Friday, October 29, 2021

Cat People (1942) and Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Architect Oliver Reed meets immigrant Irena Dubrovna at the zoo, and there is an instant attraction. After a whirlwind courtship, the pair are married, but she has a dark secret. In the valley where she lived, there was a history of satanism and blasphemy, which is punished by cursing their descendants. Irena believes if she accepts the touch of a man, she will turn into a man eating panther. Oliver tries to shake this belief, but becomes frustrated, and falls into the arms of another. An enraged Irena tries to handle the situation, but may succumb to her animal instincts...

Cat People was released to mixed reviews, but has since gone down as one of classic horror's most evocative movies. It has inspired many, not only from its chills, and pioneering use of scares, but also its psychological angle.

The film is a more modern horror than many of the gothic contemporaries, making good use of its more urban setting. While a Dracula or Frankenstein movie might be set in ancient European castles, Cat People focuses on more mundane places, like swimming pools, and bus stops. This environment goes a long way to make it feel closer to home.

Our protagonist has an ambiguous mental state. For all we know, the whole cat story could genuinely be a delusion on her part. But the danger is still very real, as it might drive Irena to act on homicidal urges, justifying it in her mind by believing a cat inside her did it. It's only at the end that we see the truth. With this subtle take on the concept, Cat People isn't a film with big effects and transformations from human to feline. Instead it leaves much to our imagination.

Cat People is known for its rich sexual subtext. Being from the 1940s, the movie never comes right out and says "If Irena has sex, she becomes a cat!", but it's gotten across easily enough, and the subtlety is a great help. There are a few things one could read from the film, from themes of sexual repression, and the powers or dangers of sexual liberation.

Cat People isn't the most intense of movies in terms of violence. Not a surprise, given the period. As for the tone, it's full of atmosphere, although this can take a hit during some of the more mundane sections. If anyone goes into Cat People expecting a full-on horror film where people are torn to shreds left right and centre, they're gonna be disappointed. In a way it's more of a supernatural drama.

This leads into my biggest issue with the film. As good as Cat People is, it's just not a fun movie, at all. Everyone is miserable all the time, and the mood is sombre. This isn't a bad thing, or a criticism, but just note that if you're in the mood for a horror film to entertain you, you're better off with a Vincent Price movie.

Cat People is a character driven piece for sure. Irena is a great protagonist. Burdened with a negative psychology, we see how it affects her, and while we're never sure if her fear is real, we at least believe she thinks so, which is important for our connection with her to work.

Oliver meanwhile starts off likeable enough, and the fact that he sees no problem dating a foreign girl is points in his favour! Where he dips though is where the movie was at its least enjoyable for me though. It's understandably frustrating to fall in love and get married to a girl, then she refuses to have sex, for what sounds like a crazy reason. But Oliver's response is to basically give up on her and begin hooking up with another woman! No sooner than the ink has dried on their marriage certificate and he's already looking at divorce papers. He also comes off as hypocritical, and whenever he does something wrong, he insists Irena should forgive him.

His new girlfriend Alice is a nice enough girl, but again, her part in this relationship takes her down a few pegs. As Oliver says to her in one scene, "All this trouble has made me think I don't know what love really is". How convenient that you only say this when you fancy another woman. Both clearly want to bang each-other, but are trying to soothe their guilty consciences by acting like theirs is true love, and Irena was just a passing fancy, so there should be no hard feelings for her.

Perhaps their worst moment is when Oliver takes both Irena and Alice to a museum, where he says: "I'm afraid this is dull for Irena"-"Look darling, there are some beautiful models upstairs. Why don't you take a look at them?"-"But I like these little boats. I want to be with you. Don't send me away." -"Oh, we're not sending you away, we just don't want you to be bored. We'll meet you in the main lobby in an hour." These two are assholes!

The last major character is Dr. Judd, who is fascinated by his new patient's case. He also proves himself a cad when he accuses Irena of lying, and tries putting the moves on her (someone didn't attend doctor-patient relationship courses!). It's his actions that really set the climactic events in motion.

Cat People was directed by Jacques Tourneur, which I always forget! Val Lewton had such a big hand in his movies you often forget he was just a producer. Tourneur was an accomplished director, and this shows some of his best work, with well-framed sequences, and a great use of shadow.

Simone Simon delivers a melancholic and understated performance, capturing the character's personality well. Kent Smith and Jane Randolph both do good jobs, even when I hoped they'd get eaten. Tom Conway is effective as the seemingly affable doctor. Elizabeth Russell has a fantastic cameo, and one of the most remembered scenes in the film. She gives off a unique and almost ethereal look, which stays in the mind.

One last thing to mention is the film's use of Serbia! It's a nice touch, especially since most Americans of the time (or indeed now) couldn't place Serbia on the map. To have a lead character from there must have been a delight for any Serbs watching! Yugoslav filmakers such as Dušan Makavejev have since commented on the film, and its themes, and how they relate to the Balkan countries.

Cat People remains one of horror's beloved classics, and a capstone in Val Lewton's career. Definitely a must watch for all horror fans...

Curse of the Cat People

Amy is the 7 year old daughter of Oliver and Alice Reed, and is a lonely child. Ignored or bullied by other kids, she finds solace in imaginary friends and fairy tales, until one day she meets the friendly spirit Irena. Her parents are concerned about their daughter's behaviour, and scared when they discover her new friend's name. They try to discourage her, but Amy is determined to hold on ...

When Val Lewton was contracted to make a sequel to Cat People, he didn't want to just repeat himself, even in genre. His follow-up Curse of the Cat People is notable in that it's more of a childhood fantasy than horror. It continues the story in an interesting way, with a different focus. It's a perfect antidote to the glum feeling the first movie leaves. That ended on an effective but sombre note, while this provides a sense of closure and happiness for Irena, that she really deserves after all the crap she went through.

Lewton wanted to call the film Amy and Her Friend, but the studio wanted to capitalise on the original. This has lead to some feeling tricked into expecting a horror film. It is true, there is no curse, nor are there any cat people. But it is still a sequel, so it's not that inappropriate a title. I feel people would be more confused if they went in with no prior context at all, thinking it might just be a random kids' film. Amy and Her Friend is a decent title, albeit a little obvious, and doesn't give off any supernatural vibes.

Set in New England, Curse of the Cat People explores the local mythology, such as the tale of the Headless Horseman. These give the film character, and really flesh out the setting. They also aid in giving the film a slight dark side. This is a good introduction to the horror genre for children, giving them enough spooky chills without going overboard.

Amy is a great protagonist. Fanciful and introverted, she's not good at making new friends, and this is somewhat seen as a flaw, but it doesn't help that many of her fellow kids are little shits! They delight in teasing Amy, yet get offended at not receiving invitations to her birthday. As if you would have come anyway! The friendships Amy does make over the course of the film, real and 'imaginary' are very sweet.

Curse of the Cat People was quite an autobiographical film for Val Lewton, who put some of his own childhood experiences into Amy's story, such as her mailing letters inside a tree hollow. This is a nice bit of trivia, that really heightens the movie, and makes you feel the genuine emotions poured into it.

Oliver is once again the wet blanket of the story. Despite realising at the end of the last movie that Irena told the truth about everything (which also meant that him ditching her and her eventual death was entirely his fault, instead of only partially, as he first thought), Oliver is back to being a hardened skeptic. He is never happy with his daughter's actions, and punishes her unless she gives the answers he wants. And when he realises who her new friend is, he decides tough love is needed, and he burns Irena's photos! Isn't it bad enough you've completely regressed, without burning your deceased wife's mementos? His attitude towards Irena is back to disbelief, acting like bad things happened because she lied. Funny, considering the last film ends with the words "She never lied"!

Alice's role is fairly small, and it's eyebrow-raising when Oliver is spanking Amy off screen, and when a teacher is concerned, Alice says how she can't interfere. You're her mother, of course it's your place! Go up there and smack the bastard one, he's the one who needs some discipline!

Oliver also gets some amusing bad parenting moments, like when he shouts to Amy "I'm not shouting at you!", or accusing his wife of spoiling Amy when she's right there! And there's one of those awkward moments when adults are caught in a lie. They tell children to blindly accept this magic here, but not that there.

As annoying as he can be, Oliver's part in the ending is good, and is a sweet way to wrap things up.

Irena is a benevolent presence. Having moved beyond any worries about cat people, she is more than happy to be Amy's new friend, and help guide her through life. After the way Oliver treated her last film, befriending his daughter from another woman is the best revenge! It proves you're a much better person than him as a parent.

Other characters include the family butler Edward, who provides a nice caring contrast with Oliver. He's accepting while also not being naive. He genuinely looks out for his little miss. Then there's a friendly teacher, who is likewise interesting in Amy's development, and in a much nicer way than her father, even challenging his behaviour in some scenes. She shows more backbone than his wife!

An interesting new pair to the film is elderly Julia Farren, and her daughter Barbara. Julia is a forgotten stage actress, once the belle of the ball, and rejoices in sharing her stories with new friend Amy. Barbara is not only jealous of the attention this stranger is getting, but at how she is ignored. Julia is convinced her real daughter died years ago, and that this woman is an imposter. It's left ambiguous whether she's right or not. She's otherwise a lucid and friendly dame, with all her wits about her, yet she doesn't budge on this. Barbara certainly does seem a bit unstable, but is that because she really is a fraud, or is it because of this mistreatment? It's left up for us decide.

Despite being a low budget production, you'd never know it. Curse of the Cat People is perfect in capturing a small town Americana feel, as well as showing the wonders of Christmas, all on a studio set. Making me jealous! Apparently some of the sets were recycled from The Magnificent Amberson's, and they all feel perfectly appropriate, and never cheap or ill-fitting.

The acting is very good. Kent Smith and Jane Randolph return from the previous entry, doing well, while Simone Simon has a smaller role, but still effective, and gets across a sense of peace and friendliness. Julia Dean is a fun old lady, and Elizabeth Russel returns in a larger role, capturing the unease and hurt in her character. And Sir Lancelot is great as the family butler, especially for the time. Lastly, there is the most important player, little Amy herself, Ann Carter. She does a fantastic job, and is not only sweet, but I'm impressed with how well she carries the movie!

Curse of the Cat People is a different but more than worthy follow-up to the original, and for many (myself included) is the superior film. Both have their positives, and both are different, showing the creativity of enterprising low-budget filmmakers of the time...

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