Friday, July 20, 2007

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Directors: Robert Wise/Gunther von Fritsch

Yet another misleading horror movie title. In fact, this if not even a horror film. Not surprisingly, it's not nearly as good as its predecessor, Cat People, but it’s definitely better than what its inaccurate title suggests. By almost existing in a different universe entirely, The Curse of the Cat People uses the characters from the first film and re-imagines them in a fairy tale follow-up to the original that's told through the eyes of a young girl. On the surface, this film seems like it would be an utter disaster that should be avoided like the plague, which may be why my expectations were low enough to be pleasantly surprised by its better than average attempt. I mean, let’s just be honest and look at the objective facts here: First, it’s a sequel to a groundbreaking horror film -- that’s a bad sign already. Second, the original film's outstanding director, Jacques Tourneur, is absent here. In his place are not one, but two "second choice" directors. Last but not least, it's barely even a horror film. Not only that, but it's closer to the complete other end of the spectrum and approaches "kids movie" territory. Oh, and one more thing: There are no "cat people" per se in the entire film, which comes as a big surprise given its heavily marketing-influenced label.

The original characters of Oliver (Kent Smith) and Alice (Jane Randolph) return as a married couple with a young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter). Amy is the main character and the whole story is told from her perspective. Amy’s an anti-social, imaginative young girl, who trades real friends for imaginary ones. Her, at times, dysfunctional parents are disturbed by this and try to socialize her in any way they can. The story takes a supernatural turn when Irena (Simone Simon) returns in the guise of Amy’s new imaginary friend. Irena is now a ghostly incarnation, complete with billowing white gown and calming speech pattern, that only Amy can see. Amy summons Irena when she makes a wish on a “wishing ring” that she receives from a Boo Radley-ish shut-in, who turns out to look more like the Queen Mum. Her name is Mrs. Farren, and she lives in an old haunted house with her supposed daughter, Barbara. I use the word “supposed” because Mrs. Farren doesn’t acknowledge her as such, and claims that her actual daughter died a long time ago. This is never resolved, but doesn’t really spark a lot of interest anyway. Mrs. Farren befriends Amy as though she were her own daughter. This enrages Barbara, and her resentment towards Amy builds until the both heartwarming and suspenseful climax. The whole story is very straightforward, and has no surprising twists. This makes it nearly a children’s movie, but not necessarily a bad one. Even though the entire film is essentially a "bait and switch", it’s not necessarily worse for being as such. It's merely on a different plain altogether, and should be evaluated with a completely different set of criteria. I can't dock it points for being straightforward, since it's geared towards kids. It's just a shame that its target demographic would never take the bait, and instead, producer Val Lewton will reel in some very disappointed and confused fans.

I’ll admit that I’m not the target audience for this movie, but I sort of liked it. I have a feeling that if I saw this movie as a kid, I would remember it along with the likes of E.T. or A Christmas Story. It’s ultimately hindered by its childish elements to really stray much from its simple premise. Irena is an imaginary friend, and once Amy no longer needs her, she’s gone. It’s a well told message that delves into Freudian psyche analyses and parent-child relationships that seems daring for its time, but is by no means heavy handed. It’s simple enough for kids to follow, and it’s engaging enough for adults to not grow restless. The young lead actress, Ann Carter, does a good job here in the role of Amy. Her performance is, at times, a little wooden, but she’s just interesting enough to make up for it. Simone Simon as Irena (a character who really has no business sharing even the name of Simone's character in Cat People) is unfortunately wasted here. Although, she does look better as a fairy godmother-ish spectre than as a sexually repressed "cat woman." There are many large orchestral music swells and frolicky musical cues that may wear on your nerves a bit, and there isn’t enough focus on the fanciful, larger-than-life storybook aspects that would've kept the script from growing tedious. Also, the set pieces are boring, redressed hand-me-downs, and the magical effects look really cheap (two things that they definitely should NOT have skimped on in a film of this sort). The story is more interesting and better written than that of Cat People, but it unfortunately fell into less than capable (or, more likely, less than interested) hands. The direction ironically lacks direction, and doesn’t attempt to throw in original sequences or an appropriate atmosphere that would've insured the film's placement in movie history and/or in the minds of the viewing public. Robert Wise (director number one) would go on to win multiple academy awards and nominations and direct many hit films, including The Sound of Music and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Gunther von Fritsch (director number two -- a fitting description in more ways than one) would just go on. Ultimately, the only “curse” in this film to speak of is that of its unfortunate title.

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