July 15, 2007

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

After the successful release of Jacques Toruneur's "Cat People" in 1942, producer Val Lewton, head of RKO Studio's horror unit, found himself with the job of proving that this wasn't just a mere lucky strike, not an easy task to do. However, with films like Tourneur's "I Walked with a Zombie" and Mark Robson's "The Seventh Victim", Lewton consolidated his reputation as a successful producer and established a style that is now known among fans as "Val Lewton horror". While his horror films were doing well, Lewton wasn't entirely happy with being type-casted as producer of horror films, and by the end of 1943, decided to attempt something different. Working with writer DeWitt Bodeen, Lewton conceived a dark tale of fantasy about the horrors of childhood. Unfortunately, RKO wanted a more horror related story, so Bodeen ended up adding elements from his past work and "The Curse of the Cat People" was made.

In "The Curse of the Cat People", we find the characters from the original "Cat People" a few years after the evens of the first film. Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) are now married and live in a nice neighborhood with their young daughter Amy (Ann Carter). Amy is a very intelligent and imaginative girl, more adept to spent her time daydreaming than to make friends of her age. This worries Oliver extremely, who after experiencing the catastrophic results of the obsessive imagination of his first wife Irena (Simone Simon), fears that Amy is going to have a similar fate. Oliver's preoccupation increases when he discovers that Amy seems to have an imaginary friend: her dead wife Irena. While this seems beneficial for Amy, and even helps her to make real friends, Oliver can't stop remembering what happened to Irena and thinks this will only lead her daughter to a similar end.

While technically the movie is a sequel to "Cat People", DeWitt Bodeen's story is very different in terms of tone and thematics. While both films are dark psychological thrillers, "Curse" is completely based around the theme of childhood, its innocence and its horrors. Dealing with the troubled relationship between a highly imaginative daughter and her fearful, pragmatic father, Bodeen manages to create a beautiful story that perfectly captures the experience of being a child, as it keeps focused on Amy's view of the world. It also touches in a subtle way the concept of facing one's own demons, and despite the differences, complements "Cat People" in their treatment of loneliness and insecurity. While not exactly a horror film in the classic sense, "The Curse of the Cat People" is delightfully dark and even manages to be scary in several parts, although it is clear that fantasy is its real intention.

"The Curse of the Cat People" was initially directed by Gunther Von Fritsch, but several problems during production forced Lewton to replace him with editor Robert Wise, marking his debut on a feature length film. While he followed Lewton's style of film-making, in "The Curse of the Cat People", Wise shows a lot of the influence Orson Welles (Wise edited "Citizen Kane" among other films) had over him, including his very inventive camera-work. Like previous films produced by Lewton, the film is highly atmospheric, although this time the mood is one of surreal magic and dark Gothic fantasy, perfectly representing Amy's rich imagination. Nicholas Musuraca's amazing cinematography plays an instrumental role in this, as he manages to create some of the most beautiful images among Val Lewton's films.

Like the previous film, "The Curse of the Cat People" gets benefited by the talent of its main actress, in this case, the young Ann Carter, who as Amy Reed delivers an amazing performance, specially considering her young age. It is not a surprise that Carter had a good career as child actress, although it is a shame she decided not to continue as she grew up. Simone Simon returns as Irena Reed, and once again she is as gorgeous and alluring as ever. While her role is somewhat diminished this time (the movie is completely Carter's film), she delivers a terrific performance as Oliver's dead wife. Kent Smith is again the weakest link in the main cast, although it must be said that he fares better here than in the original "Cat People". The movie has excellent performances in the supporting roles, specially the ones by Elizabeth Russell, Julian Dean and calypso singer Sir Lancelot.

Definitely the movie's worst enemy (and perhaps biggest flaw) is the misleading title Lewton was forced to use, as by link it to the 1942 horror masterpiece it definitely creates false expectations of it being another classy horror film of the same caliber. While certainly filled with elements of horror, the movie works more as a dark and elegant fantasy melodrama than a straightforward horror film, so those expecting a direct sequel of "Cat People" will definitely be disappointed. Other than its misleading title, "The Curse of the Cat People" has very little problems, as despite some occasional weak performance and a pace at times too slow, the movie is almost flawless and an excellent example of dark Gothic fantasy. With excellent performances and the solid directing by Wise, "The Curse of the Cat People" lives up to its predecessor's name despite its differences.

"The Curse of the Cat People" is definitely one of the movies that better represents the darkness of a lonely and insecure childhood, as well as the vivid imagination that children posses. It may not be another "Cat People" in the strict sense, but this movie has that same kind of magic that makes Val Lewton's films so captivating. This excellent film would also be the beginning of Robert Wise's celebrated career as a filmmaker, so fans of his work must definitely give it a look.


Buy "The Curse of the Cat People" (1944)

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