Dir.: Robert Wise, Gunther von Fritsch; Cast: Ann Carter, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Simone Simon, Julia Dean, Elizabeth Russell, Eve March); USA 1944, 68 min.
The Curse of the Cat People launched Robert Wise and Austro-Hungarian Gunter von Fritsch as directors. Wise would make a further 38 features in a career which went on until 1989, winning two Oscars for Sound of Music and West Side Story. Von Fritsch, would be less prolific: he managed to complete half the film in the allotted 18 days of the schedule, but would only occupy the director’s chair on three more occasions before a TV career beckoned, and retirement in 1970.
Most people agree that not calling the feature The Curse of the Cat People and selling it as a sequel to the classic Cat People (1942), would have enhanced the fantasy thriller’s reputation. But it was an opportunity for Val Lewton to re-unite writer de Witt Bodeen, cameraman Nicolas Musuraca, as well the actors Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph and Elizabeth Russell from Cat People so the outcome was a done deal: Hollywood’s way of selling sequels was already long established. The Curse references events from Cat People, but is anything but a horror movie, even though it drifts that way in the end. Overall Curse is much nearer to Lewton’s production of Ghost Ship, and ironically was set in a place called Sleepy Hollow.
Curse begins seven years after the tragic events of Cat People: Oliver Reed (Smith) and his workmate Alice Reed (Randolph) have a six-year old daughter Amy (Carter). The family lives in rural New England, where Amy is at prep school. She has the tendency to daydream, rather like his first wife Irena whose traumatic death still haunts him. And Irena becomes Amy’s imaginary friend, after Oliver burns her photos to obliterate his past. Amy wanders into the gloomy mansion of ageing actor Julia Farren (Dean) and her daughter Barbara (Russell), and befriends them after being rejected by her school chums. But Julia had trouble in excepting that Barbara is her daughter, showing more empathy with Amy, and causing Barbara to mutter “I will kill the brat, if she appears again”. After the Amy gets her first (off-screen) ‘spanking’ from her father over her fantasy of Irena (Simon) appearing to her in the garden, the little girl runs away into woods and meets Barbara who is only too willing to make her promise come true.
DoP Nicholas Musuraca creates a parallel universe to that of Cat People. Although the panther scenes there intrude into a world of hyper-realism shared by Oliver and Alice share, that leaves Irena as the outsider. Curse shows a family which looks perfectly normal to the outside, but is crippled by Oliver’s inability to come to terms with the past. Then, there is the voice of reason that comes courtesy of Amy’s teacher Mrs. Callaghan (March), Oliver rejecting her rather modern approach. Irena is much more benign fantasy than Cat People‘s Panther. In analytical terms, Irena is a much better mother than the rational Alice, who, like her husband, has not worked through the events leading to her marriage with Oliver: she is deeply suspicious that Oliver is still under Irena’s spell, and therefore punishes Amy, just to show just the opposite. Furthermore, the Irena sequences in Curse are the total inversion of its predecessor: Irena here is about peace and harmony, while her Panther ego was just the opposite. Curse also demonstrates that Oliver has not learned very much from his experience with Irena: he still not able to show empathy for those who do not share his “pragmatic” approach to life. His inability to realise that emotions are the most important qualities human’s possess, costs Irena her, and now threatens that of his daughter.
When all is said and done, Curse of the Cat People is anything but a sequel to Cat People: it’s a story about loneliness, repression and denial – both the Farrens and the Reeds have much more I common than at first glance. AS
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