Monday, March 9, 2009
The Curse of the Cat People
Few film titles could be more misleading than The Curse of the Cat People, a gentle, meditative film about a little girl and her imaginary friend. Conceived as just another low-budget horror film for producer Val Lewton, a sequel to his wildly successful first film, Cat People, Lewton instead created a deeply personal ode to childhood innocence and the confusion and loneliness of children in an adult world they don't understand. Young Amy (Ann Carter) is the daughter of the heroes of Cat People, Oliver and Alice (Kent Smith and Jane Randolph, both reprising their roles from the first film), now happily married following the tragic events of the earlier film. Despite this tangible connection to the past, the tone of this sequel is far removed from the moody, shadowy supernatural horror of Cat People.
Instead, the film is about the inner fantasy world of a lonely young child. Amy is an isolated and distant girl, easily distracted from games with the other children, often content to run off by herself to make friends with a butterfly instead. She has an active imagination and a free spirit, but her increasing encapsulation in her own dream world worries her father Oliver, who has already seen the damage that vivid fantasies can do to one's psyche. In fact, Amy's problems are only compounded by Oliver, who, wounded by his past, resorts to simply berating and punishing his daughter when he judges that her fantasies have gone too far. He all but severs the lines of communication between them, explicitly telling her that he doesn't want to hear anything about her fantasies or about her isolation from the other children at school. He doesn't realize it, but he's cutting her off, preventing her from being able to talk to him, pushing her further away into a dream world where she can find a more loving and accepting friend who doesn't yell at her or judge her.
She soon finds this friend in the form of Irena (Simone Simon), the deadly cat woman from the first film, Oliver's deceased first wife. But even though Simon returns to play this vision of Irena — possibly a ghost or simply a figment of the girl's imagination — she is not at all the feral, intimidating creature who stalked through Cat People. Dressed in beautiful, glamorous gowns, shimmering in the icy winter glow of the family's backyard, Irena looks like a princess from a Disney musical, a young girl's fantasy playmate who appears whenever she calls. With her lilting foreign voice and slightly off-kilter beauty, Simon proves as potent in this film as she was with her more sinister role in its predecessor. She is Amy's sweet, kind friend, a source of comfort when the young girl has to cope with the meanness and fickleness of children at school or the inconsistent messages and haphazard parenting she faces at home. Amy is especially confused to find that her parents' discomfort with her fertile imagination doesn't extend to superstitions like wishing on her birthday candles, which they encourage.
Indeed, Amy finds comfort and support from everywhere but her home, where her well-meaning parents can't seem to figure out whether there's anything wrong with the girl or if she's just an ordinary child. Amy is especially drawn to the kind but eccentric old Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean) who lives in a creepy, decrepit mansion around the corner. This old lady gives the girl a "wishing ring" (the ring that first summons Irena) and tells her ghost stories like the legend of the Headless Horseman. Lewton himself grew up not far from Sleepy Hollow, and the mingled fascination and terror that Amy feels upon hearing this story must have been drawn from Lewton's own childhood. Mrs. Farren is interesting to Amy, but the young girl hardly understands what's going on in the house, with a scowling, bitter woman (the cat-like Elizabeth Russell, channeling Simon's creepiness from Cat People) lurking around in the shadows. She is Mrs. Farren's daughter Barbara, but the addled old lady believes her daughter died as a child, calling Barbara a liar and treating her with undisguised contempt. One of the film's points is that all of this goes over the head of Amy, who doesn't understand the complex and ugly adult emotions bubbling over in this house, which she loves so much for its ornate decorations and the theatrical ghost stories of Mrs. Farren.
Although The Curse of the Cat People is hardly a horror story, the shadowy atmosphere and visual beauty for which Lewton's productions have become known is quite possibly at its peak. The film had two directors, both directing features for the first time: Gunther von Fritsch, who was fired for progressing too slowly, and editor Robert Wise, who stepped in to take his place and complete the picture halfway through. The film is seamless, however, bolstering the impression that it was Lewton, not his directors, who was the driving creative force on the RKO horror films he produced. The visual style is clean and sumptuous, using shadows to carve out areas of light and shade in the family's back yard, where Irena hovers, glowing radiantly, beneath the black and white grids caused by sunlight filtering through the leaves above. There is a subtle eerie aura to the film, a suggestion of something creepy beneath its sunny suburban surface, but the film's only real hint of the supernatural is in the way Irena is able to dim the light in the backyard or put on a show of sparkling crystalline patterns for Amy. It soon becomes apparent that the real danger lies not with a ghostly presence come back to haunt the living, but with the incomprehensible problems and emotions of the adult world, too large and confusing for a young mind to cope with or understand.
This is a lovely, haunting film, as disturbing in its way as any of Lewton's more conventional horror productions. There is no true horror here, only the misunderstandings between generations that might, if unchecked, grow into potentially tragic alienation. The film's horror lies in the fear that one doesn't understand one's own child, or else in the amplified fears of childhood, where the sound of a speeding truck might be transformed into the galloping hooves of the Headless Horseman's mount. In this child's eye world, ghost stories that evoked delight and mystery by day jolt the child awake, sweating and terrified, by night, comforted only by the presence of a sweet, angelic friend, hovering at the foot of the bed and whispering lullabies into the chilled night air.