Sunday, June 10, 2018

THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE: Blu-ray (RKO, 1944) Shout! Factory

Not a sequel as much as a complete reimagining of an already superbly crafted thriller, producer Val Lewton’s The Curse of the Cat People (1944) – co-directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise – is a lyrically dark and disturbing glimpse into the haunted recesses of a lonely child’s unsettled imagination. Lewton, a former Selznick story editor, journalist/author and highly literate man, was never quite given the opportunity to pursue more highbrow entertainments he likely would have preferred. Yet he often found ingenious ways to slip in his smarts as well as a little power and prestige into projects the studio assigned him. And make no mistake: Cat People (1942) was hardly what Lewton had in mind when he left Selznick to helm a second unit of B-pictures at the beleaguered RKO. Early on in The Curse of the Cat People, a psychologist tries to make head or tales of little Amy Reed’s isolated world, referencing Frances Wickes’ The Inner World of Childhood, first published in 1927; a locus, likely to have gone over the heads of most sitting in the audience, and yet, unassumingly left to linger as a testament to the fact The Curse of the Cat People was not your ‘run of the mill’ horror movie. Were that RKO’s publicity had been on board with this ‘minor’ truth, instead electing to publicize ‘Curse’ as ‘The Black Menace Creeps Again’ or ‘The Beast Woman Stalks the Night Anew’. Yet, not even the original Cat People had relied solely on such shameless PR to emphasize its curious tale of a Serbian fashion designer, Irena Dubrovna – played with an uncannily feline slinkiness by Simone Simon (actually, of French extraction). When sexually aroused, Irena transforms into a black panther – much to the chagrin of her milquetoast husband, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith).
Instructed by RKO’s management to resurrect Irena’s specter for a follow-up, Lewton was faced with a quandary. Irena had met with a most untimely end at the finale of Cat People. Rather than wallow in some sort of ridiculous re-incarnation, or worse, exploit the character to live ‘down’ to RKO’s PR campaign, Lewton and his prized screenwriter, DeWitt Bodeen instead chose to bring back Irena as a cherished memory conjured in Amy’s mind and largely maternal towards the daughter she would have likely wished for her own. Alas, Amy is the child of Irena’s former husband and his second wife, Alice (Jane Randolph). Shot on the shoestring budget of $147,000 (later, begrudgingly upped to $212,000), The Curse of the Cat People utilized practically every free-standing set on the RKO backlot, with several days location work at Malibu Lake. Initially assigned to direct, Gunther von Fritsch was rather unceremoniously deposed after falling behind in the impossible production schedule of just eighteen days. Von Fritsch had actually completed a little more than half of the necessary footage during this allotment; his replacement – Robert Wise, picking up both the baton and the pace thereafter to finish the film.
RKO expected another excursion into fear and terror. What they acquired instead was an unusually sinister and impressionistic fairy tale, whose mysterious and looming underbelly was frequently punctuated by an ethereal bond between young Amy Reed (8-year old Ann Carter, in a peerless performance) and Irena’s apparition, reconstituted from ferocious female in the first film to benevolent princess herein. Lewton and Bodeen afford the real/reel fear factor to co-star, Elizabeth Russell (formerly, the emotionally scarred and kitten-faced restaurant patron in Cat People, but herein recast as the oddly hypnotic, and slightly demonic, Barbara Ferren). The Curse of the Cat People is such a breathtaking departure from the anticipated ‘franchise’ mentality in film-making (both then, and unquestionably now) it bears a complete dossier on the mindset of Lewton – the man, who infused its artistic milieu with a great deal of personality, unsurprisingly culled from Lewton’s fertile past and even more weirdly delicious flights into the fantastic. The scene where Amy places invitations to her birthday party inside a hollow tree, earlier described as a magical ‘mailbox’ was a page torn directly from Lewton’s own autobiography.
Growing up in Tarrytown, the rural locale having inspired Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow may have had something to do with Lewton’s own affinity for a good ghost story. And The Curse of the Cat People is a very good ‘ghost story’ indeed – peppered in those crucial moments of foreboding to expertly unfurl at precisely the instance when a ‘good scare’ is required. Like virtually all of Lewton’s masterpieces, ominously lit with his spark of threatening genius and imagination, this one is far more interesting as a character study than a fright fest.  Regrettably, Lewton may have been aiming a tad too high for his audience. When it was released, The Curse of the Cat People was judged as ‘inferior’ to its predecessor by studio execs, the critics and audiences, despite the picture’s poignant commentary of childhood whimsy and vulnerability. Mercifully, time does things to movie art and, in the interim, The Curse of the Cat People’s reputation has only grown since.
Nevertheless, concerned their sequel did not possess enough of ‘the curse’ to satisfy the ‘discerning’ theater patron, RKO’s brain trust ordered several additional scenes shot, including a moment where some boys chase a black cat.  It didn’t help to boost the picture’s reception then. While a few, like film historian, William K. Everson would later reassess ‘Curse’s visual lyricism to Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête (1946), the overriding consensus in 1944 was that Lewton had overshot his objectives and thus completely missed his mark to deliver another thrill ride. Lest we forget, 1944 was big on sequels – especially over at Universal where the monster mash-ups were in very high gear (and turning tidy profits besides). RKO, still riding the crest of Cat People’s overwhelming popularity, simply had to have another ‘just as good’ as their original. Arguably, what they were handed was far better. Perhaps in response to the picture’s less than impressive box office performance, virtually all of the remaining Lewton ‘horror’ films would rely on the newly acquired talents of Universal alumni, Boris Karloff (no stranger to spooks, ghouls and gargoyles of varying misshapes and size), exorcised in exceedingly bleaker tales of humanity’s self-destructiveness. But for the moment, Lewton – affectionately nicknamed ‘the sultan of shudders’ – was infinitely more interested in the oddities of life and spooky ‘art’ than in-your-face ‘chills’.
The Curse of the Cat People picks up our characters a scant ten years after the events depicted in the original movie.  Oliver Reed and Alice Moore have married and have a 6-year-old daughter, Amy; sad-eyed, withdrawn and unpopular with her peers. To stave off the specter of loneliness, Amy retreats into her exceptionally fertile imagination. This, Oliver especially finds troubling. Whereas Alice merely wants her child to be happy, Oliver predicts something far more sinister is at work, plaguing Amy’s psyche. As Oliver recalls how Irena was destroyed by her own fantastical delusions, he now suspects Amy’s friendship with butterflies and the like, seen through a fatalist rubric, certain to wreck his daughter’s sanity. While some may question Oliver’s feeble feints to get Amy to ‘come out of her shell’, mingling with the affable, if thoroughly feckless ‘normal’ children in the neighborhood, no one can challenge his motives, derived purely from the vantage of a devoted – if slightly unnerved – father.
Oliver is sincerely hoping Amy’s planned birthday party will reinvigorate her spirits and kick-start her popularity with the local children. Alas, Amy has ‘mailed’ her invitations by placing them inside the hollow of the ‘wishing tree’ in their backyard – another flight into daydream that mildly irks Oliver. As no one is coming to a party they know nothing about, Oliver encourages Amy to run along and play. She finds the other children gathered at another girl’s birthday party and attempts to engage several in a game of jacks. Instead, the children ostracize her.  Stumbling upon the dilapidated ruins of an old manor, overgrown with wild creepers and weeds, Amy is struck by the voice of an elderly woman, Julia Ferran (Julia Dean) calling out to her. Amy is intrigued and follows to voice into the forecourt just beyond. From a second-story window, a mysterious hand tosses a small object at Amy’s feet; a rather expensive ring she is encouraged to take as a token of friendship.
Amy ascribes her childhood fancies to the gift. It is a magical heirloom from a princess locked inside a castle. Her imagination is further peaked when the Reed’s Jamaican housekeeper, Edward (Sir Lancelot) shares some island folktale about ‘wishing rings’ – that may grant the person who wears them untold riches, mystery and adventure. Believing Edward, Amy places the ring on her finger and wishes for ‘a friend’. In response, Amy conjures up the spirit of Irena Dubrova, reincarnated as an ethereal vision in billowy white – the quintessence of the ‘bigger sister’ she has longed for in all her desolation. As Christmas nears, Amy is lured away from the adults gathered indoors and into the frosty night air by Irena’s sweet singing. Amy gives Irena a present, a broach made of cut-glass stars. Irena promises to wear it on her cape. No connection is made to Irena’s past until Amy discovers a snap shot of her tucked among Oliver’s belongings in a box of ‘old photographs’. When Irena naively admits to having a new friend, Oliver is more than a little disturbed. He orders Amy to abandon such a ‘friendship’ without divulging too much about Irena’s past. Later, Alice cryptically confides Amy is more Irena’s child than her own.
The Reeds consult a child psychologist, Miss Callahan (Eve March) who attempts to draw out both comfort and clarity from this family’s turmoil. Oliver is most disturbed by his daughter’s affinity for Irena, whom Amy emphatically insists is real. While marginally wounded by Amy’s affections for Irena, Alice is more pragmatic about their ‘friendship’. If it is imagined it can do no real harm. Ordered to her room, a tearful Amy is revisited by Irena’s benevolent spirit yet again. This time, Irena gingerly asks Amy to send her away. After all, it was Amy’s wish for a friend that resurrected her briefly from the netherworld. But now, Amy must learn to be her own happiness and to rediscover more of it with her parents. Once again friendless, Amy returns to the rundown mansion and befriends Julia Ferran who, in her time, was a well-regarded stage actress. Alas, Julia lives with Barbara; the suspicious daughter she refuses to acknowledge as her own, steadfastly certain Barbara died long ago in childhood. While Amy takes all of this personal history in stride, increasingly we come to realize Julia is almost certainly mad and Barbara, insanely jealous of Amy for having filled a void in her own mother’s heart.
Indeed, Barbara threatens to kill Amy if she ever returns. Unknowing of this danger, and bitter about losing Irena, Amy runs away from home one snowy eve, finding her way to the Ferren estate. Julia is panicky, and for good reason. If Barbara discovers her in the house it will surely lead to murder. Alas, the old woman suffers a fatal heart attack while attempting to climb the staircase with Amy’s assistance. Barbara emerges as an almost specter-like presence, ordering Amy to attend her. The girl is understandably reluctant until Irena’s ghost materializes at Barbara’s side. Bewildered, yet suddenly feeling quite safe, Amy hurries to Barbara, embracing her and gently whispering, ‘My friend.’ Moved by the child’s act of forgiveness, Barbara briefly returns Amy’s affections where only moments earlier she contemplated strangling her. Oliver and the police arrive and discover Julia’s body. Whisking his daughter back home with all speed, Oliver and Amy reconcile their differences. Oliver inquires as to whether Amy can see Irena now in the snowy garden just beyond their front porch. Indeed, Irena is there and Amy acknowledges her. So, does Oliver, although it is questionable whether or not he can actually see Irena too. Oliver pledges to become Amy’s friend. Father and daughter go into the house; presumably, with all childhood fantasies at an end.
We give it to Val Lewton for his storytelling fearlessness. The Curse of the Cat People is nothing like one might expect. This has both its pros and cons, especially for those expecting another ghoulishly suspense-laden fright-fest, compounded by the advertised ‘curse’ we never witness. The Curse of the Cat People is actually a supernatural ‘family drama’ with a poignant message about the fractured and mending of bonds between parents and their children. As with all Lewton masterpieces, the picture is genuine and steadfast in the precepts it concocts for our pleasure. While many critics chided the plot as both meandering and ineffectual, the reality is it neither fails to engage or enthrall, if veering far closer to Lewton’s more intimate notions about respectability in art. Too bad for Lewton, RKO was not after prestige – only profit, insisting he continue making B-budgeted horror movies in lieu of cinema art. ‘Showmanship instead of genius’ was the way the studio viewed their seismic shift away from the artistic misfires of Orson Welles after back-to-back costly box office implosions with Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).
And while an argument can certainly be made, that Lewton achieved artistry on his own level and merit, the fact is his subsequent endeavors began to look very much like the ‘B-grade schlock’ rather than highbrow ‘suspense’ classics that had preceded this movie (Cat People 1942, and the rapid succession of staggeringly great spook shows made in 1943; I Walked With A Zombie, The Leopard Man, Ghost Ship and The Seventh Victim). The Curse of The Cat People is not as easily crystalized within this canon of contributions, chiefly because it bucks the linear narrative, choosing instead to explore the multi-faceted uncertainties of childhood almost entirely from a child’s point of view. This takes guts and a leap into blind faith. That neither admirable quality was rewarded Lewton or this movie in its own time is perhaps the most horrifying aspect about The Curse of the Cat People. For surely, it is worthy of as much respect and admiration as any Hitchcock thriller, finely wrought, psychological, but with a few light and genuinely scary moments peppered into its mixture of drama and suspense. 
Rumor has it Warner Home Video has licensed more of Val Lewton’s back catalog to indie third-party distributors. Well…one can hope. Although curious, that they did not give Criterion first dibs on The Curse of the Cat People (Criterion responsible for releasing the original Cat People on Blu-ray two years ago). We can breathe a sigh of relief, however, because Shout! Factory’s new 1080p rendering of The Curse of the Cat People, has been afforded the same care and attention deserving its predecessor. What is here has obviously undergone a punctilious restoration. The B&W image is extraordinary, teeming in rich, tight grain looking indigenous to its source, and, perfectly balanced contrast; from top to bottom, a real quality affair. I love this movie, and this new to Blu reincarnation is definitely the way to enjoy it for posterity. Shout! has licensed the old Greg Mank audio commentary from Warner, interpolated with excerpts from an interview with Simone Simon. But they have also added another audio track featuring noir/horror author/historian, Steve Haberman. It’s difficult to say which commentary I liked more. Each has its merits. We also get, Lewton's Muse: The Dark Eyes of Simone Simon – a video essay by Constantine Nasr, as well as an audio only interview with Ann Carter, hosted by Tom Weaver, and, an original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: although not regarded as such in 1944, The Curse of the Cat People is top-tier Val Lewton. It belongs on everyone’s top shelf of must-haves.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
5
EXTRAS

3.5

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