A Movie A Day: Quint on CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) Little girl, come into the garden. It’s pleasant and cool here.
Published at: Aug. 31, 2008, 5:25 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Today we hit the sequel to yesterday’s CAT PEOPLE titled CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE which brings back producer Val Lewton, stars Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph and Elizabeth Russell, screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen and Robert Wise, who went from editorial to directorial from original to sequel.
I’m not exactly sure how I feel about this movie. I know I liked it, but I’m also a little confused by it. At least 7 years have progressed since the events of the first movie. Simone Simon died at the end of the first movie and Kent Smith and Jane Randolph have wed and settled down, producing a little girl.
While Simone, Smith and Randolph all return, none of them feel like their characters from the first one. Smith might be close, but that’s just because I think he was kind of a dickhead in the first movie and here he’s even more so.
Let’s get this out of the way up front. The first film was a huge success and allowed Lewton some freedom at RKO. Apparently the way the studio worked with Lewton was to get a title approved through testing them out on general audiences and then they told Lewton to make a movie to go with the title.
At least in CAT PEOPLE Simone Simon does turn into a pissed off jealous murdering cat. There is nothing like that in this movie. Instead the Curse of the title can be interpreted a few different ways.
It could be an almost self-fulfilling prophecy situation where Smith is so paranoid that his daughter might emulate his first, dead cat woman wife that he roughly insists his young daughter be as normal as possible and doesn’t tolerate any whimsy of youth… which of course, pushes the girl only further into a more solitude life filled with imaginary friends.
Or the curse could be the Ghost of Irene haunting the garden of the house. I doubt it… Irene as a ghost is sweeter than Irene as a crazy cat lady and really does seem to be a legitimate playmate for young Amy (played by wunderkind Ann Carter).
At first I thought it was going to be Simone returning from beyond the grave to turn the little girl into a cat person, but apparently not. Then the crazy other cat lady from the Serbian restaurant in the first film, Elizabeth Russell, shows up living in the scary house of the neighborhood, the other kids saying a witch lives there.
Oh, boy! Here it is! This is where we get the cat people returning… nope, not there either. Instead Russell plays a very sad character, living with her elderly mother (Julia Dean) who is certain that Russell is a stranger impersonating her long-dead daughter. The pain that Russell shows in her eyes each time her mother says those things is a pretty big clue-in that she’s not a crazy cat-imposter, but that her mother is a little on the crazy side.
I have no clue how this film was received back in the day, but I can only imagine that audiences were pissed off that there were no cat people in a movie called CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, a sequel to a movie called CAT PEOPLE that actually had cat people in it.
Instead it seems the filmmakers decided to experiment a bit and removed all the visual landmarks of the original film. The first is a dark noir thriller set in a sprawling city, this one set in the suburbs (literally the famous Sleepy Hollow) in bright daylight. The original was a sly, creepy psychological story and this one more of a fairy tale.
I wonder what Guillermo Del Toro thinks of this movie… It has a lot of similarities to some of his work. A very talented young actress is the lead in a story with ghosts and crazy ladies… and then there’s the theme of having nothing to fear from the dead. It’s the living that can hurt you. That’s here, too.
Ann Carter is great as the lead, embodying the innocence of youth as well as the strangeness of it. It’s a really creepy time if you really think back on it, back when you could imagine anything and believe it with such force that you could start to scare yourself… at least I could… it’s why I knew deep down in my heart that the shark from Jaws somehow got into the deep end of the neighborhood pool, even though my brain knew that couldn’t happen.
Simone Simon is also noteworthy here. You can see the movie star quality about her, how magnetic she is when she enters the frame. Her ghostly character does have a very sweet relationship with Ann, despite how at first you think she’s going to be a sinister influence.
I’m also quite fond of the extremely fractured mother/daughter relationship between Elizabeth Russell and Julia Dean. Dean takes to Ann and quickly forms an even greater ball of bitterness inside Russell. I would have actually really loved to have seen this story told through Russell’s eyes as she sees her mother give some stranger the love she herself has been trying desperately to earn for years.
Other than that, I can’t say I was taken with anybody else… wait, that’s not true. I really dug the man-servant, Edward, played by Lewton regular Sir Lancelot. Awesome name, right? But I still didn’t really care much about Kent Smith. I find his performance about vanilla and one-dimensional as you can get. He doesn’t have any personality in these two films.
Final Thoughts: I definitely enjoyed seeing this movie and a big part of me even enjoyed that it’s such a radical fuck-you switch of gears from the first film. You can’t accuse this group of resting on their laurels or playing to the lowest common denominator. The flick misses Jacques Tourneur’s confidence and way with black and white photography. Nicholas Musuraca, DoP, returns from the original, but doesn’t get as much chance to show off, except during the pretty snowy night sequences. The final flick is a little rough around the edges, but as a curiosity it’s a must.
The schedule for the next 7 days is:
Sunday, August 31st: THE 7TH VICTIM (1943)
Monday, September 1st: THE GHOST SHIP (1943)
Tuesday, September 2nd: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945)
Wednesday, September 3rd: BEDLAM (1946)
Thursday, September 4th: BLACK SABBATH (1964)
Friday, September 5th: BLACK SUNDAY (1977)
Saturday, September 6th: TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE (1972)
In answer to some of you in the talkback from yesterday, THE LEOPARD MAN and THE BODY SNATCHER, the only two left over from the Val Lewton Box Set, will indeed be watched later in the column.
I’m actually considering putting a halt to the connecting tissues aspect, freezing the column in its tracks starting October 1st and only watching horror/thrillers for the entire month, not bound by trying to connect them, although I’m sure that’ll inevitably occur for a few titles. Then November 1st I’d pick up the column again, right where I left off.
My only concerns are that we’re hitting a lot of Val Lewton now and following those up with almost a week of Mario Bava, so I don’t want to get horrored out. What do you folks think?