Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"Cat People" (1942); "The Curse of the Cat People" (1944)

Several years ago I purchased and watched Paul Schrader's Cat People (1982). The film was a re-make of an earlier classic, and starred Nastassja Kinski and Malcom McDowell. Besides being the daughter of one of the most intense and entertaining actors of all time, there was just something about Kinski that I found titillating. Furthermore I always found watching McDowell compelling as well. Schrader had written what was once my favorite film (Taxi Driver), and the feline themes promised by the title suggested that my enjoyment would be a sure thing. Alas, it didn't meet my expectations. The performances were over-the-top and the writing was sordid and unrealistic. It ended up being little more than an exploitation film. It's visual style aped the times, and the 1980's were notorious for an abundance of cheesy aesthetics. Despite all it had in its favor, the Cat People re-make ended up being a failure.

I didn't know what to expect from the original Cat People (1942). It was made by French director Jacques Tourneur (Night of the Demon, Out of the Past) and produced by Val Lewton. The latter was a writer/producer for RKO studios, and became known and respected for making a series of horror/suspense films that retained a high level of quality, despite being made with very low budgets. Had he not died of a heart attack in his 40's, he may have gone on to widespread acclaim. As it is, many film buffs recognize his place among more conventional film legends. Somehow his movies transcended the naive simplicity of many of the entries in the developing horror genre. I'll reserve my judgment until I get through the entire Lewton box set that I ordered recently, but my initial impression is that his reputation is well-deserved.

Cat People is centered on the burgeoning romantic relationship between a ship designer (Oliver, played by Kent Smith) and a Serbian immigrant (Irena, portrayed by Simone Simon). Oliver quickly overcomes Irena's resistance to forming a romantic attachment, and they get married, but there are stormy times ahead for the couple. It turns out that Irena suffers from some psychological malaise that makes her believe that whenever she is moved by passion, she transforms into a panther. Apparently her superstition (?) involves the folk mythology endemic to the little village where she was born. Despite Oliver's patience with his reticent wife, the obstacle becomes insurmountable when a co-worker (Alice, played by Jane Randolph) expresses her undying love for him. Therein lies the conflict that drives the plot toward its inevitable end.

Lewton (who penned the script) has obviously set up a metaphor for the fear many naive young women had about sex and marriage at a time when these issues weren't openly discussed. Animalistic attraction was seen as potentially destructive, and to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately for those movie-goers seeking enlightenment regarding this touchy subject, such fears turn out (in this film) to be justified. Despite the presence of a grounding presence in the form of an amorous psychologist, things turn out quite badly for Irena. Meanwhile Ollie and new love interest Alice escape relatively unscathed. Or do they?

Cat People was followed up by The Curse of the Cat People (1944), a film directed ably by Robert Wise. Truthfully, I watched the sequel with apprehension. Was it really necessary to return to the flimsy pretext of the earlier story? It turned out that my reservations were unjustified. The Curse does indeed pick up with Ollie and his (now) suburb-entrenched family, but the "cat people" are really nowhere to be found. The tale here concerns Ollie's daughter Amy (Ann Carter), a dreamy child whose isolation inspires her to create an imaginary friend. Plenty of kids have resorted to this companionship throughout the ages. But Amy's visions bring back the ghost of Irena. This obviously becomes problematic for her father, who we are told has never quite gotten over that tragic business with his ex-wife. Meanwhile there is an unrelated subplot examining the strange relationship between a mother-daughter pair that live down the block.

Despite the return of several central characters, The Curse of the Cat People is thematically quite different from its predecessor. In some ways they are sort of diametrically opposed. For if Irena's obsession with myth keeps her from developing the human contacts that might ultimately save her, Amy's dream-life redeems not only her loneliness- but also her relationship with her dad. In this way the function of fantasy is rehabilitated. It's a strange turn when taken in context with the lessons of Cat People. Perhaps the two films share the message that the supernatural is only disregarded at one's peril. Sometimes our inner lives are overtaken by strange ideas and unlikely beliefs. But no matter how unscientific or irrational they seem to others, these shadowy undercurrents effect us in undeniable ways. They might threaten our existence, but alternatively they might make us whole.

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