Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a look at a classic old Hollywood horror film or hidden gem. We’ll explore its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror. This month, we’re looking at horror legend Val Lewton’s beautiful childhood fable, The Curse of the Cat People (1944), a perfect spooky tale for Christmastime.
How do you make a worthy sequel to a horror film as perfectly constructed and influential as 1942’s Cat People? If you’re visionary horror producer Val Lewton, you don’t even try. Instead, you make a genre-defying fairy tale of childhood loneliness, dreams, and the lingering effects of trauma.
The Continuation of a Revolutionary Film
In 1942, producer Val Lewton was hired by RKO to head their new horror unit. They were hoping to create their own steady stream of low-budget, high yield box office earnings after witnessing the incredible success of Universal’s horror films.
Cat People (1942), Lewton’s first film for the horror initiative, was far more than the quick cash grab that RKO was thinking. It was a box office hit, but it was also one of the most influential horror films ever made, a movie whose use of complex psychological themes, ambiguity, and suggestion are effectively frightening to this day. I wrote in-depth about Cat People for its 75th anniversary last year, and I highly recommend you check out that article — and the brilliant film — before you dive into our look at the sequel. Especially since we’ll need to discuss some spoilers from the first film in order to examine the sequel.
After the success of Cat People, Lewton went on to produce four more masterful horror films for RKO. But the studio wanted to profit off the popularity of his debut for the studio with a direct sequel to Cat People. In typical Lewton fashion, the producer took the studio provided title and created something artful and unexpected.
The Curse of the Cat People follows Amy (Ann Carter), the young daughter of Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and his wife Alice (Jane Randolph). During the events of Cat People, Alice was the co-worker that Oliver found solace in while his first wife, Irena (Simone Simon) fell into madness — or something darker. After Irena’s suicide at the conclusion of Cat People, Oliver has married Alice and moved out of the city to Tarrytown, New York. Their only child, Amy, is a now a quiet, dreamy kindergartener.
Oliver is still traumatized by the fate of his first wife and terrified that his daughter’s intense imagination could lead to delusions like those that he believes killed Irena. With no friends who understand her, an overwhelmed mother, and a father who’s unacknowledged trauma has alienated him from her, Amy feels utterly alone. After a strange encounter with the eccentric old women in the neighborhood “haunted house,” Amy meets a new friend only she can see. The beautiful woman is none other than Irena, but is she a ghost, or a product of Amy’s imagination?
A Song for The Lonely Child
The Curse of the Cat People is strange and undefinable. It’s not quite a horror film in the traditional sense, though it’s certainly full of terror and Lewton’s signature dark, foreboding atmosphere and noirish cinematography. Instead, the film evokes the dark fairy tales of Guillermo Del Toro and the deep understanding of childhood fears found throughout the work of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King.
The film is set in Tarrytown, also known as Sleepy Hollow, and while it was shot in California, the realistic sets, cinematography, and atmosphere perfectly evoke the dreamy, haunted mood of small-town upstate New York. The authentic feel of the film is no doubt due to the fact that Lewton based much of the details of Amy’s world on his own childhood, growing up near Tarrytown. Like Amy, he was fascinated and terrified of the legend of the Headless Horseman. The classic folktale is discovered by Amy during the film, and when it enters her fantasies, the film perfectly captures the uniquely vivid terror that belongs to childhood fears. The looming neighborhood haunted house and its strange, Grey Gardens-reminiscent mother-daughter residents, (Julia Dean and Elizabeth Russel), is so authentically steeped in childhood fascination and fear, it will no doubt inspire nostalgia in anyone who grew up near a house that children whispered about and dreaded to pass alone.
“..the realistic sets, cinematography, and atmosphere perfectly evoke the dreamy, haunted mood of small-town upstate New York.”
The film tracks a period of time from late autumn through Christmas and ends on a snowy Twelfth Night. Each sequence is steeped in rich seasonal atmosphere, and the hauntingly beautiful Christmas sequences make The Curse of the Cat People a perfect pick for any spooky flavored holiday season. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Amy’s family has invited carolers into their home on Christmas Eve. While the merry group gathers around the piano to sing “Shepherds Shake Off Your Drowsy Sleep,” Amy remains separated from the group. She hears another soft, distant singing. Gazing out the window, she sees Irena standing in the snowy garden, under a tree frosted with ice. She is singing a different carol — “Il Est Né, Le Divin Enfant” — just for Amy. It’s one of the most gorgeous, magical scenes ever put to film.
Horror for Healing
The film was in fact helmed by two debut directors. Gunther Von Fritsch, who only had short films under his belt prior to Curse, began the project but fell behind. Having only filmed half the script within the tight-budgeted eighteen-day shooting schedule, he was then replaced with editor Robert Wise, who had also never directed a feature before. Despite the rocky production, the finished film has nothing but a consistent creative vision. Much of this can no doubt be attributed to Lewton’s guiding hand. As a producer, Lewton had so much creative involvement in his horror films, there is a reason he has been given horror auteur status.
1944’s The Curse of the Cat People managed to transform studio demand for a sequel to Lewton’s horror hit into a classic in its own right. The resulting film is completely unexpected but offers a moving emotional follow-up to its predecessor. With Cat People, Lewton pioneered horror about real people dealing with real trauma along with supernatural threats. It’s an essential ingredient in modern horror epitomized by the work of Stephen King, as well as recent films and television like Hereditary and The Haunting of Hill House. The Curse of the Cat People follows through with Lewton’s revolutionary focus on characters in a way that’s still frequently neglected in modern horror. It seriously asks how trauma can impact generations, and how the characters who survived a horror film can come to heal.
There are no actual “Cat People” in the film unless you count Irena’s ghost, who only ever appears in human form. The finished film’s lack of the originals monsters upset the studio, who insisted on adding the brief appearance of an ominous black cat at the film’s outset. Because of this superficial disconnect, some have said the title doesn’t fit the film. In fact, Lewton himself advocated that it be changed to Amy and her Friend but RKO refused.
I would argue, however, that the title is perfect. The Curse of the Cat People is really the curse of unaddressed trauma, as it has been held by Oliver then passed on to his daughter. The events of the film facilitate a father reconnecting with his daughter by ultimately recognizing his own grief. It’s incredibly moving and speaks to deep psychological themes. It’s the sort of the storytelling that is always best accomplished in the realm of horror. This holiday, grab some cocoa and a box of tissues, and prepare to be surprised and moved in a way that only horror can accomplish, with The Curse of the Cat People. Until next month, stay classy fiends, and enjoy those Silver Screams!