Many of us are already getting ready for Halloween. It's fun to anticipate the autumn holiday by spending the month of October watching horror movies. And many Christmas movie fans like to spend the month of October watching the dozens of Halloween/Christmas cross-over films and TV programs too. In that spirit, I'd like to remind you about the 1944 movie The Curse of the Cat People, directed by Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise. This delightful black-and-white classic includes both horror elements and significant Christmas scenes.
The Curse of the Cat People is a sequel to 1942's Cat People. The first film tells the tragic story of Oliver Reed (played by Kent Smith) who falls in love with and marries Irena (played by Simone Simon), a fashion illustrator who believes she's cursed based on a folktale from her Serbian hometown. Irena becomes consumed by fear that her passions will transform her into a monstrous beast--a deadly cat--a fear which ultimately dooms her marriage and her life.
|In Curse, Oliver and Alice return. They are now married and have a young daughter named Amy.|
The black-and-white film's story is told with gorgeous extreme lighting, showing off dramatic shadows. The story expresses the themes of Romanticism--remember studying late 18th century-early 19th century Romanticism from literature and art classes? This is a rejection of Realism. Nature (and animals) are wild, threatening, and dangerous. And, the film's story becomes even richer if you begin to recognize the dichotomies set up within the story. The tension between these dichotomies is what fuels the story's interest and moves it forward. (Think of the tension between the rational and the irrational, the civilized and the animalistic, reality and fantasy, the male and the female, et al).
I'm pulling some of these threads out because the follow-up movie The Curse of the Cat People continues to draw upon the same themes. While I don't think it's necessary to see the first movie to follow along with Curse, your experience of Curse will be much richer if you've seen the first movie. I recommend watching both movies as a double-feature--you'll love it.
|Amy leaves a group of children in the middle of a game to chase after a butterfly. Oliver thinks there's something wrong with his daughter.|
The Curse of the Cat People follows the characters from the first movie, at least seven years in the future. Oliver (Kent Smith again) and Alice (played by Jane Randolph in both movies) have married, and they have a six year-old daughter named Amy (played by Ann Carter). Amy doesn't get along with the other children in her school and she doesn't have any friends. Amy doesn't seem to know the difference between reality and fantasy, between lies and the truth. She's known as a dreamer, and she spends most of her time alone in her garden enjoying her time with nature. Her father thinks there's something wrong with Amy. She's most comfortable using her imagination rather than pursuing math and rational thought like he does--he's a boat designer/engineer.
|The "normal" children know not to go near the haunted house in the neighborhood where they believe a witch lives. Amy is drawn to the house.|
After walking past a spooky house in the neighborhood, Amy approaches it and she's given the gift of a ring from a stranger in the window. Her parents want her to return the lavish gift but when she goes back, Amy is invited into the home to meet the old woman Julia Farren who lives there. The old woman insists that Amy keep the ring, and she and the young girl strike a bond. Farren is a former actress from the stage and she immerses herself in fanciful stories--just like Amy. Here, Amy hears Washington Irving's story of The Headless Horseman for the first time. Later, Amy makes a wish on her ring, expressing her desire for a friend.
|Julia Farren (played by Julia Dean) is a grown-up version of Amy--a woman who relishes stories and fantasy over reality.|
|Remember the exotic woman who spoke Serbian to Irena in the first movie Cat People? She's back--here she's known as Barbara. Frighteningly, Julia insists Barbara is her daughter's imposter. She's played by Elizabeth Russell.|
Amy's wish for a friend comes true when a beautiful woman named Irena keeps her company in the garden. Oliver is happy that his daughter is kept occupied in the backyard not fully aware that she's actually playing with someone he can't see! (Don't bother trying to nail down whether Irena is from Amy's imagination or a ghost. That will only reduce the experience).
|Irena and Amy are bathed in both light and shadows--get it?|
|The Reed family is happy together at Christmas. Amy has a wrapped gift under the tree for her "friend."|
At Christmas, the family decorates the tree together and carolers arrive at the door. Amy hears her friend Irena also caroling in the garden and she joins her there. Amy offers a gift to her friend which Irena graciously accepts. Days later when they are taking the Christmas tree down, the family takes out the photo album and young Amy sees a photo of her father and his first wife Irena. She identifies the woman as her friend in the garden and her father insists she's lying. Spoiler: Irena's death came before Amy was even born. And, he punishes his daughter. Confused, Amy still doesn't understand the difference between reality and fantasy and why she's being punished, so she runs away.
|Amy leaves home to run through the darkness, wind and snow. Will the storm overwhelm Amy?|
|Will Barbara's jealousy overwhelm Amy?|
The young girl runs away into a storm on a dark night, through the woods behind her house. At one point she is covered in snow, laying along the ground. She ends up running to Julia Farren's home, seeking the comfort of the old woman who seems to understand her. Unfortunately, Julia's daughter Barbara is jealous of her mother's affection for Amy. The end is very satisfying so I won't spoil it. This is certainly a film best enjoyed when one experiences it for themselves. So I'll leave you to it.
|Irena awaits in the backyard (played by Simone Simon).|
If you aren't already familiar with this movie, I encourage it as a Halloween and Christmas cross-over. It's also one of those horror movies that isn't a slasher and contains no blood or gruesome scenes. (The photo of the hands above is the most horrifying image in the film--and is very restrained). If slashers are not your style or you're looking to experience something more thoughtful and different, this is the movie for you.
If you're looking for more suggestions of Halloween and Christmas cross-over movies and TV programs, follow by daily posts at @TistheSeasonTV on Twitter, and Tis the Season TV on Facebook. Merry October!
Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. More about the TV programs mentioned on this website can be found in her book "Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies." Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com
*Support this website and its research by purchasing the books at 1701 press.com
I rediscovered this film just a few years ago and was surprised to find (again) the Christmas scenes. Your analysis here is excellent.ReplyDelete
There's actually a third film you can add to make a triple feature: THE SEVENTH VICTIM is another Val Lewton film, and it includes Tom Conway as Dr. Louis Judd again. It works as a sort of spinoff of THE CAT PEOPLE, and I realize with your essay here it continues some of the same themes.
CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE is a lovely children's fantasy! I wonder what theater patrons expecting to see a horror film thought of it? Its reputation has grown significantly over the years (as have all of Lewton's RKO films). As you may know, the studio imposed the title; I'm sure Lewton would have picked something more subtle.ReplyDelete