I had a tree fort when I was a kid. Nothing special, just a series of boards held together with nuts and bolts. But to me, it was a medieval fortress built on blood and bone, its steadfast walls acting as bastions of protection for ghouls and ghosts too frightened to move on. Within that twelve-by-twelve foot structure, my imagination had no boundary. I engaged with spirits of the dead and battled preternatural beings. I conjured fantastic visions of chance and excitement with little regard for the real world outside.
Unfortunately, my days of unrestrained reverie are behind me. The present decelerating economy and deteriorating stratosphere are enough to make anyone want to unplug from reality. Taking on a world of supernatural monsters would be a wonderful distraction at this point in my life, but there are just so many things to do. Now I live out my fantasies through film. Heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping displays of mayhem and carnage provide a cathartic release from the craziness of the world.
Robert Wise’s hauntingly delicate fable, The Curse of the Cat People about a misfit girl who invents an imaginary friend, provides a glimpse into how creative play can foster positive child development. Its celebration of discovery is etched in vivid color across its stunning one sheet. The sweet and innocent Amy rests on her knees, fingers laced together, shoulders curled in on themselves to conceal her vulnerability; her thin lips and pensive eyes carrying the weight of years of ridicule from family and classmates. The ghostly Irena embraces her, her soft hands clamped tightly around Amy’s head forcing her gaze, a mammoth panther lumbers over her right shoulder, a witchy woman with fiery hair and black eyes over her left. One peak at the poster and you know what to expect. It’s a breathtakingly magical fairy tale: like stepping through the gates of your favorite family amusement park.
Yet, curiously, I find myself connecting more with the movie at 39 than I did at 14. Time has not diminished its societal relevance; advanced visual technology has not depleted its poignancy. With each viewing of the picture, I uncover new layers of psychological complexity.
Originally released in 1944, at a time when audiences seeking to escape the emotional turmoil of wartime America were turning to fantastical movies, it was the brainchild of novelist-turned-film producer Val Lewton. Hindered by low budgets and inspired by the excitement of fans, Lewton created a series of stylish and moody horror flicks that had something to say about the behaviors and ambitions of people in America. His most successful films included The Leopard Man, Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatcher.
After the success of Lewton’s Cat People in 1942 about an illustrator called Irena (Simone Simon) who transforms into a deadly panther when sexually aroused, executives at RKO studios aimed to cash in on the popular title. Despite boasting a few cast members from the original film, the follow up has little in common with its predecessor.
Following the suicide of his wife Irena, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) weds his former assistant, Alice (Jane Randolph). Their daughter Amy (Ann Carter), now six, struggles at school because she “has too many fantasies and too few friends.” Her artwork is “moody,” “it shows imagination.” “She could almost be Irena’s child.” At her birthday party, Amy is befuddled when her parents tell her to wish over her cake. “You told me wishes can’t come true.” She wishes to be the type of daughter her father aspires her to be. On a quest to find friends, she meets Julia Farren (Julia Dean), a widowed actress who gifts her a “wishing ring.” When she wishes for a friend, Irena appears to her in long white gown befitting an angel.
Originally assigned to Croatian-born director Gunther von Fritsch, the picture was handed over to novice filmmaker Robert Wise when it fell behind schedule. Among the most accomplished directors to emerge out of the golden age of Hollywood, Wise’s reputation as a true artisan was later secured by an eclectic filmography that includes The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Haunting and The Sound of Music. His craftsman approach to storytelling can be seen in the opening moments of The Curse of the Cat People. Title cards featuring childlike sketches of princesses and winged felines begin the picture and set the mood for the story to follow.
Amy is introduced marching beside classmates along a pastoral trail sprinkled white by the glowing sun. Their youthful voices roll over the gently undulating path in playful waves; the creepy stories they tell offering a bewitching juxtaposition with the whimsical imagery.
Amy breaks free from the group to pursue a butterfly. A boy catches the fragile insect in his hand, accidentally killing it in the process. The colorful creature, born to fly free, its swirling wings and majestic beauty joyful reminders that life and the act of growing up should be liberating processes, is squished by the boy.
Amy is enraged. She slaps the boy. Her father scolds her. He “knows what happens when people lose themselves” to fantasy.
Later, on a visit to Julia’s house, the aging actress tells Amy the story of the Headless Horseman. Her words flow spookily from her tongue and into the ears of Amy and the viewing audience. A light wind whispers in the background, the thundering of hooves splits the soundtrack.
In Washington Irving’s gothic story, a teacher named Ichabod Crane disappears from the town of Sleepy Hollow after a run-in with the Headless Horseman. The nature of the specter is left ambiguous. It’s implied that the spirit is really Ichabod’s adversary in disguise, however the characters in the tale carry on as if the legend is true.
Likewise, it is unclear whether the ghost of Irena truly exists or is a figment of Amy’s imagination. Oliver fears that if his daughter’s delusions go unchecked, she’ll suffer a fate similar to his first wife.
Amy’s teacher recalls Robert Lewis Stevenson’s poem “The Unseen Playmate” about the role of imaginary friends in the lives of lonely children. She warns Oliver that if he is unable to allow himself to accept his daughter’s imaginative nature, her fantasies will never cease.
Amy is young, but her face carries the weight of someone much older. There is a depth to her character that allows her to transcend the fairy-tale story. That confusing period between youth and adolescence can be a horrific time in lives of children. The fanciful elements in The Curse of the Cat People are metaphorically tied to the process of growing up. Anyone who has ever felt alone will identify with Amy and her touching journey.
Amy’s make-believe play provides her a unique perspective. Her struggle to find a footing in the world yields an awareness not present in the adult characters. Dealing with one’s emotions is often a difficult task. Amy’s imagination, though off-putting for her father, helps her navigate challenging situations while fulfilling her need to be “seen.”
The whole thing feels so personal under Wise’s direction, his depiction of Amy’s fanciful world giving life to the picture. Like an adolescent me playing in my tree fort, Amy hears whispers in the wind and sees spirits in the trees and the audience is compelled to sympathize. The film is overflowing with breathtaking visuals and mysterious set pieces. It’s a masterful family drama cloaked in a wistful ghost story and is one of the best horror movies to come out of The Fighting Forties.
SINCE ITS RELEASE:
Though it generated a tepid reception upon its initial release, The Curse of the Cat People has since garnered a cult following. Its impressive imagery and haunting atmosphere have been inspiring fantasy filmmakers for years. The movie is currently available on blu ray through Scream Factory.