Val Lewton was a renaissance film creator whose expertise and vision spanned screenwriting, casting, directing, editing and production, regardless of his official title at any moment in time. He stands out in the history of the horror film genre as an auteur pioneer who created thrillers which do not depend upon grotesque monsters and horrific blood and gore. Rather, Lewton successfully employs imagination, psychology and fear of the unknown. When RKO Productions tasked Lewton with creating competitive B horror films to challenge the likes of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), the filmmaker began his subtle variation of the horror genre, creating Cat People (1942) in conjunction with director Jacques Tourneur. In the sequel, The Curse of the Cat People (1944), Lewton, along with directors Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise, embarked upon a more notable deviation from the typical horror motif, giving birth to childhood fantasy thrillers. As such, The Curse of the Cat People merits attention, laying the groundwork for later acclaimed childhood fantasy films, including GuiIIermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).
It is at first remarkable that the sequel’s title (which RKO Productions imposed upon Lewton) implies a storyline that the film does not deliver. Based on the title and movie posters, one may logically anticipate that the doomed cat person, Irena Reed (Simone Simon), the femme fatale of Cat People, will be the protagonist of The Curse of the Cat People, seeking revenge upon Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), the husband who divorced her, and his former co-worker/lover, now second wife, Alice Reed (Jane Randolph). Rather, Lewton surprises audiences with an idyllic friendship that develops between Irena’s angelic apparition and Amy, the sweet, imaginative six-year-old daughter of Oliver and Alice. As cynical film viewers and horror devotees watch this unfold, they might eagerly await revelation that Irena’s friendship with Amy is a ruse by Irena to falsely win Amy’s trust, thereby enabling Irena to prey upon Amy’s vulnerability and hurt or kill her. Doing so would impart even greater pain and suffering upon Oliver and Alice than if Irena were to harm them directly. Yet, that is not the plot which Lewton develops in The Curse of the Cat People.
Instead, The Curse of the Cat People presents Oliver and Alice Reed now living a simple, comfortable life in a small New York town with their daughter, Amy, and butler, Edward (Sir Lancelot). Their only apparent strife is that Amy is a daydreamer who has trouble making friends and interacting with her classmates, so she engages imaginary friends. It is rather alarming to Alice when Oliver speculates aloud following a teacher’s conference that his daughter’s pre-occupation with fantasy may be the result of the same “cat people” curse as Irena. Though Alice indignantly dismisses this as nonsense, given that she is Amy’s natural mother, it becomes increasingly apparent that Oliver senses a strange connection.
When Amy walks alone in her neighborhood after potential playmates run away from her, a mysterious elderly neighbor, Julia Farren (Julia Dean), throws a ring to Amy from her window. In response to speculation from Edward, the butler, that this gift is a wishing ring, Amy wishes for and receives an endearing ghostlike friend. Upon discovering a drawer full of photos of Irena and Oliver, Amy identifies the face of the lovely woman in these photos as her beloved friend and asks what her name is. As Oliver responds with Irena’s name, he is quite alarmed and puzzled. Alice admonishes Oliver for having kept these photos of Irena and demands that he destroy them, which he does, but not without sparing one photo which he tucks away in a photo album. Love, remorse and/or an uncontrollable attraction still binds Oliver to his late wife. Oliver evidences, but does not recognize, a subliminal bond with Irena’s spirit, when he senses supernatural activity in Amy’s bedroom as he plays cards with Alice and friends. This contrasts with Alice’s concurrent recognition of Amy’s audible exclamation.
Lewton’s Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People are fundamentally about a curse which afflicts Irena and Amy. That is the curse of being different and alone, of not fitting into societal norms. Some of the sources of estrangement and fear for Irena in Cat People and Amy in The Curse of the Cat People are superstitions and folklore. Irena’s escape is art and nature/zoo, while Amy’s escape is play and nature/insects. Surprisingly, Irena brings tidings of peace and love, not horrific harm, to reinforce tolerance and salvation of dreamers and believers. In contrast, the curse of Oliver in both films is his struggle to accept and believe those whose existence and experiences are outside the norm, even when he loves them dearly.
Audiences may find Lewton’s unexpected storyline in The Curse of the Cat People to be even more intriguing upon learning of the parallels to Lewton’s life. He had an active imagination as a child, imagining lions in the woods. Amy’s attempt to mail her birthday party invitations via a magical mailbox in a tree precisely mirror Lewton when, as a boy, he attempted to mail his sister’s birthday party invitations similarly. Having grown up in Port Chester, NY — not far from the film’s setting of Terrytown, NY — The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was prevalent folklore of Lewton’s childhood. Later in life, he had a strained relationship with his own daughter, Nina, reflected in the strife between Oliver and Amy. Like Oliver, Lewton was a demanding parent.
With knowledge of Lewton’s fanciful past, it is not surprising that he accentuates the blurring of lines between reality and fantasy in The Curse of the Cat People, even to a greater extent than Cat People. Lewton utilizes the secondary characters, Julia Farren and her adult daughter, Barbara Farren (Elizabeth Russell), to enhance the mystery and challenge viewers’ discernment of implied reality versus fantasy. The Farrens reside in a spooky, secluded house. Mrs. Farren welcomes Amy with more warmth and affection than she bestows upon her disowned (alleged) adult daughter, Barbara. Julia entertains Amy by introducing her to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, feeding Amy’s fervent imagination. To heighten the sense of danger and fear in the film, Lewton interjects Barbara’s jealousy of and disdain for Amy. Along with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, Lewton establishes the mirrored connections between Amy and Barbara. When they first meet one another, the expression of anxiety and curiosity on Amy’s face is noteworthy. One could argue that Amy senses an invisible, albeit tense, bond between her and Barbara. This is visually implied as well. The set up and framing of this early dialogue include a mirror which is visible on the right side of the screen. When Reed’s butler, Edward, goes to the Farren house to retrieve Amy, he asks Barbara, “Is my little miss here? A little girl with hair about the color of yours, ma’am?” This statement reinforces this implication of mirrored souls.
Russell also appears in Cat People, playing an alleged cat person akin to Irena. Viewers with knowledge of this prior role may then find it particularly fitting near the end of The Curse of the Cat People when Amy views Irena’s ghostlike image upon Barbara’s body, prompting her to embrace the woman as her friend. This embrace from Amy has a transformational impact upon Barbara, exorcising from her demonic urges to kill Amy. Not only does Irena’s return from the dead bring joy to Amy, she effects at least temporary peace for Barbara.
There are numerous supernatural and fairytale references littered throughout The Curse of the Cat People which augment the blurring between reality and fantasy. In the beginning of the film, the RKO logo shoots up with the title cards accompanied by three significant images: a bunny, devil-winged cats and fairies. The bunny may be an allusion to the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865). During Amy’s birthday party, Amy wears a dress which is a close replica of that worn by Alice. The framing of this party scene makes it appear that Amy is in Lewis Carroll’s fantasy garden awaiting her friends to share tea. Disappointed that this does not materialize, Amy later finds a tea companion in her creepy neighbor, Julia Farren, who may be suffering from dementia and going mad, aka The Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland. Every time Amy enters the Farren household, the camera angle yields the impression that she is going through the first floor mirror. This is an allusion to Alice through the Looking-Glass (1871), a book which, like The Curse of the Cat People, serves as a sequel of sorts. This essence of a magic portal echoes other images in the film. After Amy wishes upon the magical ring for a friend, leaves start falling and stir about in such a way that it looks as though a magic portal opens, allowing Amy to proceed to a place where she can play with a friend. Later, Amy comes to Irena after passing through a waterfall-like portal of snow. Framed fairy tale prints above Amy’s bed include a scene from Alice in Wonderland.
Devil-winged cats appear in the house décor of scenes which include Barbara Farren. The devilish nature of cats implies demons. Every scene with Barbara is enhanced with satanic lighting. Barbara mostly descends the staircases of the Farren household as if entering the depths of hell. She is like a wicked witch or stepsister from a Grimm fairy tale. The only time Barbara is shown to be ascending is when her alleged mother, Julia, collapses on the steps and dies. The camera angle makes it appear that Barbara is almost floating up the stairs like a ghost. Throughout the film, Julia states repeatedly that her daughter died long ago. Inducing some suspicion that Barbara might not be real is the lack of any other adult interaction with her other than Edward, the butler, who, due to his island background, seems to have an enhanced awareness of the supernatural.
The fairy figure is a reference to and foreshadowing of Amy’s butterfly friend and the resurrected Irena. Irena is like a fairy godmother to Amy. Lewton introduces the possibility that Irena is more than solely a figment of Amy’s imagination through a subtle change in cinematography. Prior to the final scene, Irena only appears from the POV perspective of Amy. Even when Oliver tells Amy he believes her that Irena is in the backyard, he does not look into the yard. Yet, after Oliver and Amy enter the house, a final shot displays Irena in the backyard garden before the film cuts to black, suggesting Irena’s ghost thrives outside Amy’s mind.
It is interesting that Lewton and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen first entertained an ending whereby Irena reveals to Amy that she is dead, assuring Amy of the acceptable reality that everybody and everything must come to an end. Bodeen offered Lewton the criticism that such an ending would be too similar to Hector Hugh Munro aka Saki’s Sredni Vashtar. After dismissing Bodeen from his film team for daring to express this criticism, Lewton rewrote the ending. By perpetuating the ghostlike existence of Irena and her friendship with Amy, Lewton allows for the advancement of Oliver’s character in this sequel. Oliver learns to put aside objectivity and conformity in favor of love and trust. By devoting himself to his friendship of Amy in The Curse of the Cat People, Oliver achieves redemption for having turned his back on Irena in Cat People.
Lewton tragically died at the young age of 46 not long after suffering a heart attack. Unfortunately, he was at a less fulfilling point in his career, and perhaps a less happy phase of his life when he passed. Gifted with the ability to communicate the unhappiness of loneliness and fear, he advanced the horror genre to a level that exceeds shock and fright. His insights into both childhood and adult inner personal conflicts are legacies which deserve recognition in the foundational history of horror, both for psychological thrillers and fantasy films.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.