Six Damn Fine Degrees #3: Curse Of The Cat People

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

Following Matt’s dislike for the cat-shaped shenanigans of Garfield, I thought I’d follow up with something far more positive in the world of the feline: Val Lewton’s incredible Curse Of The Cat People.

When it comes to Hollywood, the rationale behind sequels is obvious. We’ve had a success and made money. Let’s make more of the same and make even more money. In 1942, RKO Pictures had a big hit with Cat People, a low-budget horror about a woman who fears she’ll transform into a panther if aroused by passion. So the bigwigs at the studio made the obvious call. The public liked the mix of feminine desire laced with the threat of feline danger so let’s make a sequel. Hence they were to greenlight:

From a studio’s point of view, repeating a success often means bringing back the same people. In this case, that meant their resident horror department producer Val Lewton, alongside the leads of from the first film Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Jane Randolph, and script writer DeWitt Bodeen. Not everyone came back though: directing duties passed from Jacques Tourneur to Gunther von Fritsch. The new director came from the world of short films and struggled with his first big screen outing, ultimately being replaced by Robert Wise.

Putting the band back together – Val Lewton, DeWitt Bodeen and the leads from Cat People

If this had been pretty much any other horror producer, the second Cat People would have been very much like the first. The return of Irena, the repressed exotic Cat Woman. The dark threat of her transformed into a black panther. Maybe add a few more beautiful Cat Women from even more exotic locales, and delve deeper into the lore of their supernatural Cat World. In short, prepare the way for hopefully a whole universe of sexy, shadowy Cat Films. It would have probably ended up with this:

However in the hands of Val Lewton, the sequel becomes something very different. Hardly a horror film at all. But a poignant tale about a lonely, imaginative young girl.

The genius of Curse Of The Cat People is that it tells a very different tale but does not do this by abandoning the trappings of a spooky film. Many familiar elements are there – a gloomy gothic house where a friendly voice beckons to a young girl to enter, a cruel-faced mysterious stranger who glares with menace at a young girl for seemingly getting involved in her affairs. Even the legend of Sleepy Hollow and its Headless Horseman gets thrown into a mix.

And central to this, is the return of Irena, the Cat Woman from the first film. As a child’s imaginary friend who maybe seems just too good to be true.

 The first time I watched this film, much of the story was suffused with dread. I expected something chilling to happen. All these hallmarks of a creepy film seemed to be leading maybe to somewhere dreadful. At some point the Curse will strike. And a darkness will descend on these characters by the end. To say I was somewhat non-plussed by the film’s actual ending would be an understatement.

And yet, I’ve seen this film several times since, and every time I rewatch it I’m convinced more of its genius. It somehow takes those elements and fashions them into a credible and moving tale of the beauty and danger of an over-active imagination. It’s a story of families trying to connect when overactive imaginations pull them apart, of loneliness and of reconciliation. The script manages to be both sentimental and smart, conveying this all in an efficient seventy minutes.

Despite working within RKO’s notoriously tight b-movie budget constraints, Lewton once again oversees a visually striking production. Whereas Cat People brilliantly hid its dangers in the dark, Curse Of The Cat Peopl” seems to capture the bright, colourful world of an imaginative child in beautifully lit black and white.

It seems when the RKO Studio bosses watched the first cut of the film, they were less than impressed that their horror department boss had managed to produce a film that wasn’t a rehash of the first. Worse, it wasn’t really horror. A few reshoots were forced on the film to up its black cat quotient, not least because they had already planned the marketing around the slogan “The Black Menace Creeps Again.”

In doing so, scenes were lost that would have illuminated more on the lead’s loneliness, and her need for an imaginary friend. Desperate to avoid these reshoots, Lewton suggested they ditch the Cat People sequel angle altogether and release it under the title “Amy And Her Friend”. But that, the money men at RKO were to insist, was not how sequels work.

It’s a shame that in this age and reissues and retitled edits, the cut footage doesn’t exist to be restored to the film, allowing us to watch the original Amy And Her Friends as Lewton intended. But then again, I’m not sure I’d want this little gem of a movie to be robbed of its status as the most imaginative, surprising and heartwarming horror sequel ever made.

One thought on “Six Damn Fine Degrees #3: Curse Of The Cat People

  1. tensecondsfromnow November 20, 2020 / 4:20 pm

    Great review; I love this film, it’s so different, original and haunting. Even the dated bits have charm, but the whole thing is really one of the great films about childhood…

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