The Curse Of The Cat People

US (1944) Dirs. Gunther von Fritsch & Robert Wise

With the original Cat People film ending is a rather decisive manner a direct sequel would be sheer folly whilst a new story with a different cast would assuredly be commercial suicide. Then again, Hollywood has been guilty of both but in this instance, producer Val Lewton tries for a happy medium between the two.

Set roughly seven years after the events of the first film, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) are now married with a daughter Amy (Ann Carter), who is celebrating her sixth birthday. But it isn’t a happy one when Amy is scolded at school for slapping a boy who killed a butterfly, then nobody showed up to her party because she didn’t post the invitations via a conventional post box.

Amy is a bit of dreamer and tends to slip away into a fantasy world, where she believed her father’s story about the old tree in the garden being a magical letterbox. All alone Amy happens upon an old house from which an unseen old woman calls from an upstairs window and throws a ring to Amy, telling her it is a wishing ring. Amy wishes for a friend and her wish is granted when a woman (Simone Simon) appears before her.

Calling this tangential sequel a horror is a bit of stretch – mystery or gothic drama are better suited descriptions. Even the term “sequel” feels spurious, as the cat curse aspect is hardly a factor in it at all. Similarly, whilst producer Val Lewton was still involved in this film, director Jacques Tourneur was replaced by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise, both earning their first directorial credits.

Von Fritsch had only worked on short films before this and ended up behind schedule with only half the film completed in the allotted 18 days. Celebrated editor and future four time Oscar winner Wise replaced von Fritsch and finished the film in just 9 days but took it over budget, although like Cat People, sets from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons were used to saved on expense.

This might seem incidental as many sequels or follow ups see a change in personnel but in this instance it is palpable in so much of the presentation and atmosphere that Curse Of The Cat People is, for all intents and purposes, a completely different film altogether but one with a shared cast that even writer DeWitt Bodeen couldn’t seem recreate the magic with.

One vital difference is the use of a musical score, something largely eschewed in the first film, a ubiquitous presence here. It’s not so much overwhelming but a pervasive gentle, whimsical, almost romantic soundtrack normally reserved for twee melodramas. The context here is the happy family unit settled in a rural province, and the innocent reverie of Amy’s imaginary life, designed to create a warm and gentle mood.

In stark contrast to this is the old house and the mysterious old lady which stands out like a gothic sore thumb. The assumed spooky resident is in fact infirmed former actress Julia Farren (Julia Dean), being nursed by her daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), a surly, unfriendly woman towards Amy for reasons explained later on that become crucial to the dramatic climax.

Julia spins some wonderful yarns to the impressionable Amy, including the chilling legend of Sleepy Hollow which also plays a part in the finale, and the two find a kindred spirit in each other’s capacity for imagination. It is this influence that spurs Amy to use the ring Julia gave her to wish for a friend, only how was Amy to know that this ethereal figure that brightens her life happens to be the spirit of her father’s late first wife?

Aside from a glimpse of a black cat at the very start of the film, the feline motif is absent from this sequel thus the curse the title refers to appears to have no relevance to the story at all. That Irena is actually benevolent figure whose only act of defiance is swearing Amy to secrecy over her presence from Oliver negates any idea that a curse is at play for anyone – Irena’s return isn’t even predicated by haunting her ex-husband.

Whatever sinister forces are at play are found in the Farren house, typically one of ill-repute around the neighbourhood and Amy is forbidden to visit without the presence of (black) butler Edward (Sir Lancelot). The subplot involving Julia and Barbara is at time the darkest and more exciting story to follow but instead feels shoehorned in to satisfy the “horror” remit in lieu of Irena’s spectral presence.

But the strangest thing is it actually works. Certainly, the Farren’s story could have used further exploration and their characters fleshed out beyond the ambiguity of their tropes designed to fit the narrative, but it can be said Bodeen’s script manages to weave this into the main story of Amy’s daydreaming and the dissent it causes with her parents rather neatly.

Unlike its predecessor, there is a happy ending, albeit one that predictably veers towards the sentimental and saccharine but not before a tense and potentially unpleasant one is teased. This might be due to the person in peril being a child whereas had she been an adult, we might have had a gorier conclusion instead but again it comes together quite well and sets up the redemption being sought between child and parents.

Despite top billing, Simone Simon is only in a few scenes but her presence is mercurial. Kent Smith plays a more cynical Oliver this time leaving Jane Randolph as Alice to be the reasonable parent. Young Ann Carter is likeable as Amy and handles the drama well working nicely with veteran Julia Dean.

If one can separate Curse Of The Cat People from its antecedent, they will find a nifty psychodrama that could have been more than its 66-minutes allowed; expect something akin to Cat People and only disappointment waits.