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Jun 13

Cat People (1942) & The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Cat People belongs to a rare breed of horror films. Even with seven decades’ worth of similarly genred pictures to choose from since its initial release, you would be hard pressed to find as thoughtful and engaging a horror film as Cat People. Director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton’s achievement is made all the more remarkable when considering the film’s utterly absurd premise. Indeed, as far as preposterous premises go, Cat People takes the cake. The story follows Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a woman who believes she is the descendant of a cursed line of humans who turn into felids when sexually aroused (or in the grips of caustic emotional states, like anger or jealousy). While sketching a black panther at the Central Park Zoo, Irena meets Oliver (Kent Smith), a genial and handsome architect. The two begin to fall for each other, a bittersweet development for Irena given her, shall we say, predicament. Luckily for Irena, Oliver remains interested even though she refuses to sleep with him. Enter Alice (Jane Randolph), Oliver’s friendly and attractive assistant. Perhaps sensibly, Irena comes to perceive Alice as a threat, a woman able to offer Oliver what she cannot.

Clocking in at just around 70 minutes, Cat People achieves a number of feats in its short runtime. Despite the film weaving a totally outrageous tale, watching it does not test one’s credulity as much as it probably should. This is achieved mainly thanks to the understated treatment of Irena’s supernatural dilemma. We are never told or shown too much—additional details or sights that might cause us to unsuspend disbelief—a move that keeps our tenuous acceptance of Irena’s fears close to intact.

Suspension of disbelief is also kept uninterrupted thanks to a meticulously fashioned atmosphere within which we are brought to accept the existence of cat people as vaguely plausible. Indeed, a nebulous, yet unyielding, sense of implicit danger and supernatural enchantment pervades the film, an impression that weighs down on our critical judgment and unfetters the imagination. On two occasions, Tourneur dips into this hazy sense of eeriness and gathers it into a palpably terrifying scene, the emotional fallout of these moments subsequently feeding back into the film’s overall ambiance.

The first such scene sees Alice walking down a deserted street late at night. Hearing footsteps tailing hers, Alice keeps turning around to see whom they belong to. But because she is walking along a curved stone wall bordering (what appears to be) Central Park, she can only see up to a few meters behind her. Although we are privy to the fact that it is, in fact, Irena who is following Alice, we sense that something—and almost certainly not someone—is lurking just around the bend in the road, right out of eyeshot. It is almost as if Alice is being stalked. And not by a human predator. Because Alice just cannot catch a break, Cat People’s second hair-raising scene also happens to feature the young architectural assistant. In it, Alice goes for a swim in the basement pool of her health club. While undressing in the empty locker room, she hears something (definitely not someone this time) coming down the stairs. Frightened, she runs to the pool and jumps in. Since only the pool lights have been turned on, Alice is trapped in a glowing rectangle, surrounded by darkness broken only by the billowing reflections from the water upon the walls and ceiling. Within the shadows, a growling presence appears to be pacing back and forth. It is almost as if Alice has been cornered.

Incredibly adept at suggestively creating and maintaining tension, Cat People looks and feels like an A movie. Some of its dialogue, however, occasionally drags it down to B-level territory. While willfully clever at times, the film’s screenplay (penned by DeWitt Bodeen) is also speckled with unintentionally comical lines. The hardest scene to get through without cracking up involves Oliver expressing how sincerely confused he is by Irena’s emotional troubles, how utterly incapable he is of helping her through them, because he himself, either as a child or as an adult, has never known genuine sorrow: “You know, it’s a funny thing: I’ve never been unhappy before. Things have always gone swell for me. I had a grand time as a kid, lots of fun at school, here at the office with you and the Commodore and Doc. That’s why I don’t know what to do about all this. I’ve just never been unhappy…”

Verbalized in a slow and labored fashion, Oliver’s dawning realization that Irena may require the services of a shrink is also hard to remain straight-faced at: “Irena, I’ve been trying to kid you out of it. Maybe that’s wrong… I’ve tried to make you realize all these stories that worry you are so much nonsense, but now I see it’s not the stories. It’s the fact that you believe them. We’ve got to have help, Irena. (She glances at a religious effigy.) Not that sort of help. There’s something wrong and we have to face it in an intelligent way. We don’t need a King John with fire and sword. We need someone who can find the reason for your belief and cure it. That’s what we need… a psychiatrist.”

While the screenplay to Cat People sometimes has its characters say funny things, it takes the time to endow each individual with a distinct and relatively developed personality. Never does anyone come across as simply a “joke on legs.” And so, despite the funny things that sometimes cross Irena, Oliver, and Alice’s lips, we remain able to accept them as real, feeling persons—most of all Irena, whose agonizing sense of exclusion from normalcy and deep longing for acceptance is quite affecting.

Only two years after its release, Cat People spawned a sequel, titled The Curse of the Cat People. Directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise (who would go on to direct such varied classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951, West Side Story, 1961, and The Sound of Music, 1965), and again produced by Lewton, Curse of the Cat People is a curious sequel, in that its story feels very little like a formal continuation of its predecessors’ and more like an altogether independent one.

To be sure, the two chapters of the Cat People saga share some common elements. Most obviously, both feature the same central characters: Irena, Oliver, and Alice. In addition, four particular motifs repeat themselves. The two films center around social misfits who, not yet having found their place in the world, are struggling with a sense of loneliness. Both films build rich atmospheres, one emphasizing terror and the other childlike wonder. Both films include a side-character who happens to be a professional on some type of human behavior: a psychoanalytic psychiatrist in the first outing, and a schoolteacher in the second. Lastly, both films make use of modern vehicular technology to convey natural, animal sounds: in Cat People, a breaking bus screeches like a panther’s roar, and in Curse of the Cat People, an approaching truck clip-clops like a set of horses pulling a carriage. While the two films boast common elements, however, these are not enough to override the sense of “disconnect” between the two plots.

The lack of formal continuity between the two films’ stories is so striking that movie critic Bosley Crowther, writing for The New York Times, ventures in his 1944 review of Curse of the Cat People: “[Its] RKO producers have injected some horror elements and have tried to pretend that it is a sequel to their Cat People of a year or so back.” Even the summary on the back cover of the Curse of the Cat People DVD case describes the film as “a sequel in title” (as opposed to, presumably, “in story”). Instead of building on the story set forth in Cat People—by, for instance, choosing to explore some of the less developed elements found within it—Curse of the Cat People veers into a completely different narrative direction. Indeed, the sequel could very well have worked as a standalone picture, featuring another, “feline-free” title, as well as other, equivalent characters in the place of the original’s trio.

That being said, Bodeen (returning as screenwriter) should be commended for—in his attempt to fashion a follow-up to his own Cat People—doing more than simply replicating “what worked the first time around,” something most franchise extensions often, rather lazily, limit themselves to. Bodeen uses Curse of the Cat People as an opportunity to explore the psychological and relational aftermath which might naturally ensue from directly experiencing the supernatural. This is an interesting idea, which could have securely connected the continuing story to that of the original. But because Bodeen’s “study” unfolds along a narrative that, concretely, has very little to do with the events of Cat People, it, in the end, manages to forge only a tenuous bond between the two tales.

While Curse of the Cat People does not very much work as a sequel to Cat People, it is important to note that, experienced not as a continuation of a prior story but as an original one, it is an excellent film. The story follows the adventures of Oliver and Alice’s young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter). To Oliver’s dismay, Amy has a very active imagination. The child’s penchant for living in a fantasy world is, however, rendered more worrisome when she confesses the name of her latest imaginary friend: Irena. The fact that Amy does have one real friend is no consolation: Mrs. Julia Farren (Julia Dean) is an elderly widow who lives in a sinister looking house with her daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell). Convinced Barbara is an imposter, Mrs. Farren begins to offer Amy the affection she has (as a result of her Capgras delusion) long stopped offering her own daughter. Fearing a widening of the chasm separating her from her confused mother, Barbara becomes increasingly jealous of her surrogate.

Curse of the Cat People’s main achievement lies in how it gives life to Amy’s fantasy world. In many ways, the alternate dimension experienced by Amy is similar to the underworld visited by Ofelia in El laberinto del fauno (del Toro, 2006). In both films, the protagonist’s fantasy world is simultaneously developed, on the one hand, as a shelter from reality and, on the other, as a genuine realm beyond it. We are also, in both cases, left in doubt regarding the authenticity of the protagonist’s visions. It is true there is nothing inherently scary about blurring the line between fact and fiction (although this can be a little unsettling). But if Curse of the Cat People fails at horror, it is only because of its title and the expectations it raises. Taken on its own terms, it more than succeeds as both a portrait of a child and a mindset. Indeed, the film (best described as of the fantasy variety) successfully evokes the feeling of being a child, of having such an open mind that anything becomes possible—and, as one interpretation of the story suggests, that “higher truths” suddenly become available to us.

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