truly good-hearted and indeed very real.  Amy's acceptance of her invisible friend may get Amy into trouble with her uncomprehending parents, but this friend becomes a guardian angel of sorts, providing Amy with the emotional support and nurturing that she really desires until her parents, especially her father, begin to reconcile their errors of judgment.

In short, while Cat People was a psychological horror film with a tragic romantic element, Curse of the Cat People was not a horror film at all but a poetic treatise on child psychology, dressed in evocative storybook imagery.  Influential author and critic James Agee even cited this film as 1944's best film.  When this "sequel" was shown to child psychologists in the 1940's, they applauded its themes and subject matter as sensitive depictions of how a child, especially a lonely one, might view the world.  But, they also expressed utter dismay at the dreadfully adolescent RKO title, too.

Rarely have a film and its sequel been more completely dissimilar.  Yet both films succeed wonderfully in their own unique ways.  These films are the mark of talented producer Val Lewton who, like his mentor David Selznick in the 1930's, was highly instrumental in keeping RKO alive in the 1940's.  Lewton repetitively circumvented his budgetary constraints and the narrow-mindedness of his studio bosses, and the results, a string of high-quality "horror" fare, have withstood the test of time.

Video **

These films have generally fine contrast levels in solid, detailed transfers.  There are no discernible black level breakups, although the mildly grainy prints used for the transfers are slightly worn with some inevitable age-related scratches and specks.

Audio **

Dialogue is clear in these monaural soundtracks, although there is occasional background hiss and crackling.  Sound is acceptable but not extraordinary for these vintage films.

Features ***

Commentaries are offered for both films by historian Greg Mank, with brief audio interview excerpts from Simone Simon.  Naturally, Mank provides the vast bulk of the comments.  Mank's remarks on Cat People and Curse of the Cat People are filled with lyrical passages providing a historical perspective about the production, themes, and tone of the films.  Listening to these commentaries is like listening to old-style radio broadcasts.  Mank also delights in debating the eroticism and supposed lesbianism of Cat People, themes which truthfully are only hinted at in this film but which are fully exploited to no end in Jerry Bruckheimer's wildly explicit 1982 softporn remake starring Nastassja Kinski.

Mank discusses the careers of various actors in the two films and also makes many references to Lewton's career at RKO as well as autobiographical allusions in Curse of the Cat People to Lewton's own life.  There are many other parallels, too, between characters and settings in Curse of the Cat People which Mank reveals in some details.  Of great interest are remarks about deleted scenes, including the original ending, which Lewton had disliked and had rewritten into the compassionate version that now concludes Curse of the Cat People.

Simone Simon's comments are rare but offer her personal opinions of the films as well as a few anecdotes from the productions.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Jane Randolph did not much care for Simone Simon at all, and the antagonism between the two women merely underscored their characters' dislike for one another in Cat People to great effect.

Summary:

Cat People and Curse of the Cat People offer a one-two knockout punch from the vibrant imagination of Val Lewton.  Check out these vintage RKO classics to experience some of the best that 1940's horror has to offer.

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