Outline for book on The Curse of the Cat People
I. Shocks Not Shocks
The Curse of the Cat People is a unique horror film—and a unique film of any kind—from a unique producer and maker (and un-maker, fascinatingly enough) of horror in Val Lewton. This opening chapter serves as introduction to the picture’s proprietary form of wonder, and to how it came to be on account of what had recently occurred at RKO studios, which created an opportunity for Lewton and first-time director Robert Wise. The Curse of the Cat People is discussed as a sequel, which it technically is, but it’s the rare sequel that stands apart from its predecessor as though they weren’t linked at all, though they also are. Such is the world we’ve entered into with this film. The nature of horror films themselves are discussed, in terms of our expectations, and what most of them attempt to deliver in one way or other, which is contrasted with how The Curse of the Cat People operates. It has a singular plot, for singular intentions, and it inverts the expectations we have with a horror film. It is frightening, and yet, it’s a film meant to comfort and help. In no film is imagination so central to a protagonist’s outcome, which is one reason why the picture doubles as the cinema’s ultimate expression of imagination’s power to preserve and save.
II. The Girl
Central to the story is Ann Carter as Amy Reed, a six-year-old, lonely, friendless girl. She has nobody in her life to help her as she needs to be helped, and to love her as she needs to be loved. Which isn’t to say that she isn’t loved. Her parents love her, but they make a clumsy go of it and do not understand this quiet, imaginative child. She is bullied, and being bullied is the ultimate horror for children, whether that was then, now, or 200 years from now. She has to find a way to cope. Her imagination creates a safe space, and it also brings her a friend in the form of a ghost. This dynamic is complicated, especially when we learn who this ghost is. We ask ourselves is the ghost real, or is everything playing out within a child’s head? Carter’s performance may be the finest ever given by a child actor. She is both every bit the child in pain and the child that lives in some part of every adult. This is a film in which a child finds a way to become whole, but it speaks to adults even more than children, who always seem to “get it,” whereas the adult is the person who has something akin to an epiphany when watching. Amy is our emotional point of contact whatever our age. She’s also the only character in a horror film who needs the “monster” to get her.
III. The Past
The Curse of the Cat People is nominally the sequel to 1942’s Cat People, another Lewton production, directed by Jacques Tourneur. One doesn’t have to have seen it to understand who is who—and what occurred in the past—with The Curse of the Cat People, but it bears discussing both stylistically in how it contrasts to The Curse of the Cat People, and in terms of two key characters. Amy’s father Oliver Reed (Kent Smith)—with all of this happening before Amy was born, in Cat People—married Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a Serbian-born fashion illustrator who says—and seems—to be possessed by the spirt of cats. Upon becoming sexually aroused, she gets violent and murderous, and tears out the throats of her victims. Reed humors her at first, but the evidence mounts. We see vital Lewton techniques—the famous Lewton walk, for instance, which occurs later in a different kind of emotional key in The Curse of the Cat People. Eventually Irena dies, and Oliver moves forward with the woman who will become his second wife and later give birth to Amy. He does not get over his own trauma, though, and his experience with Irena plays a role in how he parents Amy in The Curse of the Cat People, which is also an instructional film in how not to parent, despite having good intentions.
IV. The Makers
This section will look at Val Lewton and Robert Wise. Lewton is one of the half dozen key figures in all of horror cinema, and he’s the only producer we might talk about this way. Who was he? What made him so effective? His run was a short one. Everything Lewton did of value was in the 1940s, but it’s a near flawless body of work. How did he change horror cinema? What were his intentions? What did he do differently than anyone else? How did his experiences and abilities serve The Curse of the Cat People? He’s really the auteur of the picture, more so than director Robert Wise, but Wise would have his own storied career, in which The Curse of the Cat People was the first entry, and a storied entry at that for him. His fingerprints are all over the work. Wise—who had been the editor on Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane—got this gig because Welles had been dumped from the studio, along with what was seen as his needlessly “arty” approach to filmmaking, and also because the movie’s original director fell behind schedule. RKO wanted this kind of B horror movie to be made fast and to appeal to John Q. Public. It does—but it’s also a psychologically rich film that mental health therapists have long used in pedagogy.
V. My Friend
This section will be about Simone Simon and her character of Irena. Amy and Irena never met in “real” life. The latter was dead before Amy was born. Amy knows of her from photographs and what her father has chosen to tell her, leaving out, of course, assorted grim details. This is a six-year-old child, and also a dad who wants to shield her from everything that might ever cause her pain, which is causing her pain in and of itself, though he can’t tell the damage he’s doing. He’s actually quite brutal to her, and it’s hard to watch. A viewer winces often. Amy is then visited by the ghost of Irena, whom viewers at the time would have recognized as a monster, courtesy of Cat People. But she cares for the child, and the child cares for her. They become real friends. Amy needs Irena, whatever Irena may be. Is she a ghost? A threat? A sexual predator? Is she a child’s inner strength? Is she the saving power of imagination? This is a brilliant piece of writing to pair these two characters who never met, a startling dyad that not only works, but is among the purest symbiotic relationships in movies. It is a beautiful friendship, and it more than anything it may be a child learning how to love and accept herself. To first be her own friend, which is a challenge for all of us, regardless of the date supplied by our birth certificates.
VI. Older Girls
There is another daughter-parent relationship in The Curse of the Cat People which plays off of that of Amy and her dad, and Amy and Irena—who is a form of stand-in parent—and in which Amy herself has a key role. Julia Dean is the old woman Julia Farren, and Elizabeth Russell is her daughter Barbara Farren. Julia entrances and cares for Amy, showing a warmth to this neighbor child that she doesn’t to her own daughter. The Curse of the Cat People is a film about need, and what can occur when we don’t get what we need—what everyone needs. The resolution of this triangle is going to bring about the healing in The Curse of the Cat People, and Irena plays a role here, too, in a scene that is the high point of Lewton’s career.
VII. Other Makers
This section will look at the contributions of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, composer Roy Webb, and actor Sir Lancelot. Musuraca was a master of film noir expressionism, and the perfect choice for this unique horror movie. There’s a lot of light, surprisingly. Much of the film plays out in sun-spangled days, but the winter scenes are luminous. Snow is on the ground, catching the moonlight, as if nature is representing a kind of internal human glow that needs to reach the outside world. This is a B film, but you’d never think it from the production values. Webb’s music tells the story as though it were a tone poem. We’ll look at how his musical sound abets psychological sense. Then there is Sir Lancelot, a Black actor, whose character Edward works for the Reed family. He is arguably the most dignified person in the film, and the most fittingly parental himself in that Reed household. Black actors were not commonly cast in roles like this at the time. His is a calming presence, and when Edward is concerned, it’s because he realizes what other characters often fail to comprehend, and he always realizes it first. The movie doesn’t work the same way without him, and his relationship is a proto-version of the relationship that Amy cultivates with Irena.
VIII. The Monster
Bullying and loneliness is the root of The Curse of the Cat People, where the horror of school follows the child into the home. That makes The Curse of the Cat People still more relevant today, in the era of social media. Children who are traumatized have no respite. Not a lot is worse than a child in bed at night, looking at her phone, further absorbing the cruelty of others and people with whom she merely wishes to be friends. We will examine the role this film has in child psychology studies, and what sets it apart as a horror film, being itself a form of therapy. The movie is a tool, a primer, a guide, itself a friend, like Irena.
IX. The Solution
In horror films, we want the protagonist to get away from what it is that we term a monster. Irena is greeted as a monster, has the baggage of being a monster, because of Cat People and the family’s history with her. But she’s not the real monster we want Amy to break free of, though we have our concerns—they’re only natural given that history and the unique nature of this ghost—until we don’t. They’re assuaged. Amy creates a solution, a way of holding her mental health in abeyance, such that that mental health isn’t destroyed. It’s almost like how we intentionally put someone into a coma. But Amy is not comatose; she’s coming alive, or back alive, when no one, really, is helping her. She’s helping herself, with her imagination. Horror films—and this is a favorite irony about them—are a form of cinematic comfort food. They are escapism, yes, but they often make us feel good. We delight in them. They are excursions away from the everyday. This is another idea that The Curse of the Cat People subverts. We also feel good when we watch this film—or we do by the end—but it’s a very different form of comfort. We get more actual comfort, but no one sees it coming the way it does here. This is life-impacting comfort, not “mere” diversion. To watch The Curse of the Cat People is to think about horror as one never has before, or will again. The same goes for the life-saving utility of imagination, and an imagination well-used.
I’ve written often about Val Lewton and given many interviews on the subject of his work, and am a recognized Lewton authority. My love for The Curse of the Cat People extends back a number of decades, when I first discovered it and immediately understood that no other horror film was this way. No other Val Lewton horror film was this way. Horror for the sake of helping startled me as a concept. We’ll also talk throughout about how rooted in place The Curse of the Cat People is, though it’s very much a movie of internal spaces. It takes place in Tarrytown, New York, the land of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and I have no problem saying it’s the richer, more consequential work than the famous Washington Irving tale, which is incorporated into the film in a fascinating way that also harkens back to the infamous pool scene in Cat People. The picture is a dream, but a living dream. It’s a Christmas film in one regard, and among our foremost Halloween films. It does not lack for monsters, but every monster trope is inverted. If a person loves horror films, they love The Curse of the Cat People. If a person doesn’t watch horror films, they can also love it just as much. It’s a poem, a visual symphony, with elements of Jean Cocteau. Various relevant pieces of information will be threaded, in terms of reviews, commentaries, anecdotes from the lives of Lewton and Wise. James Agee—almost always a critical spendthrift with compliments—wrote with penetrating insight about Lewton and this film, which is worth including. Certain horror films are unique. That’s just what they are. There is nothing that suggests they would come to pass, and nothing that followed them that was like them. They happened, and they were, and they are. The Curse of the Cat People is the prime example of what I mean by this. It’s Lewton’s masterpiece, and it’s one of the great works of American art of its century, a testament to, and embodiment of, the power of imagination.