Since Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) had been a huge critical and commercial success, a sequel was inevitable. And yet The Curse of the Cat People didn’t start life as a sequel. It was a stand-alone story that RKO insisted be fashioned into a sequel—something screenwriter DeWiit Bodeen easily accomplished. What he didn’t do was really turn it into a horror picture. But sequel it is. It takes place some years after Cat People with Oliver (Kent Smith) and Alice Reed (Jane Randolph) now married with a six-year-old child, Amy (Ann Carter). The events of the first film are discussed and Simone Simon comes back as Irena—or her ghost at least. There is, however, no mention of cat people (only two cats appear in the film—one being taunted by some boys, the other taxidermied) and strict horror elements are almost non-existent. (This bothers some people. In fact, I just saw some cretinous wing-wang on the IMDb call the film terrible.)
In their stead, we have a gentle, delicate fantasy about the loneliness of childhood and the dull-wittedness of adults. (When Kent Smith plays the father, you’re a long way toward the second goal. He was on the dullard side in Cat People, too,) There are a handful of sequences that qualify as horrific, but mostly the film trades in the fantasy of Amy and her imaginary friend—who just happens to be Irena’s ghost (maybe). Amy is an imaginative and somewhat withdrawn child, whose tendency to daydream makes her unpopular with other children. She becomes especially unpopular when she “posts” the invitations to her birthday party in a “magical mailbox” in a hollow tree.
Whether or not Irena is really there is largely up to the audience. We never see her and no name is put to her until after Amy sees a photo of Irena and learns her name. But the film itself never seems to doubt her existence. If we don’t accept her reality, her attempt to warn Amy to keep quiet about seeing her when her father asks doesn’t really make sense. In essence, it’s a completely non-frightening ghost story with a benign ghost. Any threats that crop up in the movie are unrelated to Irena, who is always seen as caring, sad, and magical. There is, in fact, never the slightest hint of malevolence from Irena.
The menace in the film all comes from a demented old actress (Julia Dean), who is taken with Amy, but who is pretty frightening in her recitation of “The Ghost of Sleepy Hollow.” The real threat comes from her daughter (Elizabeth Russell, who had played one of the cat people in the original film) whom the old lady refuses to acknowledge as anything other than “the woman who takes care of me.” It doesn’t help that the old gal has been kind to Amy—in fact, this only serves to make the daughter jealous of the child. It should be noted that the daughter seems fairly unbalanced from the onset, but living in this creepy old house with a mother who hates you might have that effect.
All in all, The Curse of the Cat People is a special film that’s hard to pigeonhole. The film was intended to be short film director Gunther von Fritsch’s feature film debut, but he worked too slowly and was replaced by editor Robert Wise making his directorial debut. The tone, however, probably owes more to Bodeen’s sensitive screenplay, but that doesn’t keep the film from being a visual stunner. The film’s snowy scenes and those in the garden with Irena are simply beautiful—even magical. And magical is the word that best describes this fantasy/ghost story presented as a horror movie.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Curse of the Cat People Thursday, March 13 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.