Film

The Curse of the Cat People (1944) dir. Gunther V. Fritsch & Robert Wise

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When penning a sequel to a hit movie, screenwriters have many options. They can pick up directly where the previous film left off (as in the John Wick movies, the three of which take place over the course of just under a week). They can catch up with their characters after some time off, as has become the custom of the mainline Star Wars entries, or they can drop them into a new circumstance entirely, like such wandering heroes as Mad Max or The Man with No Name. Ultimately, there’s no limit to how one can choose to continue their characters’ story– which brings us to The Curse of the Cat People, one of the strangest canonical movie sequels ever made.

The original Cat People, of course, should need no introduction to fans of classic horror cinema. A collaboration between legendary RKO producer Val Lewton and innovative French director Jacques Torneur, Cat People is a landmark of psychological terror, one of the first to embrace the horror of the unseen and the starting point of many now-standard tropes of the genre (I even wrote about it in this space many moons ago). It was also a massive hit for its miniscule budget, which, even in those pre-blockbuster times, ensured a sequel.

Curse of the Cat People does bring back screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, and stars Kent Smith and Jane Randolph return as clean-cut protagonists Alice Moore and, uh, Oliver Reed. Several years have passed since the events of the first film; Oliver and Alice have married, had an adorable daughter, and left New York City for a quaint, snowy cabin in the country. They’ve also done their best to put the events of the first film out of mind, and forbidden the merest mention in their house of Oliver’s late ex-wife Irena (Simone Simon), the supernatural, decidedly feline antagonist of the previous story.

So far, so sequel. But Oliver and Alice are not actually the main characters of Curse of the Cat People. That would be their young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), a painfully shy daydreamer who seems more haunted than anyone, despite not having been present the first time around. Upon discovering a photograph of her father’s old flame, Amy begins seeing visions of Irena, either as a ghost or as a figment of her imagination (it’s never quite made clear which). A far cry from the feral, obsessive creature she was in life, this incarnation of Irena is kind, and serves as a sort of guardian angel/motivational coach for the child. To make things even stranger, Amy manages to insert herself into the baroque family drama of her neighbors, a senile, aging actress and her unbalanced adult daughter. All of these threads come together in a positively dreamlike climax, in which the various characters find themselves lost in a Christmas Eve blizzard.

In case it’s not evident, Curse of the Cat People is a fascinatingly strange footnote in genre film history. I’m not even sure it can really be called a horror film, per se; it plays closer to an old-fashioned fairy tale, before they got cleaned up and defanged for modern American children (Lewton reportedly wanted to retitle the film Amy and Her Friend, which would have somehow undersold the strangeness of it all even more). Yet as far removed as it is from its more famous forebear, Curse is incredibly watchable, and creates an atmosphere just as seductive (credit can perhaps be given to the great Robert Wise, who was promoted from editor halfway through the troubled production and made his directorial debut here). If you’re looking for more of that Cat People goodness, you would perhaps be better served by Torneur’s spiritual follow-up The Leopard Man, which Lewton produced between the two Cat People films. But as one of the most curious dead-ends in cinema history (as well as an alternative Christmas classic!), Curse of the Cat People resides in a genre of one, and is not to be missed.

The Curse of the Cat People
1944
dir. Gunther V. Fritsch & Robert Wise
70 min.

Screens Monday, 8/26, 5:30pm & 9:15pm @ Brattle Theatre
Double feature w/ The Uninvited
Part of the ongoing series: Noirversary

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