Gunther von Frisch, Robert Wise, 1944
Starring: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Ann Carter
Due to the success of Cat People, Val Lewton was forced by RKO to make a sequel. Though many of the same actors (and corresponding characters) returned, this is a sequel in name only. Anyone expecting Cat People 2 or a menacing, psychological horror film with supernatural undertones will be suitably baffled, which is a shame, because Curse of the Cat People is a melancholy, imaginative film worthy of multiple viewings.
Oliver and Alice Reed, the surviving couple from Cat People, are married and have a young daughter, Amy. She is an imaginative loner, playing alone and making up complex stories. While Alice dotes on her, Oliver punishes her for these flights of fancy and wishes she was more like other children. She promises her father she will make friends, which she does, though they are not quite what he had in mind. First, she wanders into an abandoned old house and meets an aged actress who befriends her. The actress is suffering from some mental plight, probably dementia, and does not believe that her adult daughter (the haunting Elizabeth Russell, who has bit parts in many of Lewton’s films) is who she claims to be. The daughter is bitter and unloved and, as a result, deeply resents her mother's relationship with Amy.
Later, Amy is visited by Irena, Oliver's dead wife from Cat People. In the first film, Irena was a tortured woman who believed that her Serbian heritage cursed her to become a were-leopard whenever aroused with anger, jealousy, or lust. Here, Irena acts like a guardian angel of sorts to Amy, showing her the wonders of childhood and encouraging her natural intelligence and creativity. Oliver, who is still haunted by his first wife's memory, is outraged when he finds out the identity of Amy's imaginary friend. He hits Amy for the first time and drives her to run away during a snowstorm. She finds her way to the actress's house and right into the arms of the woman's hateful daughter. Will Amy survive the night?
Curse of the Cat People is primarily a fairy tale that blends elements of horror and fantasy. It would make an almost perfect double feature with the beautiful Charles Laughton film, Night of the Hunter, which was produced a decade later and I can't help but feel was influenced by Curse of the Cat People. Irena’s influence on Amy, at least in Oliver’s eyes, is that Irena was consumed by her superstitions and flights of fancy and this led to paranoia, insanity, murder, and death. He fears that little Amy will go the same route simply because she is unable to anchor herself in the rational world. This is also echoed in Elizabeth Russell’s character, a woman plunged into an imaginary world because of her mother. Her mother, a famous actress suffering from dementia in the late stages of her life, refuses to accept that Russell is her daughter, driving Russell to a state of misery and near-psychosis.
Though this film (and its references to Cat People) show the negative effect of the imagination on multiple female characters, it has an uplifting, positive ending. Oliver, so traumatized by Amy’s flight, is willing to accept his daughter for who she is and seems to concede that even though she is imaginative, she'll turn out healthy with some love and support.
Interestingly, this was one of Robert Wise's first assignments as director. His first film was Lewton’s romantic comedy, Mademoiselle Fifi, but this was his first horror-tinged work. Though Gunter von Fritsch began directing the film, he was soon replaced by Wise, who would go on to make some of the most memorable films in a variety of genres throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, including The Haunting, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music, and many more. The set is also notable, as part of it was recycled from Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons. Lewton was notable for his ability to make a film on a very small budget and enhance the production with costumes and sets from other RKO films.
Curse of the Cat People is totally separate from the vein of classic Universal horror popular at the time and has more in common with imaginative, later horror films like Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural or Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Though Curse of the Cat People is less scary or surreal than either Valerie or Lemora, it is a film that plays by its own rules and is unapologetic about its use of characters from an earlier, unrelated film. If you can get past these strange circumstances, it is a lovely, haunting movie that deserves to be rescued from obscurity. You can find Curse of the Cat People on a single disc DVD from Turner with Cat People or as part of the wonderful Val Lewton Horror Collection box set.