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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

The Curse of the Cat People (1944), directed by Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch

Cat People / The Curse of the Cat People (Horror Double Feature) -

The Curse of the Cat People is certainly one of the most peculiar sequels ever made, but because of that, it is also one of the most original. Though not as good as the first film, it is, surprisingly, not too far behind it.

The title, and the ungrammatical marketing that went with it ("The beast women stalks the night anew"), is balderdash. There isn't any curse, and this is not a horror film. It's a suspenseful fantasy about a young girl and her possibly imaginary friend.

Yet it is a sequel. Oliver Reed and Alice from the first film are now married, and they have a 6-year-old daughter, Amy. An introvert and an imaginative child, Amy causes concern in her parents -- particularly her father -- by preferring her own company to that of her schoolmates. One day, she hears a voice calling her from a house the other kids are afraid of; then something is thrown to her: a handkerchief with a ring inside. The handkerchief is snatched back by a severe woman, but Amy keeps the ring. Edward, the Reed's Jamaican butler, tells her it is a wishing ring. Amy wishes for a friend. And a friend appears -- Irena, Oliver's first wife.

Now here's the truly inspired part: the severe woman who snatches the handkerchief from Amy? She is played by Elizabeth Russell, the same actress who appeared in the first film as the Serbian woman who called Irena "sister." Is she the same character? There's no way to tell. She plays Barbara, the daughter of Julia, the old woman who gives Amy the ring, and it is perhaps significant that Julia believes her to be an impostor. For her part, Barbara jealously resents her mother's attentions to Amy.

So, okay, the plots of the two films could hardly be further apart. Still -- somehow -- they belong together, like different facets of an interesting personality or two phases in a life. Oliver's first marriage was a chaste one; it was dark and mysterious and full of sexual overtones. Now happily married and a parent, the shadows remain but become focused on his daughter. He hasn't changed, but his world has. In fact, it's Amy's world now, and her innocence transforms it. Irena is no longer a woman tortured by the consequences of imagined sin; she is what Amy wished for, a true and devoted friend.

When you consider the typical sequel, the imagination and daring of Val Lewton, who produced and co-wrote this picture and imbued it with autobiographical details from his childhood, is staggering. In other hands, if Irena had returned, she would have done so as a vengeful spirit, not a happy, sympathetic one, and the mayhem that followed would probably have been both predictable and mundane. Lewton instead gives us a powerful fusion of passion on the one hand and innocence on the other, thereby creating a two-film whole unified not by narrative but by psychology and experience.

Jacques Tourneur probably would not have been a good choice to direct this film, but Lewton was fortunate to be able to hand it to others who were, particularly, I think, Robert Wise, who would later direct such films as The Haunting, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music. I don't know whether this film taught him how to handle young actors or if he already had the knack, but it's without doubt that he draws a wonderful performance from young Ann Carter as Amy. She has to hold the story together, and she does so believably and unselfconsciously.