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CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944))
aka AMY & HER FRIEND
Directed by Gunther von Fritsch, Robert Wise
Written by DeWitt Bodeen
Starring Ann Carter, Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Eve March, Julia Dean, Elizabeth Russell, Erford Gage
Masquerading as a horror film, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE is rather a family drama focusing on a young girl with severe mental problems. The film takes the opportunity to shed a rather idealistic light on mental illness, packaging it together as a children’s fairly tale that might have been a bit too highbrow for horror audiences of the time to truly understand.
Little Amy (Ann Carter), the daughter of Oliver (Kent Smith) and Alice Reed (Jane Randolph), has difficulties making friends in school and often finds herself alone with her imaginary friends. Oliver was previously entangled with a woman named Irena (Simone Simon), a Serbian woman who believed she would turn into a cat person if she were intimate with Oliver. All of this was depicted in the film, THE CAT PEOPLE by Jacques Tourneur, and this film picks up years after that film’s conclusion, with Irena dead and Oliver moving on with his life. Amy begins seeing visions of Irena, who appears as a beautiful princess and tells her never to let adults know she exists. Amy’s teacher recognizes Amy’s actions as symptoms of mental illness, but her parents refuse to accept anything is wrong with her. As Amy begins to be more enthralled with her new ghostly friend, her parents become more concerned, and when Oliver steps in to correct Amy’s behavior by enforcing his will on her, Amy runs away into the frozen night with only her imaginary friends, who are unable to help her.
Believe you me, if a modern horror movie would have tried to pull some crap like this and hijack a sequel to a horror film and make it a public service announcement on child mental health, I would be pretty pissed. And I’m sure some audiences hoping they would see the return of a murderous she-cat were pretty disappointed when they checked out CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE. That said, given that the film is deftly constructed, impeccably acted, made 73 years ago, and downright impactful in the way it communicates its message, I am willing to forgive and forget and simply appreciate this amazing film for what it is.
In a time when mental illness was a thing to be shunned, ignored, hidden, and sent away, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE proves to be a bold statement in the proper recognition and way to deal with the malady. The film is steeped high in metaphor. It can very easily be seen as a simple ghost story where the ghost only appears to a child. But if you take a step back, everyone from Amy’s parents to her teacher are telling us there is something definitely wrong with Amy. Without stating it outright, this is a film about early onset schizophrenia, where the afflicted are prone to hallucinations, fugue states, and loss of faculties. The scene where Amy’s teacher visits the Reed home is the most telling of this, as Alice is open to listening, while Oliver refuses to acknowledge that anything is wrong with his child other than he overactive imagination. This refusal to accept is most common in families who have difficulties accepting that their child is less than perfect.
Filmmakers Robert Wise and Gunther Von Fritsch make every minute of this film sumptuous to witness. The scenes where Amy and Irena are glittery, soft, and wonderous. The scenes inside the home of Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean) and her daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), a place which becomes another magical recess from Amy’s restrictive home, are filled with ominous and long shadows and highly detailed furnishings suggesting depth and danger. It is here that the only suggestion of real world danger occurs and the setup for this confrontation between Amy’s magical world and the real world is so smartly done, it is a climax that resonates off the screen. The final moments of this film, despite it’s sweetness and educational value, is chock full of emotional turmoil and suspense of the highest order that it definitely will keep you on the seat’s edge.
CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE may not have Serbian were-creatures hissing about and causing mayhem as with CAT PEOPLE and it’s 1980’s era remake full of sultry goodness and David Bowie songs, but it is an emotional and thematically rich film that transcends the horror genre and sought to enlighten a new audience with a glimpse at what happens inside an unwell mind. This is a film to be watched and talked about. The Shout Factory’s Collector’s edition is full of special features, such as; a new audio commentary with author/historian Steve Haberman, an audio commentary with historian Greg Mank, with audio interview excerpts with actress Simone Simon, a new “Lewton’s Muse: The Dark Eyes Of Simone Simon – A Video Essay” featurette by filmmaker Constantine Nasr (Shadows In The Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy), a new audio interview with Ann Carter moderated by Tom Weaver, theatrical trailers, & still gallery!
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