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The RKO publicists must have been using mind-altering drugs when they masterminded the ad campaign behind The Curse of the Cat People (1944), a poetic fantasy about a lonely young girl who invents an imaginary playmate. Conceived as a sequel to Cat People - a huge box office hit for the studio in 1942 - posters and promotional materials for the film carried taglines like "The Beast-Woman Haunts the Night Anew!" and "The Black Menace Creeps Again!" but nothing could have been more off the mark.
It's true that The Curse of the Cat People DID feature some of the same characters (and actors) from the first film but the storyline has an entirely different focus. Picking up where Cat People left off, we now find that Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) has remarried and has a six-year-old daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), by his late wife, Irena (Simone Simon). Oliver, however, is disturbed by his daughter's intense fantasy life and feels that she is somehow negatively influenced by the spirit of the deceased Irena. Unfortunately, his attempts to break through to Amy are complicated by his own failings as a father and by his daughter's friendship with an elderly neighbor.
For producer Val Lewton The Curse of the Cat People was a very personal project. It incorporated autobiographical details from his own childhood into the plot like the sequence with the lost party invitations, the numerals lesson and his own fondness for ghost stories like "The Headless Horseman." The film was also set in Tarrytown, New York (not far from Lewton's own upbringing in Port Chester and Who-Torok). But this didn't help make The Curse of the Cat People an easy film to produce.
Gunther von Fritsch was hired to direct with Robert Wise serving as editor but almost immediately there were problems. According to Wise in Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror by Joel E. Siegel, "A shooting schedule was set up for eighteen days but he [Fritsch] fell so far behind that after the eighteen days were used up, he was still only halfway through the screenplay. Val tried and tried to get Gunther to pick up the tempo, but it was his first job and he was just too nervous to move any faster. One Saturday morning, I got a call from Sid Rogell, who was then head of the B-unit...Rogell told me that I was to replace Gunther on Monday morning. Gunther and I had planned to do some extra night footage that very evening and I knew he had not yet been told of his dismissal. I couldn't bring myself to go to work with him under those conditions and I called Val to ask his advice. 'Look,' he said, 'if it's not you, it will be somebody else. You're not pushing Gunther out.' So I took over the picture on Monday morning and brought it in by early October."
RKO executives had expected to see a supernatural thriller in the style of Cat People but when Lewton screened The Curse of the Cat People for them they were extremely disappointed. In response, they demanded several retakes and additional scenes were added like one where two boys chase a black cat up a tree. Some crucial details like the moment where Amy studies an illustration of Sleeping Beauty (that later inspires her medieval costume) were also lost on the cutting room floor.
Lewton pleaded with the studio brass to change the title to the more appropriate Amy and Her Friend but they refused and the RKO publicity department continued to promote the film as a creature feature. Among their more inane suggestions to theatre owners were "Stencil paw prints leading to your theatre. Send out a small group of men and women wearing cat masks to walk through the streets with cards on their backs reading, "Are cats people?"
As expected, The Curse of the Cat People didn't click with audiences expecting a typical horror film but many renown film critics were impressed with it and felt it was Lewton's finest achievement; some even noticed a connection between it and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Unseen Playmate. James Agee wrote that the film captured "the poetry and danger of childhood" and director Joe Dante remarked that "its disturbingly Disneyesque fairy tale qualities have perplexed horror fans for decades." Perhaps more telling is the fact that The Curse of the Cat People was often shown to psychology students at universities. At one point, Dr. Fearing, head of the Child Psychology Clinic at U.C.L.A., asked Lewton to attend a class screening of it. According to Joel E. Siegel's Lewton biography, "...Dr. Fearing praised Lewton's use of Amy's tight-lipped half-smile, observing that in his treatment of children with similar emotional problems, the same reticent smile appeared again and again. But Lewton...refused to take credit for this particular touch. Little Ann Carter, he explained, had lost one of her front teeth during shooting, and since there was not enough time or money to have the tooth replaced, she was instructed to act with her mouth shut for the rest of the filming."
Producer: Val Lewton
Director: Gunther von Fritsch, Robert Wise
Screenplay: De Witt Bodeen
Production Design: Albert S. Dostino, Walter E. KellerCinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Costume Design: Edward Stevenson
Film Editing: J.R. Whittredge
Original Music: Roy Webb
Principal Cast: Simone Simon (Irena), Kent Smith (Oliver Reed), Jane Randolph (Alice Reed), Ann Carter (Amy).
BW-70m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford