Curse of the Cat People (1944)

*. I don’t think there’s ever been a sequel like this. We have all of the same leads in the same roles, and the same screenwriter and producer, but in almost every other respect it has nothing to do with Cat People. The scene at the beginning where the two kids spot the black cat in the tree had to be added after principal shooting because the studio realized there were no cats in the final cut of the film at all!
*. In fact, it seems to entirely reject the conclusion of Cat People, which I thought made it clear (though on the DVD commentary Greg Mank says it’s left ambiguous) that Irena did indeed turn into a cat (and hence “she never lied”). In this movie, however, with Oliver and Alice having left the big city for a cozy suburban existence, Irena is just a pitiable head case destroyed by her own fantasies: a cautionary tale for little Amy, who is assumed to be lying about everything, just like Irena.
*. Ann Carter as Amy is the real lead, being in nearly every shot of the film. Apparently she got her break in movies because she looked so much like Veronica Lake. She did some other films in the ’40s but then got polio which derailed her career.
*. Greg Mank considers this to be one of the greatest child performances ever, and praises Carter as “pretty, strange and sad.” I agree . . . sort of. She also seems very stiff to me, and her acting consists mainly of turning on the same two or three expressions. On the other hand, she really works in this part. So I guess I’d call it good casting.
*. This was Robert Wise’s debut as a director, but he actually shares that credit with Gunther von Fritsch, who was fired after he fell behind schedule. From what I can tell, Fritsch directed about half of the movie but I don’t know which half. Mank mentions on the commentary that a full breakdown of who shot what would “require more time than we have,” but he does mention that Fritsch shot all the Simone Simon stuff. In any event, I usually see it referred to as Wise’s movie because he’s the one who went on to have the bigger career and I wanted to be sure to mention Fritsch because I don’t think that’s fair.
*. Stephen King called out the first “Lewton walk” scene in Cat People because Alice was so obviously on a sound stage he couldn’t believe that she was really walking through Central Park. Film’s state of the art didn’t allow for what King refers to as “the set of reality.” Such a scene worked for audiences in the 1940s, but no longer works for us. Much the same could be said for Curse of the Cat People, which is almost wholly studio bound and which ends in perhaps the fakest snowstorm in screen history. But I don’t think you can level the same objection at this film because it’s quite consciously (and literally) a fairy tale. We’re in a world where any distinction between the real world and fantasy has been lost.

*. I love the slow revelation of the good fairy Irena. She arrives gradually: first just a reaction shot from Amy who then plays with her (invisible to us) friend in the garden, then a shadow and musical motif arriving in Amy’s bedroom, then a voice singing, then we see an old photograph of her, and then she finally appears to Amy in all her glory.
*. Some people don’t like Irena’s get-up. I don’t mind it. It seems like the kind of thing a little girl might imagine a fairy princess wearing. Mank, weirdly, thinks her appearance is a bit “kinky” and imagines her wearing fishnets under her gown, or nothing at all. Usually I’m on board for such speculations, but here it seems a stretch. I think Irena looks pretty wholesome.
*. The whole subplot involving the theatrical Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean) and her estranged daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell, the Cat Woman from Cat People) is pretty darn depressing. Perhaps not as depressing as it was originally written, which had the story ending with Barbara being dragged off to the looney bin, but still quite a downer. I mean, there’s no reconciliation, and while Amy is happily absorbed back into her family Barbara is left to slink away into the darkness. I wonder if she’ll go on to become the mad lady of that old house, filling it with hundreds of adopted cats.
*. Given how different a movie this is from Cat People I don’t think there’s any way to compare the two. Curse of the Cat People certainly takes the idea of the “imaginary” monster as far as it can go, as I think we’re left to assume that all the Irena stuff we’ve seen was in Amy’s head. When Wise made The Haunting, which also drew into question the source and real presence of the story’s evil, it was intended as an homage to Lewton.
*. As Mank says, the people who like Curse of the Cat People like it a lot. I find it stagey, kitschy, and sentimental, and yet I fall for it every time, finding it a moving film despite how obviously manipulative it is. Like the best fairy tales it’s both darkly realistic and pure fantasy, presenting imagination as both dangerous and a force of grace. It’s accessible to children, but with a quality about it that I think adults respond to as well. Or at least I respond to it. But then, I’m a bit of a sap.

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