Cast & Crew
Gunther V. Fritsch
Six-year old Amy Reed inhabits a fantasy world in which butterflies are her friends. Amy's fancy troubles her father, Oliver Reed, because her behavior reminds him of his first wife Irena, whose madness drove her to death. After Oliver discovers that Amy has placed the invitations to her birthday party in a "magic tree" mailbox, he asks her to promise to make friends with the neighborhood children. Amy's attempt at friendliness is spurned by the children, who run away from her. Amy follows them, and as she pauses at the gate of an old house, an old woman's voice beckons her into the garden. From the window, the woman drops a ring wrapped in a handkerchief. Amy takes the ring, but the handkerchief is snatched from her by Barbara Farren, the old woman's sinister daughter. When Amy returns home and tells her father about the voice from the window, he refuses to believe her. Alice Reed, Amy's mother, disagrees with his assessment of their daughter, and the two argue.
While playing in the garden one afternoon, Amy wishes for a friend. Suddenly, leaves begin to fall from the trees, the light glistens and Amy begins to run and play with her imaginary friend. That night, Alice tells Amy that she must return the ring, and the next day, the little girl goes to the Farren house. There she meets Julia Farren, Barbara's demented mother, who insists that her daughter is dead and that Barbara is a spy. As the theatrical Julia terrifies Amy with the story of the headless horseman, Edward, the Reeds' servant, arrives to take the little girl home. That night, Amy has a nightmare about the headless horseman and calls to her friend to comfort her. Summoned by Amy's call, a gentle wind followed by a shadow enters the room. The next morning, Amy finds an old photo of Irena in a desk drawer, and when she goes into the garden and calls to her friend, Irena appears.
Fall passes into winter, and on Christmas Eve, Amy slips out of the house to present Irena with her gift. Amy also has a gift for Julia, who delights in the little girl's visit, while denouncing her own daughter. Later, Amy finds a photo of Oliver and Irena and announces that the woman in the picture is her friend. Alarmed, Oliver accompanies Amy to the garden and tells her to summon her friend. When Amy insists that Irena is standing under a tree, Oliver punishes the little girl. As Amy, chastened, sobs in her room, Irena appears and tells her that she must leave forever. After bidding Amy farewell, Irena disappears into the shadows. Looking for Irena, Amy sneaks out of the house and wanders into the woods just as snow begins to fall. Amy's teacher, Miss Callahan, has been visiting the family and disagrees with Oliver's punishment of his daughter, urging him instead to become the little girl's friend. When Oliver goes to Amy's room to apologize, he discovers that she is missing, and after he calls the police, they begin to search the woods.
Meanwhile, Amy, who is caught in a raging blizzard, remembers the story of the headless horseman and hears hoofbeats in the distance. Amy cringes in fear as the sound of hoofbeats turns into the rattling of an old car, sending the little girl scurrying to the Farren house for refuge. Barbara has vowed to kill Amy if she returns to the house, and consequently, when Amy knocks at the door, Julia tries to hide her upstairs, but collapses and dies on the staircase. Suddenly appearing at the foot of the stairs, Barbara menacingly advances toward Amy until the little girl calls for her friend. In Amy's eyes, the image of Barbara is replaced with that of Irena, and the child embraces her antagonist. Amy's embrace disarms Barbara, who hugs the child. At that moment, Oliver and the police arrive at the house, and Oliver promises to be Amy's friend and accept her imaginary companions. No longer needed, Irena disappears.
Linda Ann Bieber
Albert S. D'agostino
Walter E. Keller
Francis M. Sarver
James G. Stewart
J. R. Whittredge
The Curse of the Cat People
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. D¿ostino, Walter E. Keller Cinematography: 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
The Curse of the Cat People
The Val Lewton Collection on DVD
It's hardly a perfect collection, especially with all the audio commentaries by film historians who wallow in minutia that gets very tiring very quickly. But these facts are clear: (1) Lewton produced some of the best B-movies ever turned out on low budgets and quickie schedules for a Hollywood studio; and, (2) Some of the set's most noteworthy content is on the two discs available only within the five-disc boxed set.
First, some background. Struggling RKO hired Russian immigrant Lewton, then a story editor at David O. Selznick's studio, to head up a unit that would make low-budget horror movies and challenge Universal's dominance in that genre. RKO would have been happy to release monster movies like Universal's, and the studio imposed monstrous-sounding titles on Lewton's movies before scripts were ever penned. But the resultant stories were much more ambitious than that. Instead of using monsters, Lewton's subtle use of the power of suggestion left much of the terror to the viewer's imagination. By withholding shots of the source of terror in favor of foreboding shadows and sounds, and offering stories that usually took place in a contemporary, realistic setting, Lewton forged a distinctive mix in his RKO chillers. (Though he rarely took a writing credit, and never under his own name, Lewton wrote the final screenplay drafts for his RKO movies.)
Lewton's 1942-46 RKO chillers fall into three groups: the first trio of movies (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man), all directed by Jacques Tourneur; after RKO split up Lewton and Tourneur to spread their talents wider, a mid-section of Lewton movies that often stuck to the style of the Tourneur pictures (The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, The Curse of the Cat People); and, after the so-so financial performance of the straight dramas Mademoiselle Fifi and Youth Runs Wild, the three Lewton productions starring Boris Karloff (Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam).
Because the DVDs include two movies (each averages about only 72 minutes in length), the set often mixes titles from these periods on them:
Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People: Cat People, released in late 1942, is undoubtedly the most important Lewton movie, and this disc is the best place for the uninitiated to start. It set the tone for the rest of his RKO movies and, very importantly, was a big hit. Though the producer was forever stuck with imposed titles and tight budgets, its success gave Lewton a measure of creative control over his stories.
In its tale of the ill-fated marriage between a Serbian immigrant (Simone Simon) and a boat designer (Kent Smith), Cat People blends naturalistic staging and supernatural story as Lewton so often would. Irena, Simon's title character, believes she's descended from a line of women who turn into vengeful felines when sexually or emotionally aroused, so she won't consummate the marriage, which cranks up the sexual tension to levels unheard of in 1940s Hollywood movies, especially when Smith's character turns to the chummy co-worker who loves him (Jane Randolph) for advice. The movie's archetypal moments come when Irena stalks her rival through Central Park, and the extended silence becomes broken by a braking bus that lunges into the picture (a trademark Lewton device he'd often repeat) and when the still-stalked rival gets spooked by shadows and noises as she swims alone in a pool. Paul Schrader remade Cat People in 1982, but the original is the better version.
The Curse of the Cat People, out in 1944, is indicative of how Lewton subverted his RKO bosses' orders. Told to make a Cat People sequel, Curse is instead a very involving, very sensitive portrait of a lonely child. With the Smith and Randolph characters now married, following the death of Irena in the first film, their biggest worry is their daydreaming young daughter Amy (Ann Carter), who sees a picture of Irena and conjures up her image as an imaginary friend. Though lacking the visual lyricism of its predecessor, it's one of Lewton's best. Robert Wise co-directed with Gunther V. Fritsch, the first taking over for the second, who RKO fired for finishing only half the movie during the allotted schedule.
I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher: Another great double feature. The first, made just after Cat People, is more evidence of Tourneur's talent as a visual storyteller. A variation on Jane Eyre transposed to the West Indies, it finds a Canadian nurse (Frances Dee) arriving to her new post in the Caribbean, only to discover her new patient is a catatonic woman once caught in a love triangle between her husband (Tom Conway) and his half-brother (James Ellison), and that the island's native culture is steeped in voodoo. Like Cat People, an eerie chiller that travels far beyond the shocks we associate with horror. Meanwhile, The Body Snatcher is the best of Lewton's three pictures with Karloff (it was the second). Inspired by the Burke-Hare grave-robbing scandal, it's set in 1831 Edinburgh, with its main conflict pitting two former cadaver-stealing allies: a cabman (Karloff) who still digs up graves and a doctor (Henry Daniell) who's graduated to respectability and now only hires people to rob graves. The Body Snatcher, directed by Wise, is a fine example of how Lewton's movies not only avoided monsters, they also avoided outright villains and skillfully mined the moral grey zone.
Isle of the Dead and Bedlam: The first and third Lewton-Karloff collaborations, both also period pieces, are indicative of how Lewton's later RKO movies could be well-crafted, yet not as interesting as intended. The first, about a group of people quarantined on a Greek island during a plague scare, and the second, centered on London's notorious insane asylum of the 18th century, used period paintings and drawing as visual inspiration, so maybe it's not surprising they feel static. They're not bad and they give Karloff roles superior to his usual characters, but they feel flat compared to Lewton's more evocative work.
The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship: the first of the two discs available only within the set offers two fine movies. The first is Tourneur's rendering of Cornell Woolrich's novel, Black Alibi, about what happens when a deadly black leopard gets loose in a New Mexico town. It's surely more uneven than Tourneur's two previous Lewton movies, yet it has great set pieces, especially when the cat stalks a teen who's been sent to the store by her mother. The Ghost Ship has been one of the most elusive Lewton movies, as it was pulled from release by RKO after a writer filed a plagiarism lawsuit, claiming the movie took elements from a script he had submitted to Lewton's office. Although Lewton never saw that script, RKO lost the case and pulled the movie. As with Curse of the Cat People, made just after it, Ghost Ship comes up with something much better than the mere horror film RKO wanted. Its conflict between the idealistic new third officer (Russell Wade) and the power-mad captain (Richard Dix) on a freighter doesn't just recall The Caine Mutiny, which Herman Wouk hadn't written yet, it also turns into an exploration of authority run amok, an anti-Fascist parable for its wartime audience.
The Seventh Victimand Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy: the second of the boxed-set-only discs contains two essentials. The Seventh Victim,, the first non-Tourneur Lewton movie, directed by Mark Robson in keeping with Tourneur's style, may be the eeriest of the producer's movies. Kim Hunter makes her film debut as a teen who travels to New York City to look for her missing older sister (Jean Brooks), and discovers that her sister became involved with a devil-worshipping cult that now wants her dead. If Lewton's movies stew in the juices of death, grief and loneliness, The Seventh Victim may be his grimmest. It's also his most noir movie, with all of its dangers stemming from human loneliness. A beautiful piece of melancholy.
Running a little under an hour, Shadows in the Dark is literally littered with interview subjects. Do we really need five film historians, four writers and seven directors praising Lewton? An indication of how cluttered it is comes when George A. Romero who, like Lewton, knows a thing or two about movie zombies, is never heard offering his take on Lewton's kind of voodoo-based zombie, much different from Romero's Pittsburgh zombies. Still, this is a good overview of the producer's life and work, and it's hard to argue with any of the praise heaped upon Lewton's movies. They deserve it. Full of family snapshots and home movie footage, as well as the comments of Lewton's son, Val E. Lewton, Shadows of the Dark offers a strong sense of how Lewton's RKO movies reflected his personality: dark, literate, competent.
Most of those film historians in the documentary handle audio commentaries on the set's movies, though there's no commentary for The Ghost Ship, which seemingly has the most interesting "back story." The most worthwhile commentary is definitely the late Robert Wise's, on
Wise's first-hand anecdotes are much more interesting than the historians' micro-observations and rabid research, which is often along the lines of "This scene was filmed on October 13, but this insert within it was filmed on November 4." Sorry, stuff like that is just not that interesting. The historians are all well-prepared and speak well, but when I cautiously popped in director William Friedkin's commentary for The Leopard Man—cautiously because Friedkin's The Narrow Margin commentary had some dubious observations — it was really refreshing to hear him say, "Frankly, the movie speaks for itself" in the first minute. Greg Mank's commentaries on Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People also include snippets of his phone interview with the late Simone Simon. For some reason, though, these snippets are often semi-arbitrarily dropped in with no set-up and, like most of the historians commenting, Mank doesn't even open by telling us his qualifications to do a commentary for a Val Lewton movie. When that happens, I just want to ask, "Dude, where's your credibility?"
For more information about The Val Lewton Horror Collection, visit Warner Video. To order The Val Lewton Collection, go to TCM Shopping.
by Paul Sherman
The Val Lewton Collection on DVD
Robert Wise (1914-2005)
Born on September 10, 1914 in Winchester, Ind., Wise was a child of the Depression who quit college to earn a living in the movie industry. He began as an assistant cutter at RKO, where he worked his way up to the position of film editor and earned an Oscar® nomination for his bravura work with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane. He also edited The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) for Welles, along with several other RKO films.
Wise became a director by default when RKO and producer Val Lewton assigned him to The Curse of the Cat People (1944) after Gunther von Fritsch failed to meet the film's production schedule. Wise turned the film into a first-rate psychological thriller, and enjoyed equal success with another Lewton horror film, The Body Snatcher (1945).
Critical praise also was showered upon Wise's Born to Kill (1947), a crime melodrama; and Blood on the Moon (1948), an unusual psychological Western starring Robert Mitchum. Even more highly regarded was The Set-Up (1949), a no-punches-pulled boxing drama that won the Critics' Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Wise moved on from RKO in the early 1950s, directing one of the movies' classic alien invasion films, The Day the Earth Stood Still, for 20th Century Fox.
At MGM he directed Executive Suite (1954), a compelling all-star boardroom drama; Somebody Up There Likes Me, a film bio of boxer Rocky Graziano that established Paul Newman as a major star; and The Haunting (1963), a chilling haunted-hause melodrama. His films for United Artists include Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), a submarine drama with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster; I Want to Live! (1958), a harrowing account of a convicted murderess on Death Row, with Susan Hayward in her Oscar-winning performance; and the crime caper Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).
Wise served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Directors Guild of America. He was awarded the Academy's Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1966, and the Directors Guild's highest honor, the D.W. Griffith Award, in 1988. He remained active as a director through the 1970s. His final film, Rooftops (1989) was a musical with an urban setting that recalled West Side Story.
The films in TCM's salute to Robert Wise are Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Body Snatcher (1945), Born to Kill (1947), Blood on the Moon (1948), The Set-Up (1949), Executive Suite (1954), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), B>West Side Story (1959), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) and The Haunting (1963).
by Roger Fristoe
Robert Wise (1914-2005)
Although a Hollywood Reporter production chart lists Mark Robson as director, Robson's name does not appear in any other source. This picture marked the feature-length directing debut of former short subject director Gunther Fritsch. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, when Fritsch began to fall behind schedule, film editor Robert Wise (1914-2005) stepped in to direct, thus earning his first directoral credit. According to the RKO Production Files contained in the UCLA Arts Library-Special Collections, the picture was completed nine days behind schedule and was so over budget that the studio had to recalculate the entire budget upwards from $147,000 to $212,000.
RKO tried to exploit the popularity of Val Lewton's 1942 film Cat People by titling this film Curse of the Cat People and hiring Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Jane Randolph to reprise their roles from the earlier film. Although the characters were the same in both pictures, The Curse of the Cat People was more of a fantasy than horror film and did not include the transformation of humans into cats. In an interview printed in a modern source, screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, who wrote both films, claimed that Lewton wanted to retitle this picture Amy and Her Friend, thus eliminating any reference to the earlier film, but was overruled by the studio. A Hollywood Reporter news item adds that scenes for the film were shot at Malibu Lake, CA.
Released in United States Spring March 2, 1944
Released in United States March 1985
Released in United States Spring March 2, 1944
Released in United States March 1985 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The Fabulous Fifty-Hour Filmex Fantasy Marathon) March 14-31, 1985.)