CAT PEOPLE/CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE
Review by Ed Nguyen
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
children are playing alone on the green,
comes the playmate that never was seen.
children are happy and lonely and good,
Friend of the Children comes out of the wood.
The Unseen Playmate, by
Robert Louis Stevenson
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
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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."
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
RKO studio bosses took notice once the box office returns started to pour in for
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
is clear in these monaural soundtracks, although there is occasional background
hiss and crackling. Sound is
acceptable but not extraordinary for these vintage films.
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.
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.
Simon's comments are rare but offer her personal opinions of the films as well
as a few anecdotes from the productions.
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.
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.