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First chapter of a book on Val Lewton's The Curse of the Cat People

Tuesday 8/23/22

Chapter I: Shocks Not Shocks

If we love horror films in large part because of their ability to shock us, then it would seem that the blackest in desiccated bouquets—the best kind given the idiom—ought to be thrown at a horror film that shocks in how it shocks.

Horror pictures are designed—nay, they largely exist—to supply jolts, but said jolting provides maximum—and most memorable—impact within an integrated whole, for such are the jolts of life, and nothing packs a more outsized potential for fear than life itself, which never fails to deliver the fright factor, no matter who you are.

Every viewer of horror films is acquainted with the the jump-scare, the big moment that we know is coming, only we aren't exactly sure when. Hence the fake-out version of the jump-scare, before the terror boom is lowered and out pops hockey mask-wearing Jason from behind the bale of hay in the barn. The theatricality is extreme. We accept that a device is being utilized. There’s an inauthenticity that’s part of the regular horror film bargain, which is part of the fun. A diverting seamlessness. It’s how a horror film winks at us and says, you’re okay here, you know the drill. The horror is campy. And camp-horror is not horror-horror.

But what about a horror film that frightens on myriad levels—the emotional, the psychological, the spiritual, the eidetic, and the physical—and yet is a work of love, concern, regeneration, reprieve, and comfort? Can we do that? Is it allowed? Or is that a bridge (with headless Hessian in hot pursuit) too far?

A movie of this ilk would appear to break every unholy commandment in the horror film handbook, though is also how the horrors of life work, only they’re not story-boarded, unless you believe in that kind of thing. What a rare undertaking—and realization—this film would necessarily be. A unique work.

There are moments of tenderness in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), for instance, but they're not what we're left pondering as we lie in bed at night, still creeped out by Doctor Pretorius and with the hateful hiss of the displeased Bride remaining in our ears. Gentleness is featured—think about the Monster’s scene in the hut with his buddy and fellow smoking enthusiast, the blind hermit—but it debouches into the stark terror of death, or worse still: another death for a troubled soul—and make no mistake, Boris Karloff’s Monster has a soul—who has already endured a would-be final demise twice.

In F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), a maiden allows the vampire count to embrace her—and do what he will, carte blanche, with her body—as the sun rises, willing to sacrifice herself so that others may live and know peace. The concern for one's fellow human is writ large. That moment of saving sunlight chills us as much as any in a film seeded with perverse imagery, because we know what a devil of a morning our heroine has elected to face on humanity’s behalf.

Horror films are laden with examples of people trying to protect their loved ones. A Quiet Place (2018) is a terror riff on the devotion of the parental caregiver. This protection and its upkeep is a core tenet of the genre because to lose who and what one loves the most is to also lose one’s self in a chain reaction of death begetting death.

I think monsters know that. They are inveterate knockers-over of life’s dominoes. Horror films play for the biggest stakes when they strike furthest and hardest into the home, and the ultimate safe haven is vitiated. Every child fears the monster under the bed at some point, and it's as if all the best makers of horror pictures passed around an inter-office memo on this score, formulating a shared goal to fashion, each to the best of their abilities, a cinematic version of this most verboten game of gotcha.

Is it even possible for a horror film to be joyous, or is that like saying a comedy can be serious? What about if it also features suffering, loss, tormentors who are both dead and living, with woods as fraught with ghosts as any through which the likes of a schoolteacher in a post-prandial haze—and having just been dumped—ever journeyed? Is that cheating?

One watches Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) and is chilled and stilled by a sinister atmosphere as deliciously realized as any in all of horror filmmaking, only to learn in the end that the entire story wasn't what it purports to be, and these vampires are no more "real" vampires than the child who dresses up for Halloween. I love Mark of the Vampire, but I must bargain with myself as to how I will watch it each time I do. I make a decision whether I'll either pretend that the ending didn't happen, or that it's a further portion of an involuted ruse designed so that these vampires—who are the ultimate plotting bloodsuckers in my second scenario—may resume their acts of nefarious siphoning with less outside interference than ever before.

Or how about this: Can a horror film be terrifying, heartbreaking, and joyous altogether? That's one of the many shocks within a shock within a shock of what I'm going to call Robert Wise's The Curse of the Cat People, the 1944 follow-up to 1942’s Cat People, which had been directed by Jacques Tourneur.

Movie lovers love to debate sequels, as in "What's the best sequel ever?" You know what the answers usually look like. Our friend Bride of Frankenstein generally gets the nod in the horror category. But I don't believe there's a richer, more surprising horror film than The Curse of the Cat People, itself a sequel, which was produced by Val Lewton, and why I said I'll call it Robert Wise's film, because the making of The Curse of the Cat People was a tandem, tiered effort, and we cannot bill the director—no matter who he is—sans the producer when Lewton is involved.

Lewton didn’t have a long run as a visionary producer and a producer-auteur, but in his prime period (think of him like the Sandy Koufax of film producers), overseeing B horror pictures for RKO in the 1940s, he established his name in the horror hagiography alongside whomever you might care to cite as mover, shaker, cadaver maker. James Whale, for example. John Carpenter. George Romero. Val Lewton should also be there, and if you love what is tantamount to thinking person’s horror (as did writer/critic James Agee, a notable Lewton booster, and a man most parsimonious with compliments) and shocks that possess a staying power beyond the genre’s “expected” shocks—those shocks with the theatrical wink in them—he may even top the marquee.

The Curse of the Cat People was Robert Wise's first directing credit, having replaced the film's initial director in Gunther von Fritsch, who couldn’t maintain Lewton’s preferred pace with the shooting schedule. Speed had become of the essence at RKO; ditto professionalism and craftsmanship. This was a pushback against what was branded as impractical artistic indulgence. Wise came by his replacement gig in part because an old friend of his had been kicked curbside as a result of that alleged artistic indulgence, and before it could further permeate the rest of the creative attitude at the studio.

That friend would be Orson Welles, for whom Wise worked as an editor on 1941’s Citizen Kane. Kane and its 1942 follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons, didn’t exactly line the RKO coffers, and the comment cards provided by preview responses for Ambersons in particular (“We do not need trouble pictures now…Make pictures to make us forget, not remember”; ah—healthy; and “Picture will not be received by the general audience because they as a whole are too darn ignorant”) were about to help speed Welles away from Hollywood as quickly as he had entered it. Upper-management types informed the boy wonder that educating the masses didn’t count for as much as parting them from their money, so far as they were concerned. Welles bristled, Welles was dropped, and RKO went for a rebrand to break free of their association with a man who radiated obvious brilliance.

And thus the greatest left-handed compliment in movie history was issued when the studio declared that from now on—post-Orson Welles, in other words—RKO would be orient itself around a new and contrasting approach: showmanship not genius. Because we mustn’t let any of that nasty old genius stuff hang about. One also notes the corollary implication: that genius and showmanship are mutually exclusive.

And yet, here we are—in a book about some of that prescribed showmanship, which had enough brilliance of its own to be worthy of a seat at the same banquet table as those now long-revered works of Orson Welles. For a horror film was never “just” a horror film with mid-1940s Val Lewton. I’ve always wondered what he thought of the company slogan and whether this assurance to John Q. Public, the missus, and their teenaged kids, represented fighting words to him, a dig at what the bosses thought he could and couldn’t do.

But Lewton also would have realized that the timing and opportunity were perfect for his considerable skills which—conveniently—were both of a highly inventive and solidly practical nature. Val Lewton was a horror man. The artistry of horror pictures in the early and mid-1940s wasn’t what it had been in the decade prior. Standards had lessened. People wanted horror films, but it wasn’t necessary to whip up much more than a monster rally. Give them a murderous mummy, revive Frankenstein’s creation, toss in some gibberish about garlic and silver bullets, and the punters were pleased. But one could do so much more, while still hitting the quota for thrills.

Lewton approached moviemaking as an artist does the canvas which he hopes will be around in 500 years’ time, but will also be sold for a nice profit just as soon as the paint is dry, and the novelist who wants to do what F. Scott Fitzgerald touted as the goal of bringing his work to bear on the youth of his generation, the school teachers of the next, and the critics—and presumably loads of people yet to be born—ever after. Lewton wished to give axiomatic horror bang for that forked-over buck. This was a given, a bare minimum. But it was also a starting line; the finish line was a ways off, and much could happen—art-wise—between the beginning and the end. RKO had a highbrow guy who was smart enough as a highbrow guy to know how to reach the lowest of brows. He worked on a range of levels. The more levels a picture of his reached, the better. Everyone would rise or sink to where they needed to be—where it was most natural for them to be.

The Curse of the Cat People is perhaps the most rewatchable of American horror films, because of those shocks within the shocks that never cease shocking. To watch it is to ask a fundamental question of what has just occurred, what one has witnessed, and not because the viewer is baffled or lost.

There’s an aspect of gratitude involved with a Lewton picture, which we don’t get with other horror films. Or when we do get it, that’s because someone we rooted for, or empathized with, came through/survived and might live happily ever after, or near as possible despite remaining traumatized, because it’s not as though one drives a stake through Dracula’s heart and isn’t still thinking about him thirty years later.

The Curse of the Cat People is a horror film of childhood, which makes it a film for children, a faction of the human population who understand gratitude well, because they are dependent on others. All of us are, to varying degrees, regardless of age, though the child feels this more acutely. But The Curse of the Cat People is one of those works for children which may most of all be a work for adults, for that same reason. The child never goes away. A child is absorbed into the adult. How well the adult fares as an adult has much to do with whether they’re able to approach and experience the world with the wonder that is a given for most children. It’s what they do, because it’s who they are, lest we rob them of that.

The film is pure paradox, a term that is itself a paradox. It’s a waking dream, and also a dream that plays out in an ordinary classroom, a backyard, a visit to the lonely neighbor. Friendship and intimacy is at the foundation of this horror, but not in a stalker or betrayal sense. This isn’t Play Misty for Me. People try to escape in horror films. They flee. So it goes with The Curse of the Cat People, until the child who is at the picture’s heart, learns—with the help of a former monster, or what moviegoers recognized as one—that she need not run any longer. It’s the horror film where the person who is pursued wishes and needs to be caught, as we all do when you think about it in the manner which The Curse of the Cat People facilitates, while also tending to the stipulated showmanship razzmatazz.

This is a film of admirable adult intentions handled poorly. A corrective guide to parenting by showing caregivers what they shouldn’t be doing. A film about control and how we don’t have as much as we want, and how we acquire what control we do possess when we stand back and allow ourselves to be empowered by acceptance. It’s a film about what is often the ultimate form of haunting for kids then, now, and probably always will be, which has nothing to do with ghosts or a creature lurking under a bed.

The picture’s setting of Tarrytown, New York, is ever bit as apropos and indelible as a castle in Transylvania. The woods become a charnel house, a fiendish den, where a butterfly tempts and lures like a seductress or an opiate. Lewton was a poet of the screen. No film looks like The Curse of the Cat People, with its intense interiority, a movie that doubles as its own method of perceiving. You can “read it” the way one might a darker work by John Keats, like “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” There is a beautiful lady with a saving presence in the picture, who happens to be the feline-possessed demon-woman of the original Cat People, where she had a problem with, let us merely say for now, sexual arousal and the subsequent ripping out of throats. That’ll wreck any home. And now, as a ghost, she will help to save a child? Or will she?

Films that feel like they are journeys are invaluable. You watch them, you get everything they have to give—or so you think—but they’re also a form of conveyance that move us deeper into both themselves and ourselves. Come back again, and the journey goes further. The Curse of the Cat People is undeniably strange. Weird. But the best kind of weird—not weird for weird’s sake, but weird because it is true to life, and has gone this different, wayward route to max out on the showing of those truths. It’s dichotomous and yet unified. Foreboding but welcoming. Cold but warming. Austere yet enchanted. Shorn but verdant. Actual but imagined. Haunted but healing.

”Magic” is one of those words that gets bandied about such that you’d think it was a commonplace with movies, rather than a rarity. What films are truly magical? The Wizard of Oz is the bell cow in the magic stakes. But where do we go from there? I’d say it’s a short hop to The Curse of the Cat People. A father scolds his child—a child we feel for from the first instance we see her—for believing that she could mail the invitations to her birthday party by tucking them in the hollow of a tree. The heart fractures when the mind realizes a portion of her motivation in doing this: To avoid having to face a result she knew would be coming, for the child is alone in the sense that matters most. She’s friendless. She’s bullied. She doesn’t have her father the way she needs him, which he doesn’t understand. She’s not far along enough in her own journey—her inner journey—to be the sole purveyor of the strength she needs. Are you? It’s a question that The Curse of the Cat People inspires us to ask.

But it’s also a movie in which we never doubt the viability of the hollow in that log to whisk the invites away to where they are going, or would be better served going. Horror films rarely produce or induce faith. The Curse of the Cat People excels at its manufacture and its engendering. This B picture is a mature masterwork about surviving, coping, and utilizing imagination to do so, a perfect work of understanding what childhood can mean to the person who ceased to be a child in the age-sense five decades prior.

If The Curse of the Cat People were a song, it’d be akin to John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever.” It connects with adults, because it truly speaks to children. All is lost without that imagination in The Curse of the Cat People. A life would become no more. We think of Jaws as a film centered on survival, especially for Chief Brody when it appears that nothing remains but he and that damn fish, and it’s man vs. beast. That’s the horror crux and crucible. Don’t get killed. Nor forfeit your soul. Live to fight another day. There is this fascinating horror credo that goes, Better to survive today, and die tomorrow. But nowhere in horror cinema does a character have to fight harder to survive than a little girl named Amy in The Curse of the Cat People.

The title was installed against Lewton’s wishes, who thought it was needlessly lurid, whereas Lewton preferred class. A touch of restraint. A dollop of mystery. He had no issue with letting his audience think, nor a disbelief that they could. He was a producer of artful flourishes and intentions, but a curse can mean so many things without needing to have been engineered by the fates. There are cursed aspects of childhood, and adulthood as well. Life is often about how well or not one sheds those curses. Techniques are paramount. Coping skills. Curses don’t discard themselves.

The Curse of the Cat People is a dream that occurs whilst Amy is awake, as real as real gets, though it’s only real to her. A lot of convincing takes place in horror films. A character has a singular experience, and one of their first thoughts and most pressing problems is that no one will believe them. No one believes Amy, but Amy believes herself. The maw is eluded, but what a maw it is, and what a sentient, true-to-life nightmare we have in this movie. Viewers are never prepared for it. No matter how open-minded we might be, we get ready to watch a horror film and there are assorted, but consistent, expectations. The Curse of the Cat People disassembles them all. It’s not just one of the best horror films I know, but one of the best films, a creation without peer or company in the category it occupies. Neither Lewton or Wise—formidable makers of formidable pictures—ever made anything like it again. You could hang it on the wall and call it a moving painting. You could say it’s a Christmas film. Or the ultimate American Halloween picture, being to the movies what Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”—which has a role in the film—is to prose. You can use it to scare the absolute bejesus out of people, and you can use it to comfort and help them. The Curse of the Cat People strikes an arrangement with one’s own imagination. How willing are you to dream? And are you brave enough to wake?

I had a neighbor who was that manner of kid that is mad for cinema. Precocious. She was among those arty mid-teens who seek out and watch works like Carnival of Souls, Eyes without a Face, The Golem, as well as more recent fare such as Midsommar, A Field in England, Get Out. The kind of kid that makes an adult who has studied a subject for their entire life ask, “How do you know about that?” On occasion, with pride, she’d send me her updated list of the films she had watched, the names of the directors next to the titles and the year of release. A cinephile kid.

There was a double-bill at a local theater of The Curse of the Cat People and Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited, which came out in that same year of 1944, so we went together, a couple of horror cineastes with a residential building in common.

The Uninvited played first. It is the finest haunted house picture from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and I was excited that my charge for the afternoon was going to be able to see it on the big screen.

“You’re very fortunate,” I said, and it’s a wonder I didn’t shake my finger as I did so.

She liked it well enough, though she giggled when Ray Milland’s Rick Fitzgerald made his amorous advances on Gail Russell’s Stella Meredith and couldn’t understand how a character would complain about a room being dreary when it was filled with sunlight and the waves of the ocean crashed below the window.

Then came The Curse of the Cat People. There were no more titters. Not again did a child’s elbow jab me in the ribs. It’s suggestive—illuminating—how you view a movie when you’re sitting alongside someone who has never seen it. Their experience all but leaps into your breast and becomes your experience—your deepened experience.

The movie played, and when it was over, neither of us said anything for a minute or so. Then she turned and looked at me, and asked one telling question that I have no doubt would have pleased Val Lewton, tumbling out as a mixture of breathlessness—though we hadn’t stood up in three hours—and the good kind of incredulity one experiences with art that challenges what a person previously thought was permissible or possible.

“What did I just see?”

A lot, as it were. And a lot that we’ll explore together, pretending that these pages are the woods of old Tarrytown, and blankets of untrodden snow across which we may walk, side by side, drawn close by the power of imagination, just like six-year-old Amy, and her mysterious friend Irena.


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