The Curse of the Cat People (1944). 70 minutes. Directed by Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch. Starring Simone Simon (as Irena Reed), Kent Smith (as Oliver Reed), Jane Randolph (as Alice Reed), Ann Carter (as Amy Reed), Eve March (as Miss Callahan), Julia Dean (as Mrs. Julia Farren), Elizabeth Russell (as Barbara Farren), and Sir Lancelot (as Edward). Produced by Val Lewton.
You may see this movie because you have seen Cat People (1942), a wonderful horror movie about a woman who believes that she is descended from a race of humans who can transform into felines. But The Curse of the Cat People is not a horror film like its predecessor, even though it was given a horror-movie title, and it does not really have much to do with the metamorphosing characters of Cat People either. It chiefly focuses on a lonely young girl named Amy who may or may not be able to see the deceased protagonist from the original movie, Irena Reed. As a result, The Curse of the Cat People is part supernatural tale and part psychological exploration of youthful introversion and imaginary friendships. Although its title may mislead viewers into thinking it is a monster movie, and its plot is a bit jumbled and thin, the sequel still manages to be a moody and atmospheric fantasy that bears the marks of producer Val Lewton’s signature style.
After the death of his estranged wife Irena, Oliver Reed has married his coworker Alice Moore and moved to Tarrytown, New York, near Sleepy Hollow. The two now have a daughter, six-year-old Amy. Amy has trouble fitting in with her classmates and daydreams constantly. Oliver is concerned that her dreamy disposition means that she is in some psychic way (for it cannot be a biological way) related to his first wife Irena, who believed she was a cat person, was prone to moodiness, and isolated herself from her husband in order to protect him. Although Oliver chiefly wants Amy to make friends with other children, she befriends the aged Mrs. Farren instead, who lives in an enormous mansion with her resentful daughter Barbara. Using a ring that Mrs. Farren gives her, Amy wishes for a true friend. In the Reeds’ garden, we soon catch a glimpse of her magical friend, who is invisible to others but who we can see resembles Irena, Oliver’s former wife. Irena becomes the best friend that Amy has ever had, but when Oliver learns that Amy’s magical friend is supposedly his dead ex-wife, he punishes Amy. On the same night, Irena tells Amy that she must leave her, which upsets the child, who runs away during a snowstorm. Amy ends up at Mrs. Farren’s house, and for unclear reasons Mrs. Farren is convinced that Barbara will kill Amy if she sees her. After Mrs. Farren dies trying to hide Amy upstairs, Barbara appears at the foot of the staircase with an air of malevolence. Amy summons Irena, who appears to possess Barbara’s body and makes it safe for the young girl to move to the front door, where a search party is waiting for her. Back at the Reed house, Oliver tells Amy that he wants to be her friend and that he can see Irena. The film ends with Irena slowly fading away in the snow-covered garden.
More than anything, The Curse of the Cat People is a movie about the loneliness of an introverted child. There are many scenes where we get to see firsthand Amy’s struggle to make friends. She daydreams and wanders off so often that the other children do not wish to play with her. She also reacts passionately to the destruction of animal life: when a young boy kills a butterfly during a school nature expedition, she slaps him and is punished by her teacher. Amy develops the keen sense that she is constantly disappointing her father because she is sensitive and friendless. Indeed, there is a great deal of talk in this movie about the need for Amy to be “a good girl,” which means being a social child. This seems like a strange pressure to place on a young person, especially one who is clearly capable of making friends (witness her relationship with Mrs. Farren). Then we hear the way that Amy talks to her dolls, designating some of them as “good” and others as not so good. We can tell that her father’s assessment of her weighs heavily on her psyche. It is a sad example of how parental judgment affects the young.
As a solution to Amy’s problem, Irena enters into the story. Who or what Irena really is, however, is never entirely clear. The movie implies that she may be a ghost. Yet if Irena the friend is really the ghost of Irena from the previous movie, we might wonder why she has returned. Is she atoning for something perhaps, or is her love for Amy a manifestation of her enduring love for Oliver? We might even, for a moment, think that there is possibly something more sinister going on, for at the end of the last movie, Irena had a right to be upset about Oliver’s affair with Alice, and here in this movie he is married to her. If truly a ghost, Irena seems to be doing the Reeds an odd favor by serving as a playmate for their daughter.
Accordingly, not everyone believes that the possible supernatural forces at work in the movie are for good. Oliver worries that Irena’s mystical identity may have been transferred to Amy and is the source of his daughter’s problems, even before Irena begins to visit Amy. Perhaps he is correct, and the reason that Amy can see Irena at all is because the young girl has Irena’s spooky disposition. The notion of personality transference through non-biological means is an intriguing, if strange, possibility, but the movie does not come to a direct conclusion about the father’s concerns. Of course, neither Oliver nor Irena ever comments on any of this in their contact with Amy, and Irena behaves in a loving way towards Amy, even acting as a protective force in the end.
The alternative to the supernatural reading is the imaginary friend reading, which might make more sense, especially given that no one other than Amy can see Irena that we can be sure of, and in ghost lore, specters typically do not manifest themselves exclusively to one person. The imaginary friend concept is actually less sinister and strange than the supernatural one. In this reading of Irena, the friend that Amy names Irena is really a figment of her imagination. It could be the case that Irena’s appearance is simply influenced by the pictures that Amy sees of Irena in her parents’ living room—indeed, Irena’s clothing suggests the fancies of a childish mind. She wears a medieval gown with a low sash and long, draping sleeves, and later when it snows, she dons a romantic winter cape. Even the environment in which she manifests herself seems laden with fantasy: a garden with a gnarled, twisted tree, beautiful to behold in the snow and ice that come with winter towards the film’s end.
The imaginary friend phenomenon works because it adds an extra dimension of sadness to the story. Amy seems even more lonely and pathetic in this reading because she is relying on a made-up persona to comfort her; but if true, it would also make the whole story itself estranged from Cat People because there really would be no connection between Amy’s story and Irena’s historical personality—that is, if Amy’s friend is imaginary and not supernatural, then we are not really seeing a manifestation of Irena at all. A part of me resists believing in the imaginary friend angle in part because I would have to accept that this movie’s Irena is not really the previous movie’s Irena, and I think it is fair to say that if you have seen and liked Cat People, you will probably want to believe that Amy’s friend is really that movie’s protagonist. Nevertheless, The Curse of the Cat People also offers us characters who confirm their belief in the imaginary friend angle. Amy’s teacher Miss Callahan cites the Jungian psychological study, Frances Wickes’s The Inner World of Childhood, in defense of the idea.
But the movie seems hesitant to move beyond this reference to offer us more definitive evidence that Irena is either the product of Amy’s imagination or a spirit. The story seems content to have it both ways. Unfortunately, as a strategy for a fantasy film, this approach is inadequate, and as a result, the movie seems non-committal and uncertain. But in spite of its ambivalence towards Irena’s true nature, The Curse of the Cat People remains intriguing, in part because there are other characters to hold our interest. I think, for example, of Mrs. Farren, another mysterious woman about whom more definite information is provided. Mrs. Farren is a retired actress who lives in an enormous antique mansion, which was reused from Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) from a few years earlier. The house has a great deal of character, as do Mrs. Farren’s clothes and heavy jewelry. She seems like a woman from a different time.
Among other things, Mrs. Farren brings the story of Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to life for Amy in one of the movie’s few actually frightening scenes. The elderly woman works herself into a fervor as she narrates the story. Before she is interrupted and has to stop, she grows menacing, overpowering. Later when Amy is alone in the woods during the snow storm, she hears horse hoofs, which she thinks belong to Irving’s headless horseman, and we see how terrified she is. I wish that the “Sleepy Hollow” elements and the terrific atmosphere they generate were developed further, and I wish Mrs. Farren and her daughter Barbara were given more screen time. The Farrens seem to exist in another part of the town on another plane of life entirely. Their scenes have the seeds of a promising Twilight Zone episode: a bickering family in an old mansion, trapped there during a snowstorm at one point, with a strange energy between them. Something was going to erupt in that house even if Amy’s plotline hadn’t intervened, and possibly in a supernatural way.
Yet another character who holds our interest is Amy. While I was watching her grow distracted during playtime with her schoolmates in the woods, I was distinctly reminded of the children I knew growing up who also seemed easily carried away by deep inner thoughts. I do not know what happened to some of them as they grew older, and one of the sad things about this movie is that we do not know what is going to happen to Amy either. It seems as if she has a difficult path ahead of her.
Yet Amy’s loneliness is addressed in part through the final intervention of her father. In the last scene, Oliver reconciles himself to his daughter’s predilections rather than continuing to insist that she change. In this way, where the movie falls short in terms of its horror quotient, it ends up telling a rather satisfying story about parenting. Fundamentally, The Curse of the Cat People argues that parents can choose between serving as empathetic figures or triggering a need in their children for escape into another world. In other words, Amy’s upbringing—her father’s disappointment in her, which he expresses readily—seems to be at least as great an influence on her disposition as the possible influence of Irena from beyond the grave. The movie concludes by offering a renewed parental relationship in the place of a fantastic relationship, and although this may at first seem like a disappointing move, in that it terminates Amy’s relationship with Irena, it does offer an intriguing point of view: the final scene underscores the way that love can intervene in our lives and shape our development at least as powerfully as forces of the uncanny. Because human love triumphs over the unknown in this instance, The Curse of the Cat People solidly rejects the horror movie premise promised in its title. For a story in which the otherworldly truly has the power to unnerve us, we will have to look to the original Cat People.