The Curse of the Cat People of 1944 would have a better reputation if it was called, literally, anything else. That the film is a sequel to the 1942 masterpiece Cat People is not in dispute: three of the most important characters in that film are three of the most important in this film, played by the same actors. The events of the earlier picture are referenced specifically and pointedly. But a sequel that more thoroughly ignores the tone and style of its predecessor is impossible to imagine; not that Curse of the Cat People is a subversion or renunciation of Cat People, but that it seems to be truly unaware that there might be some kind of expectation that the sequel to groundbreaking, instant-classic horror movie would, itself, be some kind of horror movie at all.
In reality, besides one superficially genre-tinged scene (very near the end, drifts in the the vaguest way towards horror, but strictly as a means of demonstrating the fear being felt in that moment by a child, and not something that we, in the audience, are supposed to be affected by), there's no real argument to be made that any part of this film belongs to the genre where its producer, Val Lewton, made his reputation - unless you consider the presence of a totally non-threatening ghost who might be imaginary anyway to be ipso facto proof of genre allegiance - and only by the most perfunctory convention is it fair to lump this movie in with the eight "real" horror films Lewton produced with RKO's B-unit between 1942 and 1946, for it is undeniably not like them at all; even 1943's The Ghost Ship, no kind of horror film at all, is at least a suspense thriller. I review it in their company only because of that convention, and because, honestly, if not now, then what excuse would I ever have later? And horror or not, the film is pretty damn good, boasting one truly significant point of historic interest in that it was co-directed by the editor of Orson Welles' first two movies, Robert Wise, who thus received the first onscreen credit of a directorial career that would include two Oscar wins and the best haunted house movie ever made. And Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but that was hardly his fault. Moreover, I owe it to the film: because the first time I ever saw it, I was one of those very people so thrown by how much it wasn't a continuation of the sublimely atmospheric horror of Cat People in any way that I could not even slightly figure out what to do with it. So the least I can do, now that I know better, is to praise the film that it is, and not be angry about the film that it isn't.
The film that it is begins at least seven years after the events of Cat People, for we now find that Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and Alice Reed née Moore (Jane Randolph), having ended up together as a direct result of the events of that film, have since left New York City for the quiet suburban village of Tarrytown, neighboring the legendary Sleepy Hollow (or they've moved to Sleepy Hollow itself, depending on which line of dialogue you prefer to favor), and have a daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), just celebrating her sixth birthday the very week that the movie opens. Amy is a loner, given to bursts of imagination in which the animals themselves are her friends, and not the local schoolkids who tease her, though with a measure of friendliness. Oliver, still remembering the last time he had an important female in his life who didn't understand the difference between reality and imagination, wants to force all the fantasy right out of Amy's head, all but bullying her into becoming "normal"; her teacher, Miss Callahan (Eve March) attempts to demonstrate why he is going about this all wrong by means of then-cutting-edge child psychology, but it doesn't make much difference.
After a humiliation involving a birthday party gone wrong - she put the invitations in a hollow tree that she thought was an enchanted mailbox - Amy is even lonelier than before and Oliver even more at his wits' end; and this is when Amy, wandering the town disconsolately, encounters an odd old woman in a rich but decrepit house, Julia Farren (Julia Dean, making her first motion picture since 1919), who throws the girl a ring, over the objections of her stern daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell, receiving her first onscreen credit after two excellent cameos). The Reed family's cook, Edward (calypso singer Sir Lancelot, in his third Lewton film, and the first where he gets more to do than stand in the background until his featured song) identifies it immediately as a ring that can grant a wish, and the forlorn Amy decides to wish for a best friend - and one immediately appears in the form of Oliver's dead first wife Irena (Simone Simon), who showers kindness and understanding upon the child. Amy manages to be cagey about this at first, realising that Oliver is being a bit of a tyrant right now, and having no idea who Irena is, but of course things all spill out and in the process of very nearly losing his little girl, Oliver learns an object lesson in the value of childhood play and imagination. And it all culminates right in the heart of the Christmas season, making this nominal horror sequel one of the most unexpectedly resonant yuletide movies of the 1940s.
The weirdest thing about The Curse of the Cat People isn't that it's such a spectacular curve-ball of a sequel, but that it's such a curveball and yet it follows on so perfectly to the themes of the first Cat People: not the ones about female sexuality, of course, but if we consider Oliver's character arc through the pair of movies, it couldn't possibly be more steady or straightforward. He's an arch-rationalist whose impatience with Irena's flights of perceived fancy - of course we who've seen that film's ending know that Oliver would have been better to be a bit less cocksure on that front - ends up result, albeit indirectly, in her suicide; and having refused to recognise that he was a bit of a dick in the whole affair (encouraged, no doubt, by a second wife who is clearly shown to regard Irena's emotional importance to her husband with outright hostility), he sees no reason not to adopt the same haughty, controlling tone with Amy that he took with Irena; fearing that it will kill his daughter as it killed his wife, and only discovering at the last possible moment that his own intransigence and impatience with the very act of imagination is what drove the women in his life to such self-desctructive ends. Seen in that light, Irena's presence in Amy's life (the movie is perfectly willing to let us take her to be an imaginary construct, but since the first movie made it clear that cat people exist, I'm willing to assume that ghosts exist, too) is not just her chance to love the child of Oliver that she never had, but her chance to re-live the misunderstanding between her and Oliver that caused her so much agony in life, and make certain that it does not cause suffering any longer.
That's not a very good justification for the studio-mandated title (Lewton badly wanted to call it Amy and Her Friend), which acquires rather feeble figurative meaning one of Alice's protestations about how Oliver still has an Irena complex. But it's kind of amazing anyway, how this serious and slow-moving family drama can be such a reasonable, psychologically and narratively sound continuation of such a completely different movie. In the hands of Wise and Gunther von Fritsch, the director he replaced mid-shoot, has a snowbound, fairytale atmosphere of cool grey interiors and sparkling black nights, and despite sharing cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca with Cat People, working in a superficially similar language of evocative shadows, this atmosphere creates a completely different mood that is just as uncanny and unreal as in the first movie, but in a sweeter, more domestic, happier way.
The Curse of the Cat People is, in fact, an outstanding example of a film that takes the business of childhood completely seriously and aligns itself to a child's perspective with absolute conviction; I may have identified Oliver Reed's growth over the two films as the throughline that makes them work as a matched set, but in both films, we're far more invested in the woman he's trying to control than his own journey. Certainly, Amy's perspective is of absolute importance to this movie, replete with shots that continuously endeavor to favor her small size rather than the adults around her. Or, if that is violated, it is done in a manner that makes us aware of her feelings over the grown-ups, like in an early shot of her sitting just outside the teacher's office, waiting to be disciplined by an angry father, that's so perfect and evocative that it would be a crime against film criticism not to share it.
For that is another way that the film gets in some trouble: the acting isn't great. Why Smith and Randolph - the latter especially - are so much less effective than they were just two years prior is a mystery; it's not a good sign that they're both so crushingly out-classed by 7-year-old Carter, unless that was some kind of ill-conceived attempt to continuing aligning the movie behind Amy, making her parents such flat, one-note personalities. Whatever the case, the film suffers badly from two of its three main characters (top-billed Simon, saddled with a virtually unplayable character, is certainly not a lead) being so uncompellingly performed.
But even if the film is not perfect, and in fact is one of the weakest films made by the Lewton Unit to that point (which says more about the Lewton Unit than the quality of Curse of the Cat People), what it gets wrong is largely annoying, while what it gets right is astonishing. Movies that make learning about child psychology fun and heart-warming and also a bit sad don't come along so very often, and by approaching its domestic scenario with such commitment to this kind of psychological realism, The Curse of the Cat People is a solid, engaging character drama, a film about the way that families work that smuggles in some keen observations about human behavior in the best Lewton fashion, even as it doesn't otherwise resemble a Lewton film even superficially.
Reviews in this series
Cat People (Tourneur, 1942)
I Walked with a Zombie (Tourneur, 1943)
The Leopard Man (Tourneur, 1943)
The Seventh Victim (Robson, 1943)
The Ghost Ship (Robson, 1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (von Fritsch/Wise, 1944)
The Body Snatcher (Wise, 1945)
Isle of the Dead (Robson, 1945)
Bedlam (Robson, 1946)