Pop quiz, hot shot. A young woman parts company with her date and begins walking home. As she makes her way down the shadowy street, her footsteps echoing in the night, she senses someone following her. Nervously looking back, she begins walking faster, her fear becoming more and more palpable. Finally, as the tension reaches a fever pitch, it’s shattered with the deafening roar… of a perfectly harmless everyday item. What’s the movie?
If you answered “Literally every single horror movie I have ever seen in my life,” congratulations! You are probably correct. But if you want to see the one that did it first, look no further than CAT PEOPLE, the 1942 classic that launched producer Val Lewton‘s killer run of suspense films for RKO (as well as the Harvard Film Archive’s Lewton-RKO retrospective, which kicks off tonight). Helmed by the great Jacques Tourneur (who would direct several more films for Lewton, as well as CURSE OF THE DEMON and the classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Night Call”), the film is a veritable master class in moody atmospherics, with enough coded psychosexual tension to make Alfred Hitchcock proud.
In horror circles, a sequel from a different director with only a tenuous narrative link to its predecessor is rarely a good omen. Thankfully, that’s not the case with 1944’s THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, which also plays tonight. For starters, one of the two credited directors is a very young Robert Wise, one of Hollywood’s great journeyman directors whose filmography would include everything from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and THE HAUNTING to THE SOUND OF MUSIC and WEST SIDE STORY. Rather than expand upon the “Cat People” mythology, Wise (and co-director Gunther von Fritsch, who Wise reportedly replaced mid-production) shifts focus to the young daughter of the first film’s leads, who is given a mysterious ring and begins seeing visions of her father’s first wife (Simone Simon, reprising her witchy role from the original). It’s the rare sequel that attempts to mine the tone of the original rather than the plot, and while that gambit doesn’t always pay off (see: the love-it-or-hate-it HALLOWEEN III), it works here, creating a film that is dreamy, atmospheric, and just as worthy of your ticket dollar as its more famous forebear.
Just, you know. Be careful on your walk home.
CAT PEOPLE (1942) dir. Jacques Tourneur [74 min.] 7:15 P.M.
CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) dir. Gunther Von Fritsch and Robert Wise [70 min.] 9:00 P.M.
Friday, March 21
Harvard Film Archive
24 Quincy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138