by Mel Valentin
In the early 1940s, Val Lewton, a Ukrainian-born writer/novelist became a horror film producer for RKO Studios. RKO, reeling from their ill-fated association with Orson Welles (both "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons" underperformed at the box office), decided to open up a B-level horror division to cash in on a genre profitably mined by Universal Studios. To that end, they hired Val Lewton, a writer and story editor for David O. Selznick "Gone With the Wind"), to head up the division. Lewton asked for creative control. RKO agreed, attaching certain conditions to their agreement: (1) budgets were limited to $200,000 per film, (2) RKO would pick the films’ titles and Lewton would create a story around them, and (3) the films were proscribed from running longer than 75 minutes (in order to fill the second slot on a bill with an A-level feature film).Lewton, however, had the run of RKO’s standing sets, production departments, and actors or directors on contract. Over the course of only five years, Lewton produced nine quality films, an output that, in retrospect, has come to be acknowledged as the work of an auteur (a rarity for producers). Lewton's first film for RKO, the sensationally titled Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past, Night of the Demon), has been long considered a classic of psychological horror. Two years and six films later, Val Lewton produced a belated sequel, The Curse of the Cat People. The Curse of the Cat People, however, is less a sequel than a storyline that takes place in a parallel, alternate universe, sharing several of the same characters and ideas from the original, but shifting the focus from the "cat people" of the title (women from an Eastern Europe cursed to transform into predatory felines when their passions are aroused) to a child protagonist, whose overactive imagination and strained relationship with her parents lead to near-tragic results.
"The rare sequel that improves on its predecessor."
The Curse of the Cat People takes place some time after the events depicted in the original film. Remarrying after the death of his first wife, Irena (Simone Simon), Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) has what appears to be a happy, stable home life (and a professional life as a ship designer). Reed has married his former co-worker, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), the third part of the romantic triangle resolved in her favor in Cat People. Not surprisingly (given the time period in which the film was produced), Alice has forsaken her career to become a housewife and mother. Reed and Alice have a young, introverted, lonely daughter, Amy (Ann Carter). Amy's introversion is matched by an overactive imagination and dreamlike. Consequently, her relationships with her classmates are strained, leading to harsh, sometimes cruel encounters with her strict, demanding father (who admonishes her repeatedly to play with the other children and set aside her dreamlike).
Wandering through her neighborhood, Amy discovers a large, imposing house. A woman beckons from a window. Amy befriends the woman, Julia Farren (Julia Dean). Julia, an aging actress, lives in semi-seclusion with her estranged daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell). Julia's emotional and mental stability is as fragile as Amy's ability to distinguish between her dream life and the real world. Even with her newfound acquaintance, Amy seemingly creates an imaginary friend, whom she begins to call Irena (soon after she finds an old photograph of her father's first wife). With Oliver still haunted by his memories of his first wife, Alice disturbed by Oliver’s fixation with Irena, and both parents concerned with Amy’s eccentric behavior, misunderstandings and conflict are inevitable. Ultimately, Amy’s interactions with her imaginary friend, her parents, and the Julia Farren-Barbara storyline converge during a cold, winter night, with tragic or near-tragic results for one or several characters.As the preceding description indicates, "The Curse of the Cat People" leans toward childhood fantasy and away from the psychological or supernatural horror found in the original film. Leaving aside horror-inflected set pieces (with the possible exception of the final, suspenseful sequence), "The Curse of the Cat People" is more a delicate, nuanced exploration of the fragility of childhood (aided by a persuasive performance by Ann Carter), with well-meaning, if wrong-headed, parents imposing rigid conformity on their introverted daughter. For the Reeds, Amy (and her imagination) is the source of discomfort. Oliver and Alice’s unresolved issues related to his first marriage have been, in some sense, transferred to Amy (Oliver frets that Irena’s superstitious beliefs, fueled by an overactive imagination, have somehow tainted Amy, who’s unrelated biologically to Irena). As a corollary, Julia Farren's strained relationship with her daughter Barbara functions as an object lesson to the Reeds of a lifetime of dysfunctionality. It's a lesson the Reeds, especially Oliver, seem to accept uncritically in the final scene, a scene imbued with an optimism rare for a Lewton film.
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originally posted: 01/23/06 12:18:46