Monday, October 10, 2011

October 9th: The Curse of The Cat People (1944)

Six years ago, marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) fell in love Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), an exotic fashion designer from Serbia. Once married, Oliver discovered that Irena believed herself to be descended from a race of cat people and that she will become a bloodthirsty Panther if sexually aroused. Oliver tried to get Irena psychiatric help, but things went from bad to worse; Irena murdered her psychiatrist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) and then committed suicide at the Zoo where she first met Oliver.
Oliver has since married former co-worker Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) and they now have a daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), who is deeply introverted and spends most of her time daydreaming. Oliver, recognizing Amy's similarities to Irena, fears that his daughter will become like his ex-wife and demands that Amy start spending time with other children and stop daydreaming.
After her sixth birthday, Amy finds a picture of Irena and, using a ring given to her by aging actress Julia Farren (Julia Dean), wishes for a friend and gets Irena, who plays with Amy in the backyard and becomes her best friend, unaware that Ms. Farren's alienated daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell) plots to kill Amy out of jealousy, while Oliver tries to force Amy to stop dreaming about Irena and grow up.
Released in 1942, Jacques Tourneur's Cat People is often lauded as one of the best films from producer Val Lewton during his tenure as RKO's Head of Horror. In contrast to Universal Studios' output, Val Lewton specialized in ambiguous, psychological horror. Rather than using monsters in outrageous special effects, Lewton believed that the unseen was more unsettling than what was seen and Cat People perfected that formula. Never utilizing any overt supernatural elements, only strongly hinting at it, the film's horrors came from wondering if Simone Simon's Irena was really a bloodthirsty Catwoman or simply suffering from mental instability.
When it was all over, Cat People seemed to be a one-off with no room for a sequel. Yet surprisingly, Lewton and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen reunited with actors Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Jane Randolph for The Curse of The Cat People, released two years after the original. A big fan of Cat People, I was satisfied with that film and had no interest in a sequel. My one rule with sequels is that they should only be made if, and only if, there's a reason to continue the story. The Silence of The Lambs ended with Hannibal Lecter out of prison and Hannibal showed him continuing his murder spree. Frankenstein ended with Dr. Frankenstein sacrificing his life to stop the Monster and The Bride of Frankenstein dealt with him coming to terms with what he had created. Alien ended with Ripley the sole survivor of a Xenomorph attack and Aliens showed her face her fear by battling an army of Aliens. That's what sequels do; they take the story of the original film and build off of it.
The Curse of The Cat People, on the surface, seems to be an appropriate sequel. Original characters Oliver and Alice are back and they have a shy, quiet daughter similar to Irena who they fear will become like Irena. Unfortunately, that's where the connection ends. Other than the returning characters, The Curse of The Cat People feels less like a proper sequel and more like studio executives trying to cash in on a franchise by sticking the characters into an existing, unrelated story. In fact, Lewton and Bodeen wanted it to be a standalone film called Amy and Her Friend, but RKO overruled them.
That being said, there have been effective sequels with very loose connections to their predecessors. The Brides of Dracula was just another vampire story with Van Helsing, but it's easily one of the best vampire films from Hammer and Terence Fisher. George Romero's sequels to Night of The Living Dead are all loose continuations, but the second and third films, Dawn of The Dead and Day of The Dead, are masterpieces. Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil has nothing to do with the three films before it, yet, while not a great film, it's fairly interesting on its own.
It all boils down to the execution and that's ultimately where The Curse of The Cat People fails. Despite being a mere 70 minutes long, virtually nothing happens and the story takes forever to get to its main thrust, being the return of Irena. Instead, the first 30 minutes are spent establishing Amy's loneliness and difficulty making friends, not to mention a worthless subplot involving an aging actress past her prime who believes her cold-hearted daughter to be a sinister impostor.
This subplot involving Mrs. Farren and her daughter has no place in this film. Not only does it have no bearing on the main plot, it's confusing and unresolved. Why does Mrs. Farren believe her daughter died years ago? What about Barbara makes Mrs. Farren believe she's not her daughter? Why is Barbara so sinister and cold? It's an interesting idea on its own, but it doesn't fit with the rest of the film. It feels incredibly forced and unnecessary, but might have been salvaged if the characters were interesting. Unfortunately, Julia Dean and Elizabeth Russell do nothing but make me keep wondering why they're here.
What of our returning characters? Kent Smith and Jane Randolph were a wonderful pairing in Tourneur's film, exuding a sexual chemistry rarely seen in 1940s films. That chemistry is nowhere to be seen now. Oliver' story is interesting enough; he remains haunted by Irena and fears Amy will suffer her fate, yet he shows little compassion and just acts angry, demanding that a six year old stop making up imaginary friends and grow up. Randolph has absolutely nothing to do, other than to comment on Oliver's paranoia.
That leaves Simone Simon, returning to the role of the exotic Irena Dubrovna. Watching the film, however, you'd swear this was a different character. Simon is still attractive, but never once does she even attempt to convey the insecurities and psychological damage she gave Irena in the original film. She's reduced to nothing more than a playmate for Amy, leaving it to the useless Elizabeth Russell to serve as the film's "villain." She seems peaceful and happy most of the time for no reason.
This leads to the film's biggest fault; it's not much of a horror film. It's not unheard of for sequels to switch genres; all three Evil Dead films belong in different genres; horror, slapstick black comedy and looney tunes comedy. The Curse of The Cat People's problem is that it does nothing with the horror elements from the first film. We're lead to believe that Amy might be Irena's daughter and, therefore, has possibly inherited her mother's mental imbalance. This never goes anywhere. The film is not about a child carrying on the sins of her mother; it's about a lonely child finding a way to hold onto her fantasies in the real world. The concept in and of itself doesn't exclude horror, but the execution lacks any horror elements. The term cat people is never once brought up and the film's sole bit of horror; the cold Barbara wanting to kill Amy out of jealousy, lacks any real tension and is quickly resolved.
What of Amy herself? Ann Carter is an interesting enough little girl and looks an awful lot like Simone Simon at times. But, since that idea disappears real fast, it doesn't seem to matter much (the issue of who Amy's mother really is is never resolved either). Most horror fans tend to cringe at child protagonists and, while it doesn't bother me in general, Amy is certainly cringe-worthy. She's far too innocent and bland to carry this film. Rather than presenting the idea of her as sinister and possibly crazy, she's just lonely and really creative. Not the right choice at all.
I give The Curse of The Cat People 2 out of 5 Stars. Is it outright terrible? Probably not; the acting is mostly acceptable and the film is competently made. Interestingly enough, this was the directorial debut of Robert Wise of The Haunting and Star Trek: The Motion Picture fame. The film fails because of three fatal mistakes; its child heroine couldn't carry a five-minute short let alone a 70-minute film, the script lacks any understanding of pacing, character development and storytelling and there's little to nothing here that could be called horror. Let's just pretend The Cat People was a standalone that was remade in the '80s and leave it at that. This film has no place in the franchise.

Next Up: October 10th: The Thing From Another World (1951)

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