Judge Mike Pinsky's cat is not very bright. If it were a cat person, it would have to ride the short bus to the special school.
"I know what can happen when people begin to lie to themselves, imagine things."—Oliver (Kent Smith), Curse of the Cat People
Val Lewton, one of the unsung heroes of Hollywood horror films, gets off to a roaring start with his 1942 hit about a woman unstrung by sexual tension and jealousy. Then Lewton turns audience expectations upside down by crafting a touching and luminous sequel that taps into childhood anxiety like no other film in the classic Hollywood era. Behold the power of imagination.
It is the quintessence of the American horror movie, this moment of psychosexual panic: A woman walks alone down an alley (or a country lane, or a wooded path—take your pick). She has performed a sexual indiscretion (in this case, flirting with a jealous woman's husband). The camera lingers on irrelevant details—an empty expanse of wall, a waving branch—but shows nothing. But she is being stalked; her life is in danger. We grip the edges of our seats. Do we judge her, finding in the threat a reflection of our moral outrage? Or do we fear for her, empathizing with her sin as only the fellow guilty can?
In 1942's Cat People, director Jacques Tourneur stages this scene in only a couple of minutes, and the threat is imagined, by both the potential victim (Jane Randolph as Alice) and her stalker (Simone Simon as Irena). But the moment serves as model for all the horror movies that come after. It works, even if no violence happens (the shock payoff will come later, in an eerily lit and echoing swimming pool), because the tension among the characters is taut as a violin string of catgut.
Val Lewton's first triumph as producer (and uncredited co-screenwriter, having polished DeWitt Bodeen's script according to his own desires) has all the elements that set Lewton's B-movies ahead of his competition. The story works as both a horror melodrama and a carefully balanced portrait of marital collapse. Fashion designer Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon, The Devil and Daniel Webster) has no friends in America. She is elegant and immaculate and has no qualms about bringing a strange man home. The man in question, "good, plain Americano" Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), falls in love immediately. In fact, he loves his neurotic new bride so much that he indulges her fears of consummating her marriage—at least until he starts flirting with officemate Alice (Jane Randolph).
Cat People avoids soap-opera histrionics by virtue of smart writing that never panders to an audience craving something a bit more disturbing. Is Irena just a desperate housewife growing more dangerously hysterical by the day? Or is she really one of the evil "cat people" that she was warned about as a child? A conventional horror film would answer that question with certainty. In a Val Lewton film, you can never be too sure. (Compare Lewton's restraint to the huffing and puffing Paul Schrader threw on screen in his lurid 1982 remake.)
But Lewton's first outing for RKO would not have worked half as well if not for its performances. Simone Simon projects a guarded sexual energy, an alluring shyness that makes it easy to understand why Oliver would marry her in hopes of teasing out her mysteries. By the end of the first act, the film clearly sets itself up as a tale of marriage anxiety. Irena's real fear is her inability to commit to her new husband because of her fear that "something evil is in me." And then she locks herself in a separate bedroom. Yes, the evil is sexual desire, the animal nature of libido, whether Irena is literally a panther woman or it is all in her mind. And it certainly does not help that her unctuous psychiatrist (Tom Conway, I Walked with a Zombie) seems to dabble in what might gently be called seduction therapy. (Remember that Hitchcock's Spellbound was still three years away, yet Lewton and Tourneur are already tipping over Freud's couch.)
Warner's print of Cat People suffers from some spots and scratches and even a missing frame here and there, but nothing too distracting. In an informative commentary track, film historian Greg Mank hints that Simone Simon, whom he dubs a "naughty angel," may have been more like Irena than even Lewton had hoped. While she seems friendly in the audio excerpts Mank offers during his discussion, Mank tells us that the other performers in the movie thought she was rather a terror.
RKO was pleased enough with the success of Cat People that they ordered Lewton to make a sequel. The title they handed him: Curse of the Cat People. What could he possibly do with that? In typical Lewton fashion: exactly the opposite of what the studio wanted.
I have often thought that the perfect Val Lewton story would be "Little Red Riding Hood," a tale that had made a strong impression upon him as a child. A young girl must choose between the grandmotherly superego and the lupine id. Or maybe "Hansel and Gretel," where both choices are embodied in one sinister witch in a candy-coated house. Imagine what Lewton's favorite cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, could do with the light from a smoldering oven…
Of course, Lewton was rarely so overt. Take his one real fairy tale: 1944's Curse of the Cat People. This is a film of surprising delicacy and depth, a sequel that matches up to and perhaps surpasses its predecessor in originality—so much that it has puzzled audiences for years and been unjustly neglected because it resists easy categorization. In his commentary, Greg Mank argues that the film is Lewton's effort to exorcise his childhood demons. The film went over schedule and over budget, as a frustrated Lewton poured himself into the production. Simone Simon and the studio both hated the film, and RKO moved to curtail Lewton's freedom in future productions.
Curse of the Cat People is the freshman feature for Robert Wise, a survivor of the Citizen Kane debacle that opened the door for Lewton's RKO career. Wise (having learned from Orson Welles) shows a mastery of sound that gets us inside a child's imagination quite effectively. Later, he'd use this to even better ends in The Haunting. (Wise shares screen credit with Gunther von Fritsch, who was dumped from the production and got stuck in B-movies and television.)
The film opens in Tarrytown, where a kindergarten class plays in the woods of Sleepy Hollow. Talk about an invitation to a creepy fairy tale. Little Amy (seven-year-old Ann Carter) is too intense and preternatural for her years (if the film were made today, Dakota Fanning would take the part). There is "something moody, something sickly" in her, according to her father. No wonder: Her parents are Oliver and Alice Reed (Kent Smith and Jane Randolph), still fretting over the mental breakdown of Irena years before. When Amy wishes for a friend, Irena's ghost (Simone Simon, dressed more for boudoir than playground) keeps her company through the falling leaves of autumn and the blanketing snow of winter. The twist: This is no vengeful horror movie monster. This is Irena redeemed, returned to the innocence of presexual childhood.
If any film qualified as a psychodrama, it is Curse of the Cat People. What else would you call this? It isn't a horror film: the ghost of Irena functions as a neurotic's fairy godmother, dream angel to an emotionally unbalanced child. "I'll be just like daddy wants me to be," Amy promises on her birthday. But maybe that is the problem: This is a child whose excess of imagination and inability to conform to the other kids are exactly what frightens her square parents. Yes, that's it: The real fear in this movie is that of parents who don't want their kid growing up "weird." And any kid with an imaginary playmate, no matter how benevolent, would be weird to Amy's bourgeois parents. If anything, Curse of the Cat People is an anti-horror film. The audience anxiously awaits some trouble, expects that the old lady on the corner (Julia Dean) will be a witch, or the Jamaican butler (calypso star Sir Lancelot) will conjure a zombie, or Irena will turn evil—but the fear is entirely ours. This is a movie about horror movies and why grown-ups watch them.
Curse of the Cat People is a film best appreciated by kids, who may sympathize with its tortured protagonist, who sees a tree as a magic mailbox and plays with an imaginary friend—just like every kid. If Cat People was Lewton's effort to air his personal fetishes (fear of touching and cats particularly), then Curse of the Cat People is his answer to critics who say that horror movies—and imagination itself—are unrealistic bunk. The moral of the story: What's so wrong with a little imagination—and even a little healthy anxiety?
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Scales of Justice, Cat People
Perp Profile, Cat People
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Cat People
• Commentarry by Film Historian Greg Mank, with Actor Simone Simon
Scales of Justice, Curse Of The Cat People
Perp Profile, Curse Of The Cat People
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Curse Of The Cat People
• Commentarry by Film Historian Greg Mank, with Actor Simone Simon
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