It's what you don't see in a Val Lewton production rather than what you do see that makes it frightening.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Val Lewton's is one of those only-in-Hollywood stories, a luminous star in horror circles who practically came out of nowhere, shone brightly for a relative moment, and then was seen no more.

Born Vladimir Leventin in Russia in 1904, he changed his name several times while writing for various publications. He finally settled into film editing among other things in the 1930s, where eventually he came to the attention of RKO Radio Pictures, who were looking for someone to produce a series of low-budget horror films. From 1942 to 1946, Lewton made a string of such films, all of them reasonably successful and some of them becoming minor classics. But before he could go on to do much else, ill health caused his early death in 1951.

While Lewton had small, B-movie budgets to work with at RKO, he always thought beyond them. Hiring the best possible directors and writers and frequently reworking the scripts himself, he brought more than horror to the screen. His movies were often eerie suspense thrillers rather than outright shockers, which is probably why they are still so highly regarded today. Owing to the demands of the trade, however, he was pressured to give them appropriately sensational, macabre titles, things like "The Leopard Man," "Isle of the Dead," "The Body Snatcher," and my favorite, "I Walked With a Zombie." The two movies combined here as a double feature are a couple of his best, "Cat People" and "The Curse of the Cat People."

"Cat People":
Made in 1942 "Cat People" was Lewton's first movie for RKO, and it got the series off to a flying start. While never outright scary, it is spooky as all heck and extends a dark, moody atmosphere throughout. These would be Lewton trademarks. He would insist upon creating suspense and chills through subtlety, imagination, creepy effects, ominous music, and odd camera angles. He was lighting for film noir before there was a "film noir." It's what you don't see in a Val Lewton production rather than what you do see that makes it frightening.

Anyway, RKO's bosses were still reeling from the money they lost on Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane" the previous year and needed some cheapie horror flicks to recoup their losses. Little did they know they were going to get a few more prestigious products in the process. In fact, they didn't know how good the Lewton films were any more than they understood the importance of "Citizen Kane"; such is the shortsightedness of Hollywood executives.

For "Cat People" Lewton had a script by DeWitt Booden ("The Enchanted Cottage," "I Remember Mama"), a director in Jack Tourneur ("Out of the Past," "The Flame and the Arrow," "The Comedy of Terrors"), a star in Simone Simon ("Cavalcade d'amour," "The Devil and Daniel Webster"), music by Roy Webb ("My Favorite Wife," "Bringing Up Baby"), and cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca ("Little Men," "Back to Bataan"). These people were among the most-accomplished filmmakers in the business, and despite the film's budget, they created a first-class product.

The movie opens at the zoo, where a young woman, Irena Dubrovna (Simon), is sketching the big cats. Shadows are important almost from the beginning, and even though the sun is shining, there is a menacing air about the place; she seems strangely drawn to the panther in particular. At the zoo she meets a man, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), a marine architect, a ship designer, and they fall in love almost at first sight. Within the year they marry, without Oliver really knowing much about his new bride.

What he does come to find out is that she's a little...odd. She grew up in the mountains of Serbia amidst legends of demon cats. She's afraid of "evil" things in her past, evil things in her, and she hints of people in her village descended from beasts. According to her beliefs, if she were to kiss or make love to a man, she would be driven by her own evil to turn into a cat herself and kill him. As a result, Irena and Oliver sleep in separate bedrooms, and it is intimated that they have never consummated their marriage. Needless to say, Oliver isn't overjoyed by this relationship and insists that she see a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), about her obsessions. Meanwhile, Irena is becoming increasingly jealous of a woman, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), who works in her husband's office
and has a secret crush on him.

We have to wait more than halfway through the film before any real terror strikes, and then we never know for sure what happens, the filmmakers always letting the viewers' minds fill in the details of the action. Even the movie's ending is ambiguous, which is perhaps why it has continued to fascinate audiences.

Smith is rather stiff as the husband, but Simon is well cast. The French actress is at once innocent and angelic yet sultry and malign. Her demeanor seems harmless and at the same time dangerous. Perhaps the most notable character, however, is Conway's Dr. Judd, a smooth, slick, unctuous snake who prides himself as a ladies' man in the manner of George Sanders in "Rebecca."

Give this film a chance and like the events it describes, it will sneak up on you. Universal remade the film in 1982 by playing up the sex and violence angles, but the new version didn't improve upon the original film's eerie atmospherics.

"The Curse of the Cat People":
The top brass at RKO were so delighted by the public response to "Cat People" that two years later they asked Lewton to produce a sequel. They expected to get another supernatural chiller, with people turning into panthers and killing folks in the streets. Boy, were they disappointed.

RKO hated the film.

Audiences and critics, though, were divided in their opinions, just as they are today. Because instead of a horror thriller, "The Curse of the Cat People" is a sweet, psychological fantasy about childhood fears. If you know that going in, you won't be quite so let down that no one is torn apart limb from limb.

RKO assembled almost the same cast from the first picture, including Simone Simon, and again DeWitt Booden wrote the screenplay. This time, however, Gunther von Fritsch came in to direct, but when he fell behind schedule and couldn't seem to get the movie back on track, Lewton replaced him with Robert Wise ("The Day the Earth Stood Still," "West Side Story," "The Sound of Music"). It was Wise's first directorial job, and years later he would make "The Haunting" (1963) as a tribute to Lewton.

So, in this one while only two years of real time had elapsed since "Cat People," we find about seven years having past since the end of the previous story. Irena has died, Oliver has married Alice, they have a six-year-old child, Amy (Ann Carter), and they now live in Tarrytown, New York, close to Washington Irving's celebrated Sleepy Hollow.

As the movie opens, Oliver is fretting over his daughter's unusual behavior. Ann doesn't seem to act like other children. She's a dreamer, with a vivid imagination. At an old house nearby, an elderly woman, Mrs. Julia Farren (Julia Dean), gives Ann a ring, upon which the child makes a wish for a new friend. She gets her wish, but nobody except she can see or hear the new friend. The new friend is Irena, Oliver's deceased wife.

OK, that in itself is more than a little spooky, except that when Irena appears, very late in the movie I might add, she's wearing a goofy-looking fairy-princess gown that rather diminishes her credibility as a real spirit and reinforces the notion that maybe little Ann is really dreaming all this stuff up. Other things in the film strengthen the idea that the whole thing is a surreal dream: The mother's name is "Alice," and Ann often dresses like Alice from Lewis Carroll's "Wonderland." The eccentric old lady, a former actress, is a bit like Carroll's mad Duchess, and the second time Mrs. Farren and Ann meet, they have a tea party.

Several major conflicts develop: (1) Ann's world of mental fantasies vs. supernatural spirits; (2) Mrs. Farren's weird stories of headless horsemen vs. her belief that her own daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), who lives with her, is an imposter. Indeed, the younger Farren does look pretty creepy. And (3) the parents' disbelief in their daughter's stories of angelic guardians.

Is it all the work of a child's hyperactive imagination? Or could the powers of the unearthly be at work? Far more so that in "Cat People," those are questions the viewer must decide. "Curse of the Cat People" is a bizarre film, and you'll either love it or hate it; there's little middle ground.

In her later years, Simone Simon admitted she never liked the movie, saying that the filmmakers had only wanted her in the picture for her name. She says in the audio commentary that the cast got back together to do the sequel "as a duty," an obligation they owed to Lewton. I have always found the movie a little too coy and precious to be entirely effective as a fable or a chiller, but there's no doubting that those lingering Lewton touches continue to cast long shadows. "The Curse of the Cat People" has its magic moments, which make it a worthwhile companion to its more illustrious predecessor.

Both film prints are very clean, well preserved, and most probably touched up in their standard-screen, 1.33:1 DVD transfers. They show hardly a sign of age and only the merest touch of grain on a few occasions. "Cat People" seemed to me a tad bit stronger in its black-and-white contrasts, "The Curse of the Cat People" appearing a bit more faded and a hair less vivid and sharp. Then again, it may have simply been a figment of my own imagination.

Warner Bros. have preserved the film's 1.0 monaural sound, which comes up as well as we have a right to expect in these older movies. Needless to say, there is very little in the way of frequency range, but the dynamic impact is adequate and the midrange is clear and polished. One can hear a slight background noise in quieter passages, but it's nothing that most people will notice.

The primary bonus item on the disc is a commentary on both movies by film historian Greg Mank, interspersed with interview excerpts from actress Simone Simon (who, by the way, passed away in 2005 at age ninety-three). Mank is quite knowledgeable and has clearly researched his subject matter well. Among other things, he dutifully points out all the cat references in the first film and fills us in with a good deal of background on the stars, the filmmakers, and the movie's themes. The commentaries pass an enjoyable and informative few hours. In addition, the disc contains twenty-one scene selections for each film, but no chapter insert, and a theatrical trailer for each film.
English is only spoken language WB provide, but there are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

The Val Lewton Horror Collection:
To commemorate the importance of Val Lewton to the world of horror movies, Warner Bros. have brought together nine of his most-famous films as double features on single discs, with "The 7th Victim" paired up with the excellent, fifty-three-minute, six-chapter documentary "Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy."

The other discs include "Cat People" and "The Curse of the Cat People," reviewed here; "The Leopard Man" and "The Ghost Ship"; "I Walked With a Zombie" and "The Body Snatcher"; and "Isle of the Dead" and "Bedlam," all of them available separately or in a big, five-disc box set, "The Val Lewton Horror Collection."


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