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Curse of the Cat People is an underrated Christmas classic

Contributed by
Dec 21, 2018

When you think of Christmas movies, 1944's Curse of the Cat People might not be the first that springs to mind. That’s a real shame, because it is one heartwarming holiday-themed classic. It may be only tangentially about curses or cat people, but it does involve apparitions, attempted murder, and a compelling mystery with a healthy dose of holiday cheer. The marriage of horror and Christmas in genre cinema hadn’t yet become the beloved trope it is today, making this film a pioneer of festive scares.

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Val Lewton

Screenwriter, producer and director Val Lewton was born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in what is now part of Ukraine. He was the nephew of the infamous vamp Allah Nazimova, whose legend as an extravagant, highly dramatic queer actor of the silent screen is better known than films (as with many works of the silent era, the majority of them were destroyed or lost to history). Lewton’s mother left his father and took her children, first to Berlin, later to Hollywood, to live with her famous sister. There, Anna Lewton took on work writing movie scripts, and the familial interest in cinema led to a young Val pursuing his own work in the industry. As Nazimova’s career faded, Lewton was already working behind the scenes in Hollywood, writing copy for MGM. In the early ‘40s, he was appointed to the position of head of RKO’s horror films. Filling in seemingly silly titles given to him by the studio, he went on to create what are now considered to be early masterpieces of genre film that are best known for an overall refusal to fit into simple genre tropes and formats and far exceeding the expectations allotted by their budgets: Think I Walked With a Zombie, The Ghost Ship, The Leopard Man, and The Body Snatcher. The most famous of these was his first film, 1942's Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur.

Lewton used much the same process for making horror movies as later genre film-makers like Roger Corman would, stripping budgets to their bare-bone essentials so that the films couldn’t help but make a profit. For instance, Curse of the Cat People was known to have reused sets from the Orson Welles drama The Magnificent Ambersons. Lewton would also make a point of casting the same actor in more than one film and giving work to crews that were relatively inexperienced and directors whose first major works were created in partnership with Lewton. Eventually, RKO and Lewton parted ways, and his work became spottier and more difficult to track. Regardless, his place in horror history as a very intentionally unique idea person who created some of the most influential movies of all time was cemented, and the rest is history.

Cat People

Among this series of Lewton-produced films, we have Curse of the Cat People, a very loosely defined sequel of 1942’s Cat People. The original film followed a young designer named Irene who falls in love with a man named Ollie. They marry, but Irene is terrified of a curse she believes has been put on her family that will cause her to transform into a man-eating panther. Her husband eventually falls in love with a woman who isn’t terrified of turning into a jungle cat. Irene has a nervous breakdown and eventually dies. The film is well-known to horror filmmakers for being the origin point of the jump scare, also nicknamed the "Lewton bus," to describe a moment in which a tense scene builds and builds only to be diffused by something ordinary. This was a standard Lewton technique that has become omnipresent in horror cinema, but in the case of Cat People, it took the form of a bus pulling up right as we expect Irene to attack Alice.

The Curse of the Cat People doesn’t have any cats in it, save for a single clip at the beginning in which a few children harass one before it runs away from them. This scene was apparently added in later at the insistence of studio executives. Lewton had loftier ideas for the story than a standard horror sequel and had wanted to name the film Amy and Her Friend rather than the slightly more marketable title given by RKO. The studio insisted on keeping their chosen title to reap the most profit from its association with the first film, which had come out only two years prior and made $8 million (over $124 million in today's money). The end result is a creepy, slow-burn Christmas-themed ghost story with an unreliable narrator in the form of Amy, the daughter of the first film's protagonists.

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Ollie, Alice, and Amy

The movie kicks off with Ollie and Alice from Cat People. They have married and had a child, who is shy and spends much of her time alone. In the beginning, another child runs to help her catch a butterfly but accidentally crushes it in his hand before he’s able to give it to her. Amy is horrified, and she slaps him right across the face.

We cut to Amy’s parents in a meeting with a teacher who more or less says that it’s their fault that their daughter doesn’t fit in. Unknowingly, she’s pretty much hitting the nail on the head in regard to Ollie’s strange feelings towards his daughter. Alice suggests to him he resents Amy’s lack of interest in art. Surprisingly, he confesses that he does resent her, but for even worse reason’s than Alice believes. “It’s not that. There’s something moody in her, something sickly. She could almost be Irene’s child.” Understandably, Alice doesn’t stand for that, and they go on to be at odds for most of the film over how to deal with Amy’s apparent flights of fancy.

Amy accidentally botches her own birthday party, which leads to her being ostracized by the neighborhood children. Her father is disappointed in her for failing to adhere to societal norms, while her mother is more sympathetic. Amy visits an elderly woman, a former star of the stage named Mrs. Farren. Farren lives with her daughter, who she refuses to acknowledge as her child. When the woman refers to herself as Barbara Farren, Mrs. Farren shakes her head sadly and says that she is an imposter and her real daughter is dead. Parts of the film were cut in order to make room moments like the cat at the beginning of the film, so one assumes that the explanation behind this bizarre relationship was left on the cutting room floor. As it stands, Mrs. Farren appears to be suffering from dementia, and Barbara’s proximity to it has driven her to jealous, malicious behavior towards Amy.

The Return of Irene

To make matters worse, Amy appears to be hallucinating Irene’s image as her own imaginary friend, which drives her father into a rage when he finds out after going to some length to avoid all mention of Irene. Amy flees into the snow, ending up alone with a murderous Barbara Farren. In the end, it’s the power of innocence and forgiveness that saves Amy from a tragic fate, and she returns home to enjoy the rest of Christmas with her family.

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Simone Simon returns as Irene’s ghost, and it is an interesting change to see her go from a woman at the edge of her sanity to a serene apparition offering Amy endless love and support as her imaginary friend. She has less to do as an actor in this movie than she did in the last, but she remains a captivating presence. Her moments with Amy hold a level of tenderness that Irene had never possessed, and although it is strongly implied that she is not really there, it is still satisfying to see her as an angelic being full of goodwill and kindness after watching her slow, painful demise in Cat People.

Sir Lancelot

Curse of the Cat People also features the third and final appearance in a Lewton movie for Sir Lancelot, a politically active Calypso singer of the time who had also appeared in I Walked With A Zombie and Ghost Ship, thus qualifying not just as a Lewton fave but also a genre star in his own right. Although the roles in question are stereotypical roles of servants, it remains a delight to see him onscreen. The other adults come across as comparatively addled and conflicted, while his character is calm and collected. The sympathy that emanates from his portrayal is typical of him, and he is yet another actor with whom we are left to wonder what might have been had his film career been allowed to flourish with more complex roles. As it stands, he was a well-loved performer in his day, and his scant appearances onscreen are always worthwhile.

And... Goya?

Another seemingly minor note is that there is a painting hanging in the Reed home which Alice disdainfully refers to as Irene’s favorite before softening and going into an existential monologue about the nature of how we use possessions to relate to our pasts. The painting in question is the portrait of Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zúñiga by Goya. Like so many of Goya’s paintings, the image initially appears as benign, but upon closer inspection takes on a nightmarish quality. Manuel had been a very young boy at the time of the painting. Like so many children of the time, he was to pass away to a mysterious illness by the time he was 8 years old. The painting itself takes on extra meaning as a portent of doom for young Manuel, but in its essence, it is disturbing enough. The child has a bird on a string, and he stands next to a birdcage. Slightly behind him, out of his line of sight, three cats crouch and gaze after the bird hungrily. The mention of this as the troubled Irene’s favorite work and its overall relevance to Amy is such a minor detail it is often forgotten, but the relation of the painting to the theme of the film is fascinating.

Curse of the Cat People is one of those movies in which the stories surrounding it are equally as interesting as the movie itself. With a running time of slightly under 70 minutes, it packs a lot of philosophizing into a little space, and the emotional impact of the film is surprisingly poignant. Incorporating scenes from Lewton’s own childhood and focusing on the way loss affects people over time, the movie is a high-quality, introspective family drama that still manages to offer a lingering chill by forcing its audience to experience the naive, dangerous, changeable world of a child.

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