It’s October so as much as possible I’m trying to (re)visit some classic horror and thriller films, frequently taking queues from the Turner Classic Movies schedule. As they often do in October, they’re showing The Curse of the Cat People (1944). It’s the loosely related sequel to Cat People (1942), neither of which I had seen…until now.
Both films are rather harmless, though mildly haunting melodramas that focus on a Serbian woman, Irena (Simone Simon), with a troubled past and psyche. She comes from a village with a Satanic past and believes that if she falls in love with and kisses a man, she will turn into a vicious feline and rip him to shreds. Well, of course, Oliver (Kent Smith) falls in love with this mysterious woman. He doesn’t heed the warning and the two fall further in love and eventually marry. However, as she’s told him, physical contact is limited. Not surprisingly, Oliver can’t stand the distance between them and falls for his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph), who has previously professed her love for him. In the meantime, Oliver has hires a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), to treat Irena. He pushes the issue, challenges her beliefs, and eventually forces a kiss on her. You can imagine he gets what’s coming to him. As a result of this violent “transformation,” Irena isn’t long for this world either.
In the “sequel,” Oliver and Alice live happily in the suburbs with their daughter Amy (Ann Carter). All seems well, aside from the fact that Amy is a chronic daydreamer and loner. This brings about ridicule form her peers and frustration from her parents. On her solitary wanderings through the neighborhood, she meets Mrs. Julia Farren (Julia Dean), essentially the town witch, but really just a washed up actress. Their friendship frustrates Julia’s daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), who will eventually vow to kill Amy out of jealousy. Meanwhile, Amy’s imagination begins to run wild, and she starts seeing visions of and communicating with the ghost of Irena (Simone Simon again), her father’s first wife. This unnerves her parents, whose reactions only push Amy further away. When she runs away from home, she runs into the arms of the ailing and dying Julia who does eventually collapse. This angers Barbara, who approaches Amy to strangle her. Yet in her panic, Amy sees Barbara as Irena and hugs her, which calms Barbara and buys time for her father to arrive and reconnect with her.
Neither film is terribly scary, yet each offers either an example of the schizophrenic use of religion in horror film narratives or a brief but important implication for interaction with “the other,” especially those that would do us harm. In the case of the use of religion in horror films, the first film, The Cat People, represents dueling depictions of religion. Here, it can either be the cause of the “horrific” transformation from human to feline or its remedy…or both. Irena tells Oliver that long ago, the people of her village worshiped God in a true Christian way. However, they eventually fell into evil ways, bowing down to and saying masses to Satan. King John killed many of them while others fled into the forests. Their legacy haunted the village in which she was born. Oliver and Dr. Judd repeatedly ridicule and dismiss her beliefs. Oliver calls them fairy tales and tells her, “It’s not the stories, it’s the fact that you believe them. […] We need to find someone who can cure your belief…a psychiatrist.” Dr. Judd believes her situation stems from an early childhood experience of trauma. Yet towards the end of the film, when Irena stalks Oliver and Alice in their office, he grabs a slide rule to defend themselves, which in the dim light casts a reflection on the wall that makes it seem as if he is holding a cross. He says, “Leave us Irena. In the name of God, leave us in peace.” Like many horror film characters, Oliver’s faith exists in inverse proportion to the threat levels he experiences.
The second film has a far more practical, although potentially trite, implication for how we interact with “the other” or our enemies. Barbara is jealous of her mother’s affection for Amy. Julia refuses to accept Barbara as her daughter, whom she believes died many years ago. This rift is never really explained, which frustrates a better analysis of the situation. Nevertheless, Barbara means to do Amy harm. In one of the final scenes, as Barbara slowly approaches Amy to strangle her, the young girl runs to her and embraces her (believing her to be Irena). This disarms Barbara, who returns the embrace, slowly but convincingly. It’s a brief scene born out of confusion, but I think it can serve as a small reminder of the power or ability of the loving embrace to quite literally disarm those who might seek to harm us.
What’s more interesting about these films, as is often the case with older horror films, is the advertising. More often than not, the posters and lobby cards were far more enticing and scandalous than the events advertised. Consider the two posters I’ve included here in this post. “To kiss her meant death by her own fangs and claws.” Well…maybe, but we never get to see it. There’s an off-camera scream and a body lying limp on the floor in Cat People. Consider one of the tag lines for The Curse of the Cat People: “Feline fingers that could rip young flesh to shreds!” Never once do we see feline on human violence in this film, much less the transformation of a woman into a panther that devours a little girl. Consider the sensual poses in each of the posters that promise titillation and sex(uality). In reality, these films, but particularly Cat People, focus less on sensuality than they do modesty. They are thinly veiled advertisements for sexual propriety and chastity rather than celebrations of illicit behavior. Irena’s fear of turning into a panther is just as much about her fear of sexual/physical intimacy and falling in love. As she tells Oliver, “I’ve lived in dread of this moment.”
I don’t know how often (or if) I’ll revisit Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People. There are better examples of horror and thriller/chiller films. However, in a month-long classic film fest, they’re not the worst selections imaginable. If you’re in the right mood, these can be some rather fun/funny viewing experiences as the reveal the stupidity of so many horror film characters. I found myself saying to the screen in wicked delight at the end of the first film, “She told you not to kiss her!”
Cat People airs on TCM Saturday, October 27th, at 9:00 a.m. (ET).