The Curse of The Cat People (1944): The Oddest of Horror Sequels

800px-Curse_of_the_Cat_People_lobby_card.jpgThe Curse of the Cat People feels like entering a storybook only to find ourselves in Tarry Town near Sleepy Hollow. Fittingly, we are placed with a group of kindergarteners who have come with their teacher to frolic and enjoy a field trip to the place brought to life in the tall tales of Washington Irving.

Immediately, this latest Val Lewton production plays to its greatest strengths by melding folk tale, supernatural sensibilities with bits and pieces of our world. The medium through which the picture chooses to work is a little girl named Amy (Ann Carter). She’s a serial daydreamer with her big doe eyes constantly glowing with light. One moment she’s infatuated with a butterfly and an overeager boy obliterates it in his attempts to catch it for her. She proceeds to rear back and slap him across the face.

It’s only her way but the other kids see her as odd and aloof. She’s not like them. With its opening premise in place, it’s safe to say The Curse of the Cat People is one of the strangest sequels for the very fact it has a decent amount to do with its predecessor and yet feels as if we have literally been transposed to a different cinematic world. Also, the name is an utter misnomer.

We have an offshoot taking the basic characters and settings from its predecessor while foregoing normal horror beats for a stranger set of psychological and adolescent themes. It might as well be an entirely standalone film with the urban working environment being replaced with a rural suburbia.

Now our hero from Cat People (1942), Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), has settled down with his wife Alice (Jane Randolph) and his little girl, but parenthood has made him a bit testy. Given the powers previously wreaking havoc on his life, perhaps it’s warranted. He wants to shield Amy from his deceased wife’s fate at any cost. 

But if we look at their current domestic life, it’s fairly sterilized in a way that might quickly become sickening to watch. They go by their three names: “Daddy,” “Mommy,” and “Darling” while their able-bodied, eloquent servant Edward (Sir Lancelot) keeps house. However, this very veneer is set in sharp juxtaposition with forces far more volatile and unnerving — at least at first.

Amy begins to have arcane experiences with the old Farren House where a cantankerous matron resides with her brooding, spectral-like daughter. So if we want to get technical, the movie is really about two families: One seemingly perfect, the other accursed.

On one such visit, Mrs. Farren grips the little girl with the local myths. The recounting of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow all but sweeps us up in a moment of pulse-pounding vigor, in spite of taking place entirely in a single drawing-room. Something about it is so alive and deeply unsettling.

As a defense mechanism, Amy calls out to a phantom who comforts her. We’ve all had invisible companions at one time or another so it’s not a strange request. However, her friend feels far more tangible than any of ours.

Of course, it’s Irena (Simone Simon) the woman her father has never dared tell her about. Besides, Irena is dead. As her parents worry about her mental stability, Amy is comforted by having Irena as a confidante. 

Life continues cheerfully enough. On Christmas, all the most important people in her life get a present. Carolers come by and begin an impromptu chorus of, “Shepherds Shake Off Your Drowsy Sleep.” Mommy reminisces about her memories putting on “mummers plays.”

We expect something darkly twisted to invade this holiday conviviality and yet it never comes. What was initially exploited is childish fancy intertwining with this supernatural entity. But everything gives way to a heart-aching sincerity. We come in expecting one twist, and we get an almost anti-twist in its place. Instead of being haunted by demons and cursed things, a young girl makes friends and finds a way to heal wounds through a firm embrace. It turns out this could be an offbeat Christmas classic in some circles. 

The picture strikes this curious tone between obvious markers. Though it makes it maddening to try and categorize — especially for contemporary advertisers — now it plays more like a blessing than a curse. Because we expect something mundane and one dimensional, only to get a surprisingly inventive exploration of childhood and imagination. While we never quite forget we have a minor production on our hands, this Val Lewton-produced effort continues his run of beguiling material.

Taken as a body of work, Lewton’s pictures are bewitching to the very last frame. A young up-and-comer, Robert Wise, would also be called upon to complete the picture. It’s probably an understatement to say it was a humble beginning to an auspicious career. 

3.5/5 Stars

The Ghost Ship (1943): Creaky Yet Atmospheric

Ghostship.jpg“What a hobby to pick: authority.” 

The Ghost Ship is yet another serving of shadows and sound courtesy of legendary cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and former editor-turned-director Mark Robson. However, the film is punctuated by few dramatic notes and instead settles in to develop a world of continual foreboding. It begins with the near-ESP of a blind street peddler who warns a youthful 3rd officer (Russell Wade) about the new ship he is about to board.

Though our lead actors are fairly bland types — the kind of people who could easily be slotted into any number of similar projects — I still found myself interested in them. Because with both Richard Dix and Wade I hardly have any history with them; it’s a tabula rasa. They remain as a reminder of how many actors and actresses are all but lost to time just waiting to be discovered anew. Some give a more lasting impression than others.

But Ghost Ship‘s most intriguing characters are certainly the shipmates because each man has an element to his performance. Sparks (Edmund Glover) is probably the most affable and the closest thing to a friend the new 3rd officer has onboard. Beyond this, the radioman sprinkles in some Latin with his normal vernacular.

Our next person of interest is an all-seeing mute who is nevertheless given the courtesy of a voiceover. He is the first among seafaring hands aboard, including Boats (Dewey Robinson, a Preston Sturges regular), the calypso-singer (Sir Lancelot), and the Greek who needs his appendix taken out mid-voyage. This is a whole ordeal in its own right.

But none of this gets at the reason the Altair just might be one of the most perturbing seas vessels in the annals of maritime movies. It should be noted the previous third officer died under unusual circumstances and rather dubiously, Mr. Merriam is occupying the same room the deceased man passed away in. Another old mate is found dead on the deck without much fanfare.

There were flying coffins during WWII, but this is a floating coffin if there ever was one. Its all very curious because The Skipper seems a good, honest seaman. His new mate likes him and the men — though at times disgruntled — listen to him, for the good of the outfit.

One particularly perilous event involves a loose hook on the bridge all but ready to decapitate a mate. Still, as time progresses, the captain’s words get more and more troubling. Without blinking an eye, he says, “I have rights over their lives – I have the right to do anything for the crew – because their lives depend on me.”

He is drunk on authority. It remains his only concern, and he will do anything to maintain his image, even fabricating events involving the aforementioned appendix operation. He can raise people from the brink of death while a cascading stack of clinking chains quickly means the demise of another man. No one can prove it outright, but the captain literally holds everyone’s life in his hands.

The third officer wants no part of this scenario. However, it seems fate brings him back into the clutches of this dictatorial madman, and the net is slowly contracting around him. Only time will tell if he is stopped in his tracks before knocking off another defenseless victim.

Obviously, given the time period, we can have a guess at the allegorical references toward the crazed power hunger of Hitler. It’s not difficult to see the parallels, but I don’t think we need much of a reminder such slavish devotion is detrimental. In this regard, such a pronouncement seems altogether superfluous.

The plot is also a bit stagnant and our leads admittedly bland. We are reminded of not only wartime shortages but that these are far from A-list talents on hand. In spite of these admissions, it’s all the more astounding to consider the impression this Lewton production still manages to provide.

The bottom line is that the ideas and the visuals are still worth remembering. Because Ghost Ship is not completely derailed by its shortcomings, still casting a fine vision lingering ominously over every frame.

3/5 Stars

The Seventh Victim (1943): Lewton’s Economy Rules

Seventh-victim-poster_one_sheet.jpgWhat a picture for Kim Hunter to have come into her own (and Mark Robson for that matter). The 7th Victim is a chilling gem, and the motor to move the story forward is an audacious girl, Mary Gibson (Hunter), who makes a decision to leave her boarding school of stain glass and angelic choirs, to search after her missing big sister.

Upon arriving in New York, Mary finds out Jacqueline, in an uncharacteristic fashion, sold her profitable cosmetic company eight months prior. Something must be up. Our kiddy noir hits its paces as Mary’s intrepid investigations lead her to Dante’s Italian Restaurant. She checks in on her sister’s rented room only to find a chair and an ominous hangman’s noose.

Next, she files a claim with the missing person’s bureau and looks to hire a private eye to give her help in a city that feels generally unfriendly. However, this is not entirely the case as she makes the acquaintance of Jason, a local poet who looks to lighten up the atmosphere. Likewise, Hugh Beaumont acts as a calming force in this labyrinth of turbulence and underlying dread. Nevertheless, he warns Mary that her sister, “Lived in a world of her own fancy. Didn’t always know the truth.” Another portent of some ill fate awaiting her.

Admittedly, on a micro-level, all the pieces simply do not fit together. To understand why we only need look at what moments were potentially left on the cutting room floor. In the age of narrative incoherence in crime storytelling, The 7th Victim is among the best (or worst). The fact that in such a short time it can be so befuddling must speak to something. Dissenters might clamor this is a disjointed mess but if this is faulty storytelling there is also a sense of apprehension present, inherent to such narratives.

It cannot simply be about four scenes that were famously cut out of the picture. Though we would have gained clarity in one sense, in another these missing pieces somehow aid in this byzantine journey weaving a yarn out of relatively meager resources. The dialogue is just okay but on a macro level, it’s all very intriguing.

The creme de la creme of chiaroscuro photography occurs when Mary goes down to a mysterious shop with Mr. August on a clandestine mission that goes awry. Anyone walking into such a world would know to begin with no good will come of it, inching down a hallway of darkness.

Then, we have the curious appearance of Dr. Judd (Tom Power) from Cat People who conveniently provides another male character with information on Jacqueline’s current situation. He subsequently has deep abscesses of knowledge about a cult of Palladian Devil Worshippers operating out of Greenwich Village. Again, we have a mythology evoked with traditions and sacred texts lending credence to this widespread conspiratorial atmosphere.

Because of course, as you might have guessed already, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), now cloaked in a bob of dark hair, found herself immersed in a very foreboding crowd. They don’t look too kindly on those who let their secrets out. Another stylistically rewarding moment comes right after the woman is released from certain death and winds up wandering the darkened streets in a near dazed state. She scurries away into the shadows to evade an unknown pursuer — frantically seeking the aid of an oblivious theater troupe.

We’re on again with the perplexing waling nightmares because the film chooses to dwell in such places. But if the picture chooses to acknowledge Satanic cults the equal and opposite must be called upon to whether the evil. Though not an obviously religious man, the good psychiatrist asserts there is proof that good is superior to evil.

It comes in the words of the Lord’s Prayer. He speaks the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…Deliver us from evil.” Again, the real world liturgy pads the narrative with a kind of believable ethos even as Jacqueline is still hounded by some unknowable, supernatural specter.

The final scene is a blink and you missed it circumstance. Provided a few more seconds to sink in it could have been a horrible thing. As is we hardly have time for the facts to dawn on us until the movie is over, literally seconds later. While not optimal there’s no discounting how the scene was handled visually. Even in this single moment, it says so much with what is not seen and a sound compared to so many other pictures bloated with extravagant sets and resources.

7th Victim is a reminder that sometimes our movies lack imagination, thinking money and special effects can be thrown at a story to make it novel. While this might be true on a most superficial level, sometimes it is constraints that bring out creativity and reveal to us how starkness in the right context can be a beautiful gift. Val Lewton’s horror unit is one of the small wonders of classic cinema, and they cast an indomitable shadow, widely in part to cinematographers like Nicholas Murucasa. This one is another low-lit gem. Once again economy rules.

4/5 Stars

The Leopard Man (1943): A Work of Sound and Shadow

190px-Leopard_man.jpgIt’s fitting that a pair of castanets act as our entry point into the latest entry from Val Lewton’s RKO unit. Not only do they instantly grab our attention, but they foreshadow the auditory nature of the film and, in the cultural context, provide a little shorthand for where our setting might be.

Because with this stereotypical “Latin flavor” we find out soon enough we are indeed in New Mexico. At the local nightclub, Kiki (Jean Brooks) bemoans the fact her rival Clo-Clo (Margo) is constantly clicking, and it does seem blondes like herself are on the downside. However, her boyfriend, a fledgling publicity man (Dennis O’Keefe), has a new stunt to make waves with the viewing public.

When he walks into her dressing room with a leopard on a leash, she nearly dies of fright, and we have entered into the kind of territory intent on making our B feature a pulpy pleasure. Kiki reluctantly makes a grand entrance with her new pet and makes quite the impression as patrons look on with shivers of trepidation. Except her moment doesn’t last long as Clo-Clo scares the creature off and it goes racing off into the night — a beast off on the loose. One can only imagine what a deadly cat might get up to lurking in the shadows on any given evening…

From this point onward, the picture introduces a plethora of players from a fortune teller hiding in the shadows with her deck of cards just waiting to tell Clo-Clo her fortune. There’s the hapless bloke Charlie who gave up his prized leopard to Manning and wants his remuneration.

Then the local girl deathly afraid of the beast at large and nevertheless gets locked out of the house by her mother until she fetches the cornmeal for her father’s supper. We know the inevitable is about to happen. The creature will find her. Her world is developed almost solely through sound. The drip of water. Feet trudging through the dirt. A train passing overhead. They punctuate the scene immaculately leading into the big reveal. Because we know what is waiting for her…

She makes a mad dash to the front door of her home crying out to her family to open up but she gets no further. Like Cat People before it, The Leopard Man is made as much out of what is not seen and it has one of the most startling cinematic death scenes executed through utter minimalism.

Because although Manning and his girl feel awful about their hand in this girl’s tragic death, they soon realize more might be afoot. Another grisly death follows and then a subsequent evening Clo-Clo…

It is the stripped-down sound design in the picture that reflects the Lewton/Tourneur unit at the pinnacles of their powers. Where pure suggestion is imbued with so much meaning. So little can be so very much. Whereas M was a picture where the killer has a calling card, in this film the murders can be remembered by their accompanying sounds.

The wind whipping through the trees as a woman sits locked in a garden. A car engine driving off to get someone to open up the gate. Rustling leaves being stepped on and then quiet. With Clo-Clo it’s little different with the same repetition of her heels clicking on the pavement in rhythm with her castanets. Then, she too reaches a finality.

Despite the stylistically rewarding elements, The Leopard Man gets less interesting with time as it comes out the leopard might be masking a more mundane serial killer plot. Not to sound overly callous, but this is more of a real-world development. Aside from courting too many characters who dilute the impact of the whole story, The Leopard Man feels more stagnant than its predecessors.

The greatest pity is how there isn’t the same unnerving magic hanging over the picture. It probably has too big a stake in reality. What its predecessors were blessed with, in narrative terms, was the supernatural mixed in with everyday reality. The Leopard Man falls on the wrong side of the fence, unable to leave us with the same type of lingering specter. Its strengths were always in what was not actually there, instead of human beings of tangible flesh and blood.

3.5/5 Stars

I Walked with a Zombie (1943): Shadow and Psychology

IwalkedwithazombieThe film commences brilliantly as Frances Dee can be heard in voiceover with almost fond recollection, matter-of-factly stating, “I Walked with a Zombie.” The way she expresses it immediately debunks anything we might think from an admittedly exploitative title. Producer Val Lewton does not settle for a straightforward slapped together horror flick.

His ambitions were always to elevate the concepts he was handed into something indelibly interesting. Our heroine Betsy Cornell (Dee) is a Canadian nurse who applies for a position taking care of a man’s wife. It’s all very mysterious, but she’s eager to work and sets sail for San Sebastian where she will be in the service of Mr. Paul Holland (Tom Conway).

Lewton re-framed the source material into a Jane Eyre tale transplanted to the West Indies. Here Ms. Cornell arrives by boat, immediately struck with a callous first impression of the aloof Mr. Holland. He easily dismisses her childhood fear of the dark, while noting he never should have hired her.

I still contend most children are never afraid of the dark per se but what might come out of it. It’s the fear of an unknown thing lurking out of reach. Meanwhile, his younger brother (James Ellison) is a charming fellow who immediately takes a liking to the new nurse and helps to make her feel welcome. We have polar opposites set up and obvious points in a possible love triangle.

However, in following the plotting of Bronte’s work, the elder half-brother is tortured by a secret, literally locked away. It is, in fact, his mysterious wife, whom Betsy unwittingly meets one night, upon hearing a startling noise. At first, she’s taken aback by this specter of a woman, this ghost, this living dead.

But as her kindly doctor explains, supplying a firm foundation of ethos to this enigma, a portion of the spinal cord is burned out, and it has permanently made her a sleepwalker who can never be awakened. Aside from a potentially dangerous foray into shock therapy — to induce some sort of coma and hope for the best — her future prospects look dim. That is unless there’s an alternate means to bring about healing.

Like the Wolf Man before it, we are introduced to a stylized but nevertheless real locale that thrives by mixing the logical digressions that come from our world with ghostly influences. Screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Raye create a kind of poetic mythology for a supernatural conclusion to be crafted out of. Whether they meant to or not, they succeeded in canonizing zombies in the same manner werewolves were developed in Siodmak’s earlier script.

What’s lovely is how Betsy foreshadows all sorts of events to come and there are strangely mesmerizing objects to captivate us. The figurehead of a slave ship features Saint Sebastian himself pierced by arrows. It lends this undercurrent of the brutish injustices of the slave trade to the landscape we must come to terms with.

These very same traditions have the same weighty dolefulness but are also imbued with an otherworldly quality of its own. It gives this shading to the African-American characters who seem so happy-go-lucky like other Hollywood creations, and yet there’s an almost unnerving sense about them as if something is working under the surface. It’s hard to put an exact finger to it, but though they look similar, they aren’t quite straightforward stereotypes.

A local club singer chants an island song mixed with family folklore telling of the deep-rooted tragedies of the Holland family. The local populations are also adherents of local voodoo customs, and their nightly drumbeats ring out through the air ominously, picked up by the tropic winds. It’s yet another layer to this continually bewitching atmosphere.

Another character of crucial importance is Mrs. Rand, the deceased patriarch’s widow, and Wesley’s birth mother.  Her own station in life, as the wife of a Christian missionary, creates a juxtaposition between a so-called normal religion and a darker, more dubious strain.

Because it cannot help but bump up against the voodoo rituals even as black and white people now exist together. In fact, one might say the religious rituals become nearly intertwined. Betsy begins to realize maybe some powers at be might be capable of lifting the spell that has entranced Ms. Holland, even as she herself falls for the comatose woman’s husband.

As such, it is not horror lingering over the frames but a near mesmerizing catatonia. It carries you up in its grips from start to finish, trying to decipher what to make of such a vision. Enchantment, ugliness, cruelty all apply. And yet it’s difficult to cry out and out evil against the people partaking in these dances or voodoo ceremonies. The acts themselves might be evil, but the people are held in the grips of entrancement. Everyone is, to varying degrees, weighed down with desolateness even before the fateful dead are laid to rest.

We must recall the beginning voiceover once more. The fact Betsy walked with a zombie might hold an inherent element of terror, but more so, it carries with it a despondency that cannot be lifted. It hangs over us and haunts us just as the lurching Carrefour does throughout the picture.

The beauty of most any of the Val Lewton films of the 40s is how the studio and the audience expected one thing — a low budget horror flick with a provocative title — then the producer turned around to make micro-budget gems steeped in shadow and psychology. They have more depth and complexity than they have any right to.

Each entry boasts sumptuous visuals hiding weaknesses in the budget department to fully develop, not necessarily a world, but the impression of a world. One might contend the latter is far more powerful in an expressionistic capacity. Arguably, Lewton had no more formidable collaborator than director Jacques Tourneur who had an established knack for conjuring up the most splendid atmospherics.

This time he is aided by the black and white photography of Roy Hunt. In their hands, every character has a doppelganger in the form of shadows creeping along the walls with their human counterparts. It’s developed with the utmost efficiency, which seems all but a lost art these days.

But the astounding economy is matched only by a ceaseless ingenuity. Because the artfulness they managed to accomplish on the very same shoestring budget, is part of what makes them marvels even today. If you willingly invest your time in one of these RKO pictures, it’s very likely you’ll be met with a lasting impression. The dividends, as far as cinematic capital is concerned, are enormous.

4/5 Stars