Jingle Cats Or: A Val Lewton Christmas

Adam Clarke has a Baby Cakes-level interest in cat people.

Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Six year old Amy (Ann Carter) is not the most socially adept child. She seems to have more sympathy for animals than she does for people. Her loving, gentle parents, Oliver (Kent Smith) and Alice Reed (Jane Randolph), are at wit’s end trying to socialize her and get her to stop daydreaming, and it seems like Amy’s only friend might be the elderly Julia (Julia Dean). Julia is a batty former actress who openly chastises her daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), for being an imposter — she’s convinced that the real Barbara died and the supposed imposter has been taking care of her in her declining years. When Barbara sees her mother giving so much affection to Amy, she considers killing the young girl.

Sensing that a crazy old lady living in a mansion might not be the best pal for a girl to make, Oliver and Alice encourage her to talk to the other children. Instead, Amy ends up befriending Oliver’s first wife, Irena Dubrova (Simone Simon), and the two spend much of the Christmas season together. Unlike the toxic mother-daughter relationship that Barbara and Julia have, Irena is the perfect friend for Amy. When she tells her father about her new friend, he’s more than a little upset. Irena and Amy can’t possibly know each other… Irena committed suicide before Amy was born.

From 1942 to 1946, Val Lewton produced nine films that cemented his reputation as a masterful storyteller whose films were defined by shadow and ambiguity. The first, and arguably best known, was Cat People. That film introduces us to Irena Dubova, a lonely woman who fears that she will transform into a vicious cat if she surrenders to passion. Jacques Tourneur’s direction, the masterful use of lighting and Lewton’s unusual story result in an intriguing and enduring piece of psycho-sexual horror.

Of the films Lewton produced for RKO Pictures during this time, Curse of the Cat People is the most maligned, and quite unfairly so. Lewton’s later films seldom recaptured that perfect mix of elements in the original Cat People. Both The Body Snatcher and The Seventh Victim are easily the best of the films that followed, but Curse of the Cat People is an enjoyable fantasy film. It’s a far cry from its more thrilling predecessor, but it’s considerably better than Lewton’s dismal Isle of the Dead or the comatose The Ghost Ship.

The original Cat People is a tight, slow-burn thriller where the audience is never told whether Simone Simon’s Irena is some kind of were-panther or merely disturbed — that is, until the film’s final moments. That film succeeded in keeping the audience captivated despite ever showing much in the way of any were-puss action. Lesser Lewton films cheated by having its characters act illogical in the hopes of keeping the audience guessing. Unlike those tedious Lewton misfires, he and Tourneur found the perfect protagonist for their unique brand of horror: a child. An imaginative girl susceptible to getting lost in her own head is the ideal person to suspect malevolence in the shadows. Perhaps Amy really is being visited by a ghost from her father’s past. Otherwise, Irena’s return might simply be in Amy’s head, as her father still seems to be mourning the woman he’d loved so many years ago. We know that Oliver still has the odd picture or two of his former wife around, so it’s possible that he and Alice have mentioned Irena around their daughter.

Regardless of interpretation, Curse of the Cat People is surprisingly affecting. Simone Simon is heartbreaking as Irena, a ghost far more at peace in death than in life; providing friendship and understanding to a six year old outsider. Ann Carter, unlike so many child actors, isn’t trying to be cute or funny. She imbues Amy with a sweetness, intelligence and vulnerability without ever being cloying. Carter’s never anything less than real and her scenes with Simon are what make Curse of the Cat People such a sleeper success.

Now, the film’s not perfect. Rather than having a ghostly Irena threaten Amy in order to get to her parents, their friendship is genuine and loving. This Irena (who may just be a figment of Amy’s imagination) is a guardian angel who can help Amy from ever becoming as isolated as she was when she was alive. I applaud the decision to switch gears from psychological horror to a dark children’s fantasy, but Curse of the Cat People needlessly shoe-horns in a crisis to beef up the story. Enter Barbara and Julia (remember them?) whose storyline seems imported from another film. This hardly matters since that b-plot is given an insultingly simple conclusion like the afterthought that it is. Had the film focused on Amy, Irena and the Reeds, it’d certainly be more fondly received than it is at present. Nevertheless, I completely recommend this kind-hearted, gentle little story as a welcome alternative to the usual X-mas fare.


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