I return now to discuss the final two Val Lewton films I haven’t covered: Cat People (1942) and Curse of the Cat People (1943). Coincidentally, Cat People is the first of the films he produced on his own.
Nautical engineer Oliver and fashion designer Irena meet cute at the zoo in New York’s Central Park. A whirlwind romance later and they’re married. This, despite the fact that Irena believes herself to be descended from devil-worshipping Serbs who fled from King John, and will turn into a great cat when her passion is aroused. Oliver’s patience inevitably begins to fray as the marriage remains unconsummated, and he demands Irena see a psychiatrist, who turns out to be a hypnotist and quite an unethical slimeball. Oliver soon begins to grow closer to his assistant Alice, and Irena becomes increasingly jealous. A cat-like shadow begins to prowl about, sheep end up slaughtered, and Alice begins to feel a constant hostile presence.
Many, if not most, of Lewton’s films are permeated with a dreamy atmosphere that shades over into nightmare gradually and irresistibly. Cat People begins the trend of his films being imbued with shadow, a darkness that looms about pools of light. Sometimes the shadow is merely an emptiness beyond the reach of lights; sometimes it comes alive and invades those luminous islands.
Irena becomes drawn to a black panther at the zoo, fascinated by its sleek menace. Is this cat the one that terrorizes the night, or is it Irena? Lewton always leaves the audience unsure if the threats in his films are natural or supernatural.
He was also a master of creating terror from the unseen; Alice finds herself trapped in her building’s swimming pool – but by what? The room is well-lit and no panther is evident, but the play of shadows and the growling and roaring of a great cat surround Alice, and the viewer…only to be dispelled when help arrives in answer to Alice’s screams. Irena appears, smugly polite…was she the panther? Was there a panther at all? Were the sounds Alice heard real, or her imagination? It’s impossible to really know, and that’s what’s unsettling about Lewton’s films.
Much of this film, much of Lewton’s entire oeuvre, deals with belief and the power of the mind to warp our perception and create fear from nothing. The mind can be manipulated, either intentionally, as with the psychiatrist, or unintentionally, as Oliver and Alice begin to feed off Irena’s own belief in her supposed curse, beginning to believe it also. By extension, there is a meta portion of this equation, too, as Lewton’s films also manipulate the minds of the audience, creating fear from what is perceived yet not actually seen. These things would end up becoming foundation stones for future horror films and television shows, becoming second-nature to us in this culture.
This film would also see the advent of the Lewton Bus,
which by now is so cliché as to have inspired many familiar versions of it. If you aren’t familiar with “it’s just a cat!,” one permutation of the Lewton Bus, then welcome to Earth and take a gander:
See? You've seen it a million times.
Curse of the Cat People
Lewton's idea of a sequel is a strange one, indeed. Oliver, Alice, and Irena return, but there the resemblance to the first film ends.
Several years have passed since the events of Cat People. Oliver and Alice are married and living in a small town, with six-year-old daughter Amy. Amy is an introverted, daydreaming child, shy and retiring, unable and, apparently, unwilling to make friends. Her parents fret about her living such a solitary life, and her schoolwork suffers. Eventually the girl acquires an imaginary friend, one that looks exactly like her father's first wife, Irena. When she identifies her friend as the woman in a photo with her father, Oliver becomes alarmed and increasingly determined to force Amy to do away with her delusions.
This is a strange movie. It is unlike any of Lewton's other films, determinedly staying with the child's point of view. Again, the mind becomes the source of tension in Lewton's hands. Is she imagining her friend? That seems the obvious conclusion, but then...reality is always fluid in Lewton's universe. There is a "haunted" house, a "magic" ring, a "fairy princess" (for lack of a better term), a strange old woman and her bitter daughter (or is she?), a killer blizzard, and the border between sanity and insanity constantly shifting for a number of characters.
This is about as close to a David Lynch film as Lewton made. The plot here is almost completely irrelevant, simply there to set up a series of strange encounters between Amy and her imaginary friend, obnoxious neighborhood children, weird neighbors, and her parents. Oliver, Amy's father, played with all the charisma of a store mannequin by Kent Smith, is about as close to a villain as the film gets until near the very end. The story, such as it is, has the air of inevitability to it, of fate and destiny, and while it pays off at the end (I guess?), it's still tough to describe without it sounding like nonsense. The ever-present shadows of Lewton films are less pronounced here, but the murk remains in a subdued way, found in the sorrows of childhood.
Both films are now classics, Cat People in particular, but I feel Lewton would really hit his stride in other films. Regardless, both films make for unsettling viewing, bringing the viewer into a dark dimension.