Thursday, August 18, 2011


Because Robert Wise's The Haunting was a favorite film from way back, I was introduced to the films of Val Lewton by a cineaste friend. "Wise learned a lot from Lewton," he told me. It's quite clear in these two gems, which I revisit during the last week before resuming work.

Cat People isn't really a horror film, any more than The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story. Irena is a young woman who fears the power of her own sexuality. She wants Oliver painfully, yet can't consummate her desires. The powerful myth of the cat people from her native town in Serbia worries her. If she lets him kiss her, she will turn into a leopard and devour him. So for months after their wedding she sleeps in a locked room while he waits patiently.

Finally, Oliver turns to his friend and co-worker Alice for solace of a sort. Alice recommends a psychiatrist, who hypnotizes Irena and learns of her fears. Irena realizes that his methods are a bit questionable when he asks "What if I kiss you?" during a session; she refuses to go back. At this time Alice confesses her love to Oliver, who begins to drift away from his repressed wife. Alice is chased in the park by something inhuman, then she is menaced in a swimming pool by a growling presence in the dark. Her robe is shredded. Irena is on the prowl.

I love the cinematography with its dark silhouettes and bright highlights, which heavily influence Wise's later masterpiece. I love the power of suggestion, which allows subtle readings of the movie beyond the surface horror. I love the sultry actresses with their creepy eyes. The sleazy psychiatrist gets what's coming to him, and Irena's failure to do her wifely duties is tragic. She never wants to hurt anyone, but her profound and mysterious nature confounds these plans. Just as Eleanor might be a victim of Hill House or an overly imaginative young woman with a potent crush, Irena might be a possessive and jealous werecat--or a troubled young woman afraid of her desire.

Cat People focuses on the a young lady on the cusp of womanhood; Curse of the Cat People focuses on a young girl at the border between fantasy life and reality. It's a mysterious and sad fable about Oliver and Alice's daughter Amy, who can't quite leave her dreamy childhood and grow up. Irena returns in the guise of a fairy princess playmate, and atones for her sins by helping Oliver and Amy to develop a true relationship. The film--co-directed by Wise--is gorgeous. I don't think a child's fantasies have ever been so lovingly re-created on film.

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