Monday, June 02, 2008

Little girls lost

In a list of Best Horror Sequels, there should be a special place reserved for The Curse of the Cat People (1944). Engrossing and superbly creepy, Curse is a sequel in name only, as RKO rejected producer Val Lewton's name of Amy and Her Friend in favor of a title that would draw in fans of Lewton's most popular work, Cat People. Looking at advertising of the film, it's hilarious to see how fraudulent it was sold, promising viewers "the beast women stalks the night anew." Indeed the only cat in the movie is a small playful one in a tree (onscreen for probably 3 seconds), and the only stalking done is by Elizabeth Russell's strange character, usually on dark staircases with her scalding glare attached. What it lacks in feline terror, Curse is filled with chilling mystery, youthful fantasy and a sad air of loneliness.

The main character is Amy, who is celebrating her sixth birthday in Tarry Town, N.Y. -- Irving's setting for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. None of Amy's friends attended her party because she put the invitations in a hollow tree she once believed to be a magic mailbox. Amy's head is full of such imaginary thoughts and friends, much to the frustration of her parents, so they take some solace in the fact that Amy's birthday wish is to "be a good girl." Amy's curiosity takes her to an old dark house in the neighborhood, where a voice beckons her to come closer and then tosses her a handkerchief tied to a ring. The family servant Edward wonders if it might be a wishing ring, like he used to have in his native Jamaica, and Amy uses the ring to wish for a friend.

Amy's wish is granted, awakening the spirit of her father's first wife Irena (Simone Simon, from Cat People), who teaches the child songs and generally keeps her amused. In other developments, Amy finds the dark house where she found the ring to be home to a reclusive old lady and a younger woman who claims to be her daughter. This hardly sounds like the stuff of nightmares, but my wife found the movie so creepy that she refused to watch the final five minutes (true to Lewton form, these final few minutes contain the most scares). Like other Lewton horrors, the chills come not from the story but rather the movie's soul of creeping unease and startlingly effective photography.

Whereas other Lewton productions stick to shadowy cities (The 7th Victim, Cat People, The Body Snatcher) or isolated extremes (Ghost Ship, the desert town of The Leopard Man, the islands of I Walked With a Zombie and Isle of the Dead), Curse is set in an idyllic small town with its own unique potential for scary sights. The trademark set piece of Curse is Amy's backyard, her imagination's blank canvas where light and weather can change dramatically and a ghostly friendship is born. It's also a haven for finely sculpted shadows playing against stark white snow, with an endless barrier of branches and trunks to protect Amy from whatever lies beyond her house.

All the real scares happen next door where Amy meets Mrs. Farren, the woman who dropped the ring out of the window to her. Welcoming a rare guest, Mrs. Farren seizes the opportunity to give Amy an unnerving telling of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, in perhaps the movie's creepiest moment. If you only know Sleepy Hollow from the Disney version, then you're in for a treat. A recurring subplot is Mrs. Farren's daughter Barbara, who the woman calls an impostor, saying her real daughter died at age six. Amy's role in this confusion is never explained, but there must be some connection since the girl has just turned six.

My favorite character in Curse is actually Amy's mother, Alice, who silently accepts the fact that her husband's previous wife is still in his thoughts and slowly forging a relationship with her daughter, whether real or imagined. The fact that a ghost is closer to Alice's daughter (and possibly her husband) is the movie's saddest element, and means that almost every female character has some sort of identity conflict. The one woman in Curse who isn't included in that theme is Amy's teacher, Miss Callahan, who has her own strange subplot. Miss Callahan is introduced at a parent-teacher conference talking about Amy's troubles and the next time we see her is riding her bicycle past Amy's house. Amy asks if Miss Callahan is there to see her mother, which she denies but decides anyway to stop in. This seems to be the first time Miss Callahan and Alice have met on friendly terms, with Alice giving her a tour of their house, but Miss Callahan is still at their house that night playing cards with Amy's parents. She then celebrates Christmas with the family, and at least one shot has Miss Callahan gazing at Alice with eyes that suggest something more than friendship.

Lewton's films have often been described as having lesbian overtones (he grew up with his aunt, the notoriously flamboyant Alla Nazimova), and Alice's suddenly close relationship with Miss Callahan could be read this way, especially when you factor in Alice's obvious loneliness. But like the other themes and subplots in Curse, there is little opportunity to explore them in its 70 minute running time. The 7th Victim had a story much too large for its abbreviated length, but Curse feels only a tad shorter than it needs to be, and it makes for a brisk pace despite the fact that the characters always take their sweet time in everything they do. While it's true that Amy is never in any actual danger, it's also undeniable that Curse keeps you on the edge, never sure where the young girl's odd imagination will take you next.



This is one strange picture. I saw it a few months ago, and I still haven't really forgotten it.

The entire time I was asking, when is that chick going to turn into a wild cat and mess someone up. Then, about 3/4 of the way in, I realized it was never going to happen.

The film is so wonderful in it's own right, it's a shame the title was studio-enforced.

Although, AMY AND HER FRIEND is a pretty weak title.

Adam Ross said...

Yeah Amy and Her Friend sounds dull, and I was trying to think of what a better title would be, but came up empty.

Lewton's films all have their own unique oddities, one of the reasons they're so easy for me to write about.

Baldric said...

So, I do not really think this will work.
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