Sunday, June 5, 2011

Curse of The Cat People [Gunther Von Fritsche – Robert Wise]

Don't let the dual director credits fool you, the 'real' direction for this film comes from producer Val Lewton, who made a remarkable series of low-budget high-concept psychological terror films for RKO studios from 1942-46. The first in that parade was Cat People, and 2 years later came this sequel. A sequel it is in name only, forced by RKO's demand with, like for most of Lewton's films, a title imposed by them, leaving the producer to work out the “little” details of plot and execution. Apart from Bedlam and The Ghost Ship, I thought all of them were immensely rewarding.

Curse... is in actuality a sensitive exploration of the dark side of childhood imagination. Apparently based on Lewton's own experiences and having at least a casual similarity to that achingly tragic tale Silent Snow, Secret Snow by Conrad Aiken, our center of attention is little Amy (Ann Carter), an unusual child that compensates with her imagination for the lack of friendship in her real world. Amy is a character that some of us, myself very much included, would identify with to a greater or lesser degree. With a mind that travels on a different track than the vulgarity we define as “norm”, Amy is unsurprisingly shunned by her peers who have not learned to accept her individuality.

And not just the children, this lack of comprehension also applies to her parents, especially her father who feels that he must pressure Amy to conform to his expectations of a normal child. This is an unthinking pressure that with its resultant guilt-complex only further destabilizes Amy's thoughts, making the fantasy-world an ever more desirable place to disappear into. Other characters she encounters, like the very Miss Havisham-like Julian Farren (Julia Dean) who denounces her own daughter as an impostor and insists on treating Amy to a telling of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, batter upon the fragile windows of her sanity.

Most of Lewton's terror films teased the audience with “Is this real or imagined?” dilemma where they had to judge for themselves if there was any actual supernatural element or merely reflective of the paranoid/fantastic imagination of the film's characters. Curse... also entwines the same philosophy into its narrative. The trademark play of light and shadows and sound is here more reflective of Amy's response to her surroundings: The dimming of the lamps as Mrs. Farren plunges deeper into her tale of horror, the magical glow of the garden when Amy's “friend” appears, the apparent clatter of hooves as a terrified Amy dreads the coming of the Headless Horseman. We are one with Amy's perspective as she repeatedly fails to find her footing in a world ever more unaccommodating to her beliefs.

Curse of The Cat People is no uninspired attempt to make a profitable franchise, it's a gripping original work that deserves to be seen on its own merits.

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