Monday, October 20, 2008

"The Curse of the Cat People" (A Movie Review)


This week's entry pretty much speaks for itself. It was published in an arts & literary magazine called Nights and Days.


From Review to Rant(?)
a kinda/sorta movie review by David M. Lynch
(entire contents copyright © 2003 David M. Lynch)

A few weeks ago, when the editor of Nights & Days asked me if I’d be interested in writing a movie review -- of all things! -- I had to make two decisions, PDQ:
  1. Should I say “yes” or “no?” Obviously, I said “yes.”
  2. Should the movie that I review be an older film (which would be my preference) or a new film (relatively few of which, frankly, interest me)? Well, being the self-centered S.O.B. that I am, #2 ended up being as much of a no-brainer for me as #1 was (after the fact, anyway) for you.

Generally speaking, those writers who review the current theatrical and/or DVD/VHS offerings do so with two purposes in mind:
  1. They wish to tell you whether or not you’ll be wasting your time sitting down long enough to view the film in its entirety, and
  2. They want to make a living by giving such advice.

In my case, the second scenario is doubtful to the point of being laughable. Therefore, ignoring what I said earlier about how self-centered I am, be assured that the following review is being written with your best interests at heart!

(For my next lie… )

Negativity comes naturally to me. I could have taken the easy way out and found some suitably odious piece of cinematic schlock to review. Lord knows, there’s enough trash out there, new and old, just waiting for an attack from my own poison pen (Well, I’m actually typing on the keyboard of my personal computer, as opposed to literally writing anything with a pen or pencil, but “poison PC,” however alliterative, doesn’t sound anywhere near as lofty, traditional, and pretentious, does it?). But I decided instead to deal with a film I could recommend with a clear conscience, a 1944 psychological thriller called The Curse of the Cat People.

(“Finally, forty-seven pages into the so-called review, the long-winded mofo tells us the name of the movie!”)

You may or may not agree with the so-called “auteur theory”[1], that annoying little postulation which is responsible for that equally annoying credit in so many movies, “A Film by [insert incredibly self-important director’s name here].”

Yeah, right. Let’s ignore the other 8,000,000 or so people who slaved on the same flick, shall we?

One of my primary arguments against any proposal which claims that the director’s influence on a film makes the end product completely his (or hers) is that the influence of (for example) a strong writer (one whose work is not subsequently emasculated by re-writes or other studio shenanigans, that is), or even an overpowering cinematographer or film editor, can keep the completed film from being the vision of any one person.

So, here’s my view: Given the circumstances behind a film’s history, from inception to final cut, a director… or a writer… or a cinematographer… or an editor… or even -- to name one particular gentleman whom I’ll eventually praise in this review -- a producer can put his/her indelible stamp on a motion picture.

And that brings us to producer Val Lewton, and The Curse of the Cat People.

(Ummm… You do remember The Curse of the Cat People, don’t you? This is an article about The Curse of the Cat People.[2])

The Curse of the Cat People was the 1944 sequel to 1942’s Cat People. But here I must once again digress by briefly describing Cat People itself.

If you’re not familiar with the 1942 original released by RKO, maybe you saw the 1982 remake, directed by Paul Schrader? The main differences -- of which there are several -- in this “update” were an incest sub-plot, one scene of light bondage & implied bestiality, and nude scenes by both Nastassia Kinski[3] (in her prime) and (believe it or not) Annette O’Toole. In other words, this version showed a lot more flesh than fur. Fun for the entire family! It also starred Malcolm McDowell (before he started looking like a cross between Sting and W.C. Fields) and John Heard (one of the most underrated actors since Kurt Russell).

Well, if you know the 1982 version, ignore it for the remainder of this review. Although any movie which features David Bowie on its soundtrack and has a panther tear an arm off of Ed Begley, Jr. can’t be all bad!

The original was a lot moodier, and a lot less bloody. It concerned -- and I’ll try to be uncharacteristically brief, here -- the romance between Serbian immigrant Irena (and that’s pronounced “Ee-ray-nah,” not “Eye-ree-nah”) Dubrovna and a gent named Oliver Reed (no relation at all to the he-man actor named Oliver Reed, who shuffled off this mortal coil a few years ago). Said romance progressed to an eventual marriage, despite the fact that Irena had a family secret. Her “family secret” was that whenever those of Irena’s bloodline were kissed, to say nothing of moments of… ummm… “extreme passion,” shall we say, they would supposedly (Yes, I said “supposedly.” Keep that in mind, please; I’ll reference it later.) turn into panthers.

Yup, you read that correctly.

Anyway, poor ol’ stupid Oliver not only married a woman he’d never even kissed, but quickly discovered that he shouldn’t expect any kisses – never mind anything more – after the wedding, either. Ever. (Can you say, “Sucks to be him,” boys and girls? Sure ya can.) Eventually, he becomes attracted to a female co-worker, Alice. Surprise, surprise. (There’s a very unfortunate, semi-misogynistic lesson there, ladies.)

Damn, do these mixed marriages ever work?

Unfortunately for the exotically beautiful Irena (SPOILER WARNING, but I’ll spare you the minute details, at least), being a horror film and all, this story does not end happily. After doing away with a libidinous psychologist (who’s been brought in by hubbie Oliver, who is so mired in the mundane that he just knows Irena is delusional), Panther/Irena (who’s also transformed by jealousy and anger, conveniently enough) goes after Alice. Alice survives, but Irena meets a predictably violent end. Bouncing back all too quickly for my tastes, Oliver winds up with Alice, who’s perfect for him (Boring with a capital “B,” in other words!).

The movie succeeded well enough for RKO to demand a sequel from producer Lewton. But Lewton didn’t want to do anything so predictable.

Another quasi-diversion, here. Val Lewton was one of those producers whom I referred to earlier, one who usually had a knack for putting together creative personnel (writers[4], directors, cinematographers, etc.) who could deliver a film which had Lewton’s own stylistic imprint upon it. Lewton loved dark, atmospheric worlds in which his characters could live -- or not live -- their lives. He preferred to let the viewers’ imaginations fill in the more violent aspects of his storylines (although admittedly, budgetary considerations may have occasionally been a factor).

Besides Cat People and its sequel, Lewton produced such minor classics as I Walked with a Zombie (1943; really good & really moody; stupid title) and The Leopard Man (also 1943; The Leopard Man, while not a great film, has one of the most chilling scenes in a movie of that period. I won’t spoil it. I suggest you find the blasted film, and after viewing it, you’ll know which scene I’m talking about!) He specialized in a more psychological form of terror. Lucky for him he never lived to see the rise of the “splatter films.”

Lewton didn’t care to simply re-hash his earlier effort when he made The Curse of the Cat People. (“You do remember The Curse of the Cat People, don’t you?” he said again. “This is an article about The Curse of the Cat People.”) Possibly he was still irked by the fact that RKO had, as legend has it, inserted one or two scenes in Cat People which “proved” that Irena had indeed become the cinematic version of Catwoman. Reportedly, Lewton’s original version left us wondering if Irena was really a supernatural creature, or (as husband Oliver believed) a certifiable nutball (which is why I made my earlier comment about Irena and her relatives supposedly becoming panthers).

Lewton assembled three of the original cast members (Simone Simon as Irena, Kent Smith as Oliver, and Jane Randolph as Alice) to reprise their roles, and went off on an extreme tangent from there.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Oliver and Alice have married and have a little girl, Amy, an absolutely gorgeous little child (and I’m not one of those people who automatically fawn over children) with blonde hair, and eyes that simply must be baby blue (This is a black-and-white film… )! They also have a butler, Edward (played by an actor named -- I swear -- Sir Lancelot) whose main purpose seems to be patronizing the child.

Amy is a dreamer, caught up in her own world much of the time. Her schoolmates consider her to be strange, and matters aren’t helped by Amy’s mishandling of the invitations to her own birthday party: In the Reeds’ backyard, y’see, is a large tree. When Amy was younger, Oliver had told her that it was a “magic mailbox.” Guess where the invitations to the party wound up? Terrific; one more reason for the kids to dislike little Amy; as far as they knew, virtually none of them were invited to her party!

Early in this nifty little flick, Oliver starts to really tick me off, by the way. His main talent as a father -- if you can call it that -- seems to be sending conflicting messages to his daughter. As in Cat People, he has nothing but scorn for almost anything showing imagination (although he himself is an artist of sorts, a ship architect, and enjoys building model ships as well). He evidently expects Amy to bypass her childhood fancies and “grow up.” (The term is mine, and not Oliver’s, but it’s quite appropriate to describe his attitude.)

In simpler terms, Oliver is a jerk. (Hey, what did you expect a contributor to a magazine like this to say about someone with a creativity-dampening attitude like Oliver’s?)

Some father! First, he instills a sense of wonder and magic in a little girl’s heart by coming up with something as nifty and inspired as a “magic mailbox,” and then figuratively stomps on that same heart a couple of years later by deriding Amy for believing such nonsense! But tell me something, Ollie, if a small child can’t trust and believe her parents, whom can she trust, fer cryin’ out loud?!?

Jerk. Maybe Irena’s whole “cat people” concept was only a dodge, and this is the real reason why Irena wouldn’t “do the wild thing” with Oliver: She knew he’d stink as a Dad! Why tempt fate by bearing his child?!?

So. After Amy shows Oliver where she “mailed” the invitations, they go back inside the house to have her party with just the immediate family, plus the ever-annoying Edward. They bring out the cake. And of course, Amy is told to blow out out the candles and make a wish.

Oops. So much for reality versus fantasy. But that’s a good kind of make-believe, they tell Amy in so many words! Why, I oughtta… !

It gets even worse as the story progresses. Anyone with half a heart (like myself – half a heart, that is) has no choice but to feel sorry for Amy. Her father’s an uptight Vulcan wannabe, her mother’s an all-but-ineffectual “little woman” to her “lord & master” Oliver, and Edward… Well, Edward just gives me the creeps.

All Amy wants is a friend. And in short order, she gets not one, but two.

The first is Julia Farren, the spooky old lady who lives in the nearby mansion. Julia was an acclaimed actress in her youth, one who seems to have been “courted” by suitors all over the world. Somewhere along the way, she produced a daughter, Barbara.

Barbara is a shifty-looking, slit-eyed chienne who immediately resents Amy’s friendship with her mother. And dangerously so. But you can’t totally blame Barbara, since Julia claims Barbara is not her daughter (She says the “real” Barbara died as a child.), and constantly refers to her as “that woman,” and terms which are equally endearing.

Julia’s theatricality strikes a positive chord with Amy, although Julia’s little monologue about the Headless Horseman will probably unnerve anyone who’s even a bit impressionable. It also sets up a great moment later on, too! Naturally, Amy’s friendship with such a woman doesn’t completely please Amy’s parents, or creepy Edward.

But, as I stated above, it gets worse. Amy’s other friend, who “magically” appears to her one night, is Irena herself. Yes, Irena, Oliver’s first wife, the family secret which Oliver and Alice have kept from little Amy.

It’s here that the brilliance of Lewton’s creative crew becomes apparent. In Cat People as it was originally envisioned, we were never supposed to know for sure whether or not Irena’s transformations were real. And here, we’re not 100% sure that Irena is not a product of Amy’s imaginings. However, if there is no real ghost, how does Amy know what Irena looks and sounds like? Amy never met her, since Irena died before Amy’s birth, nor has she ever seen a photo of Irena, although Oliver is still hiding a couple from Alice. And how does Amy learn the haunting tune which Irena used to hum?

The climax of the story coincides with the Christmas season. In fact, if the first issue of Nights and Days had been planned for July, rather than August, I would have sneakily suggested that you locate this movie as a feature for a demented “Christmas in July” gathering. As it is, however, you may have to search until the real Christmas season in order to find it!

From this point on, I’ll leave out a lot of detail (because it’s my genuine hope that you will indeed seek out this movie so you can view it for yourself), but you can probably guess Oliver’s reaction once he discovers who Amy’s new “imaginary friend” is.

Then again, maybe you can’t guess the extent of his reaction. He takes the kid to her bedroom upstairs (and mercifully, off-camera) to “punish” her. He has, to paraphrase Alice (because I don’t have the videotape cued up), never punished her “that way” before.

When it comes to corporal punishment, I’m somewhere in-between the modern view that says you should never strike a child, and those flaming idiots who think it’s okay to beat on a kid because you’re a little bit drunk and/or you just don’t like his face. Under extreme circumstances, I can justify it somewhat; for instance, there’s a scene in the 1936 classic, These Two, where the trouble-making, life-wrecking little brat gets a slap in the face from Margaret Hamilton (later to play the Wicked Witch of the West) that makes me want to stand up and cheer.

But for Oliver to spank little Amy for the “offense” of… well, for being a child, for “lying” about the friend which Oliver (understandably) thinks is imaginary? No, there’s no excuse. And that’s the aspect of this movie that keeps bothering me as I write this review. That’s the aspect that sidetracks this simple review into a rant. I can’t escape the bitter thoughts about Oliver, the Always-Right. Oliver, the Contradictory. Oliver, the Parent-Who-Needs-to-Be-On-a-Freaking-Leash!

Oliver the Jerk.

I don’t blame the kid for sneaking out of the house and into the cold winter evening. And that’s just what she does, while Oliver and Alice are downstairs, being entertained by Hollywood’s most professional “neighborhood carolers” ever (These folks really represent the crème de la crème of a supposedly thrown-together group! They all have perfect pitch, and they sing the most obscure requests in multi-layered harmonies!). Amy’s disappearance leads to the sudden -- and unconvincing -- “redemption” of that self-righteous prig, Oliver, as well as the eerie and unsettling resolutions of all plot threads…

And no, I won’t spoil those. Instead, I strongly suggest you find this film. Even if you’ve never seen Cat People. Even if you never want to see Cat People. You don’t have to see it, although I do recommend it, as well; Curse of the Cat People stands on its own. And I think it’s one of those remarkably few sequels -- although “sequel” is really a misnomer, here -- that outshines the original.

I think you’ll enjoy it, if you can avoid focusing to the point of obsessing (as I did) on Oliver’s pig-headedness!

Thanks for your time.


[1]If you need and would like a nice, neat, and relatively short definition/explanation of the auteur theory, here’s a web page for you to visit: http://www.everything2.org/index.pl?node=auteur%20theory; If you’re looking for a more elaborate definition and history, something, shall we say, in a more scholarly vein, here you go: http://comm2.fsu.edu/programs/comm/film/spintro.htm. However, if you’d prefer something which resembles what I myself might have written (but only after dropping one or two 0.5 mg tablets of lorazepam), try http://www.filmjerk.com/nuke/article47.html. Happy hunting, and don’t say I never gave you anything!
[2] With apologies to Arlo Guthrie and “Alice’s Restaurant,” of course.
[3] Or was she spelling it Nastassja that week? Check her listing at http://us.imdb.com/Name?Kinski,+Nastassja and you’ll see what I mean!
[4]I should mention that Lewton was the credited co-writer of all four films mentioned in this paragraph!

Now, as for next time.... I'm not sure, yet. I may fill this space with the first of hopefully three chapters about my comic book concept, Aero. Or instead, I may share the story of the most dangerous thing I ever did in the name of "research" for my writing.

Or. I. May. Eat. Something. Strange. Again.

Or... not.

Meet me here next Monday, and we'll both find out, okay?

2 comments:

  1. Excellent post, David. I have to admit, when I first saw the subject as being a movie review of some old flick, I wasn't really interested in reading it. However (comma) given how entertaining your writing is, I decided to check it out. Even though the movie might not have interested me otherwise, I enjoyed reading your review (and accompanying tangents).

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  2. Blunoz, you're not the first person who's told me that he enjoys reading my stuff less to see "where" I'm going, and more to see how I'll get there. In a real-life conversation, that can be frustrating to the point of being maddening, but I guess those who like reading my stuff are used to it.

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