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STUDIO: Warner Bros.
RUNNING TIME: 73/71 Minutes
• Commentary on each film
Universal horror kept kids happy in the early ’40s, RKO and Val Lewton provided
sophisticated adult escapism. Despite titles that promised exotic and gruesome
images, their horror was pure class. Of Lewton’s productions for the studio, Cat
People is his first and best, and the sequel is a darkly idiosyncratic,
if less successful family drama.
first film is an unparalleled success. Later, The Seventh Victim would
demonstrate the producer’s facility with an intricate story. Cat
People, on the other hand, is a picture of elegance and simplicity. It
combines the uncertainty of urban romance with perfectly crafted shocks to
create a brand new, shadowy horror that blew Universal’s stuff off the screen.
"I really hope she doesn’t expect me to live up to that."
gorgeous Irena is, as they say, a minx. She’s a Serbian immigrant who sketches
for the fashion industry. She stalks the city zoo, contemplating the large cats
and a diabolical fate she both fears and longs for. Irena is descended from a
group of people once driven out of their village for witchcraft and evil. She
likes the dark; it’s friendly. Actress Simone Simon’s alluring, accented lisp
lends a girlish appeal; dark eyes and worldly presence give Irena an unearthly
meets Irena at the zoo and tumbles like a picked lock. Easy to see why; he
leads a dull life as a design engineer at a shipbuilding firm. He’s only got
Alice to look at. She’s the sort of New York girl that knows where to get a
great martini or superb bisque, but Oliver’s more interested in the mysterious
"That’s a cigarette and this is vodka…the good old days are great!"
definitely that. Their courtship is brief, but marriage isn’t what Oliver
expected. Irena is haunted by tales of her supernatural past. She fears
intimacy could unleash evil she fears lurks within. Consummation isn’t on the
menu. Ready with a shoulder to cry on is Alice. Soon enough nature takes its
course and Irena is given reason to let jealous evil reign.
People, Val Lewton and director Jaques Tournier create fear out of the
mundane. The script, by future Lewton regular DeWitt Bodeen, drew a layered
story out of a corny title. There are no real monsters; the film mocks genre
icons like the silver bullet. Armed with no budget and standing sets, Lewton
and co. laid out a romantic triangle full of jealousy, fear and a subdued,
predatory sexuality. Nothing could have been further from the horror a ’40s
audience expected to see, and the film stands out even today as unique and
money for effects, Tournier and Lewton relied on sound and suggestive lighting
to shock. Most memorable is Alice’s nighttime swim in a hotel pool, where she’s
menaced by horrors that would have been laughably cheap had Tournier shot them
head-on. Roy Webb’s dexterous score always drives the picture forward, but
there the soundtrack features only naturalistic effects and Alice’s screams.
The choice flew in the face of established technique, and the scene is a
through the setpieces is a trio of characters that embraces familiar foibles,
weaknesses and hopes. How could anyone not sympathize with Oliver, once he’s in
the thick of his problems? In response, Alice’s behavior is complex; as a
friend and would-be lover she’s far more real than almost any genre lead. While Simone Simon is an iconic anti-heroine,
Kent Smith and Jane Randolph deliver oddly naturalistic turns as Oliver and
Alice. Cat People never shortchanges its people in favor of made-up
monsters, and the cast uniformly delivers some of the best b-picture acting
you’re likely to see.
relies on romantic overtones, Cat People is shaded with sexual
unfulfillment and fetishism. Visions of death prevail and Irena’s outfits and
apartment imply a deep acceptance, even enjoyment of her fears. As Joseph Breen
still held American film content in his repressive iron fist, the content is
remarkable. Today Arrested Development is getting away with murder. Fifty years
ago it was Lewton and Cat People.
dark aspects don’t overwhelm the sensitivity that is Lewton’s key contribution.
No matter how bizarre Irena’s behavior, or how moodily the picture was lit,
Lewton’s script revisions ensured that characters expressed real concerns
through dialogue as credible as anything in an A-list picture. In some ways
more so — even cameo support players project a dignity and individualism that
flaunts mid-century standards.
I’m jealous of this, since I only dream in Hanna-Barbera.
is also the introduction of Dr. Lewis Judd, Irena’s psychiatrist and a
character that turns up in Lewton’s other best film, The Seventh Victim. Tom
Conway plays the utmost urbane intellectual, the perfect counterpoint for the
film’s current of mysticism and fear.
represents Lewton’s best instincts as a guiding creator. He’s a predatory,
selfish man with private motivations, but not without the ability to recognize
genuine need in others. Whether he decides to capitalize on that need or to
offer genuine help is a matter of whim, and that makes him entirely whole. In
his two films Judd becomes one of the best supporting characters of ’40s
I do wish
his introduction didn’t feature filler dialogue about psychiatry and childhood.
Tournier seems to feel the same; Judd’s entrance is the only dead spot in the
film. It’s staged with all the ingenuity of an Ed Wood production. You can
almost feel Tournier’s desperation to be done with the psychobabble.
The face of a man about to sleep alone on his wedding night.
blame him when there’s great stuff to chew on, like Alice’s walk home through
Central Park? As in the pool scene, the park walk used nothing but suggestion
and clever editing to create a fiercely oppressive air. You’ve seen it in a
thousand horror films since, including almost every effort from Lewton.
Cat People was a triumph, and it nearly
erased the stigma that Orson Welles had drawn over RKO. It made the careers of
most of the technical artists involved with the film, and began Lewton’s
classic run of modern psychological horror. Nine years later, Val Lewton would
be dead of heart failure.
Curse of the Cat People
two years after Lewton saved RKO, the studio threw out another absurd title and
demanded a sequel. Lewton accepted, but seemingly with even less enthusiasm for
the title than in the past. The script he commissioned was accordingly even
farther from a stock horror film than the original. It’s far from his best, and
not at all the sequel you’d expect. But Lewton never delivered the expected,
and moments of Curse
have their own beguiling charm.
and Alice return, and they’ve got a daughter. Amy is a dreamy, isolated little
girl. She invents fantasy playmates and is distanced from real children. Though
the family has prospered (and moved to the suburbs) the spectre of Irena
haunts them. Oliver fears Amy’s inner life, and encourages her to be a regular
please her father, Amy tries. But the neighborhood children reject her, and she
finds unlikely refuge in a dark, rambling mansion haunted by old Julia Farren,
an aging actress. Sunset Blvd. wouldn’t appear until six years later, but in Julia
Dean I could see only Gloria Swanson. Like Swanson’s Norma Desmond, Mrs. Farrin
haunts her old manse, lost in memories of old performances and fading fame.
Farren pays great attention to Amy, to the consternation of her own daughter.
She gives the girl a ring, upon which Amy wishes for a friend. And who appears
but Irena, now shorn of the dark fur she once wore as a cat woman. Now she’s a
ghostly fairy in a flowing gown. She and Amy enjoy one another’s company,
frolicking in the yard and celebrating a serene, secret Christmas apart from
Ann Carter’s quiet, restrained work as Amy, and she keeps the film from
spinning out of control. When it works, the credit is largely hers, for
offering a view into a childhood at odds with expectations.
Carter’s work are the three adult leads, all of whom are shades of their former
selves. Kent Smith and Jane Randolph deliver the sort of stiff work you’d
expect from a budget sequel. When Simone Simon appears she doesn’t seem to know
what to do, and Irena becomes little more than window dressing, de-clawing the
haunting image she left behind.
After a smart bit of set dressing, the youth uactions went off without a hitch.
Lewton regulars also appear. One is Elizabeth Russell, who briefly appeared as
the cat woman in Cat People and as the sickly neighbor in The Seventh Victim. Here
she’s Barbara, the witchy younger Farren. There’s also I Walked With A Zombie‘s
awesomely named Sir Lancelot as Oliver and Alice’s in-home help.
best, story feels like Daniel Clowes’ Eightball.
Amy is a normal, fairly bright girl adrift in a world that makes a sense in a
way only she can see. Her parents’ wishes never seem rational, and presences
like Barbara move as if controlled by laws that belong to another plane.
great little flourishes I like, such as Mrs. Farren’s expression as Amy is
whisked away following the rendition of the headless horseman legend. Her face
twists from amusement to resentment in a second, and the shift says a lot more
than dialogue could.
of hiding a family drama inside a genre plot, Curse more obviously
drips melodrama. Strange notes like the relationship between Barbara and
her mother — Mrs. Farren believes her daughter dead and Barbara an imposter — seem opportunistic and weird for weird’s sake.
Deep in the shadows, Drew’s addictions plan rebirth.
ground-floor psychology that colors some of Lewton’s other films is used as a
plot device here too, and it infects the entire structure of the film. Irena
as an image that unites Oliver and Amy? Mrs. Farrin and her daughter as the
image of Oliver’s family as it could be? Sort of. It sounds better on paper
than it is on film. The threads don’t come together, and Curse feels like a few
short stories awkwardly grafted into a single narrative.
commentary, Greg Mank makes a good case for Curse as Lewton’s most
explicit airing of his own problems. However resonant the movie might
be for Lewton and family, for outsiders it’s too obvious, cluttered and
unwieldy. Curse is an interesting film, featuring a great child
performance, but it will never compare to Lewton’s best.
Cat People: 9.6 out of 10
Curse of the Cat People: 6.5 out
enough. I’ve still got tapes I backed up from the laserdisc box set in the mid
’90s, and while these discs look good, they’re basically the same presentation as those old discs. The Cat People print shows age in all the usual ways — blemishes,
scratches and a tiny jump every once in a while. The sequel is better, probably
because it’s not been touched as often. But the black is deep, the contrast is
good and the edges are no more sharp than they should be.
8 out of 10
Warm and dewy, mostly. Almost music to my ears — if only it was a mastered a little better and with less legacy analog hiss. Roy Webb’s music is lush and sweeping when it should
be, demure and pensive when Lewton demands. Dialogue is natural and clear.
These aren’t audio stunners, but when the soundtrack drops to ambient sound
during key moments of Cat People, there’s still some analog hiss to distract from the minimal sound design.
7 out of 10
she frigid? Is she a lesbian? Is she a frigid lesbian? Or is she truly a cat
woman?" Greg Mank provides the commentary for both films. Both tracks are
of the composed, academic variety, but Mank’s voice is easy going and
conversational, so the tracks aren’t dry. Actually, they’re a lot of fun, as
you can tell from the quote. He’s exhaustively researched Lewton’s work, and
provides lots of detail on the origin, creation and reception of both movies.
he makes a great argument for the film as a dual-layer biography, with Oliver
and daughter Amy both standing in for Lewton at different points in life. It’s
probably spot-on, but my own reading and enjoyment of the film wasn’t much
improved by the background. After listening to the commentary I definitely see Curse
as a more interesting and relevant film, at least as far as Lewton’s
career goes, but I don’t have any greater desire to watch it again.
I’m wearing you.
enjoy Mank’s constand name-dropping of other classic horror films. The way he
talks about them in context with Lewton’s movies makes me hungry to track down
the obscurities that we’ve mostly forgotten.
tracks also feature some cut-in interview recordings with Simone Simon. They’re
more color commentary than anything else, but I did appreciate hearing from one
of the first-hand participants, especially years after her death.
8 out of 10
tough to add class to the cover of a double-feature disc, but Warners has done
a good job. The white frame is surprisingly good for the poster art for each
film, which appears in great color and detail despite the narrow space allotted
for each image. And though the films are ostensibly horror, the white frame is a good way to emphasize the fact that neither picture is in any way a typical horror flick. Given the options, this works nicely.
7 out of 10
Overall: 9.5 out of 10