Posts Tagged ‘Horror’

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.

With Mother’s Day soon approaching, I thought I would review a film about the relationship between mother and child. Which film, though? Finding a suitable candidate shouldn’t be too much trouble; after all, there are countless memorable screen mothers to choose from. I could write about Bambi’s mom… but she meets an untimely end that managed to traumatize an entire generation of children. I could write about Kevin McCallister’s mom… but she misplaces her son when she goes on vacation, twice. I could write about Norman Bates’ mom… but he murders her and dresses up in her clothes when he kills women he likes. I guess there is no perfect mother-child relationship. So how about we go with an exceedingly unusual one, the relationship between living child and zombie mother, as featured in the cult favorite Dead Alive (originally titled Braindead)?

Set in 1950s New Zealand, Dead Alive centers on the blossoming romance between a gentle young man, Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme), and the exotic woman he fancies, Paquita (Diana Peñalver). Lionel’s mother (Elizabeth Moody), however, is displeased with the relationship. No relationship will ever do, really, as she selfishly wishes to keep her son all to herself. Unfortunately for Paquita, Lionel appears content wriggling about the few millimeters between the ground and his heavy-handed mother’s weighty thumb. Things are further complicated when Lionel’s mother is accidentally bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey (yes, you read that right) and develops a nasty case of zombititus. Lionel, the loving son that he is, ultimately decides to tend to his zombie mother and her exponentially growing number of flesh-chomping victims, while simultaneously continuing to woo an oblivious Paquita.

Quirky premise? By golly, yes. Outlandish situations? Most certainly. Too much nonsense for one film? I suppose it would have been, had it not proved to be so many buckets of fun! And blood. Lots of blood. To be sure, Dead Alive is a gory, gory romp. Still, director Peter Jackson, of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) fame, makes it work because he is fully cognizant of the material he’s working with, masterfully harnessing its utter preposterousness. With its tongue firmly in cheek, Dead Alive is stylishly reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s earlier, yet equally enjoyable, The Evil Dead trilogy (1981-1992). A word of warning, though: packing an unholy amount of gore, Dead Alive is not for those who get woozy at the sight of a single drop of blood. However, special effects remain delightfully shoddy, so queasy stomachs shouldn’t be too bothered. Another plus: unlike most of its horror kin, Dead Alive has the decency to avoid ending with a sequel-setting cliffhanger.

According to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (in Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, 1930), overbearing mothers mess up their children by rousing within them an insatiable appetite for affection. Despite this dire prediction, Lionel appears to have survived his mother’s suffocating approach to parenting, at least to a certain extent. He has been dominated by his mother his entire life, even throughout adulthood. During the film’s over-the-top crescendo, he is literally consumed by her. But with a few swift and cathartic waves of a knife, Lionel manages to escape his mother’s entrails for the second time in his life (this time definitively leaving the proverbial umbilical cord behind). He emerges a new, independent man. Now, what is Mother’s Day if not the celebration of mothers who have successfully raised self-reliant children who would, if brought to it, viciously slay their zombified carcasses in self-affirmation?

Have you ever wondered what George Cukor’s The Women (1939) would be like if it were remade into a horror film? Well, look no further than 2005’s The Descent, a film that bears much resemblance to Cukor’s film in that both feature an all-female cast dealing with mostly male-related difficulties. Of course, the former tries to tickle your funny bone, whereas the other tries to scare you witless. Directed by Neil Marshall, this British film is a brutish one. It tells the story of six daredevils who, in search of their next adrenaline rush, have traveled to North Carolina to explore the caves that course below the Appalachian Mountains. At first unaware that one of their own has selected an unmapped system as the site of their next adventure, the group ends up lost deep inside the bowels of the earth and threatened by cave-dwelling creatures.

The Descent features no male characters, with the exception of a short-lived appearance by one in the prologue. Although there are no human males in the film, the majority of the subterranean creatures appear male-like. At first terrified by their assailants, the women eventually find their bearings, band together, and turn against them. In this way, The Descent is permeated by an implied, but never explicit sense of “female power.” Indeed, you might find yourself humming Helen Reddy’s I am Woman as the women fight back, even if the film wouldn’t stoop so low as to play it on the soundtrack. Still, it is odd to feel invigorated and empowered at the same time as feeling scared stiff and hopeless. Perhaps, then, the male-populated, labyrinthine caves in which the female protagonists are trapped are meant to symbolize the maze of patriarchal nonsense that women must traverse daily in order to be recognized as equals.

I am not a fan of horror films. Many of them amount to cinematic swill. They are often poorly constructed and typically struggle to elicit well-deserved frights within audiences. As in any genre, however, the genre itself is rarely to blame; instead, the execution is at fault. I believe (at least in theory) that any premise could become the subject of a great movie, provided it is adapted properly. (Yes, that includes a live-action adaptation of Yogi Bear. Did not a bunch of toys just earn an Oscar nomination for best picture?) Having said this, The Descent does not let its audience down. Indeed, this film exemplifies the best of what the horror genre can offer. While its premise is not as ingenious as, say, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the film takes full advantage of its straightforward plot and single setting. Indeed, an otherwise simple premise is so brilliantly executed that it becomes inspired.

From a technical standpoint, there are many elegant visuals on display. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy rises to the challenge of working within a dark, constricted setting by ingeniously utilizing lighting in ways that effectively texture the film. Conferring an ominous tone onto the journey, light, emanating from a variety of sources, alternates between white and more off-putting colors like green, purple, and red. Also, dabs of light are often surrounded by pitch darkness, which helps foster a sense of claustrophobia.

The Descent is not for the faint of heart, amounting to 99 uncomfortable minutes of squirming and repeated cries for mommy. The fact that I was terrified out of my wits while watching it on my magnormous 22-inch television is a credit to its effectiveness. I must embarrass myself further by confessing that one scene in particular haunted my dreams for well too many nights. At one point during the film, the women are submerged in total darkness. We hear one of them reaching around for her video camera. As soon as she finds it, she enables the night-vision feature. Spinning around, she focuses on one of her friends. It is then that we are treated to the very first close-up shot of exactly what the women are up against. The composition of the scene is unsettling: there stands the creature, leering motionless over the poor, unsuspecting girl. It is a momentary and almost static scene, but its impact is lasting. Indeed, shivers riddle my body just writing about it.

Some may consider The Descent’s ending slightly manipulative. Nonetheless, it serves to highlight one of the most prominent emotions felt by the characters during their ordeal: despair. Just in case we hadn’t felt it during the beginning and middle acts of the film, the ending makes sure we do. Indeed, the ending packs so much of an emotional wallop that American audiences were spared from it during the film’s original theatrical release. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), we are treated to the original ending on the uncut DVD. Should you find yourself brave enough to watch The Descent, one word of advice: when night falls and slumber beckons, think plenty of happy thoughts before crawling into bed and diving into the cavernous depths of your subconscious.

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