BFI Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film – Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People Double-Bill Review

Simon Columb attends BFI Southbank’s ‘Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film’ season starting with a double-bill of Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People…

The title Cat People could be misleading. Half-cat, half-human creatures roaming the streets (akin to An American Werewolf in London) is the first thought that comes to mind when the title – and its sequel The Curse of the Cat People – appeared in the BFI Gothic Season guide. Instead, this 1943 staple of the Universal horror film catalogue is a moody, sinister approach to psychiatry. Indeed, the question lingering in the fog, as to whether the woman is a cat at all is only answered in the third act of the film.

Set within the misty, fashionable streets of New York, Irena (Simone Simon) is a Serbian woman who is obsessed by the panthers and large cats in the New York Zoo. While drawing the majestic creatures (including a dagger, through the heart of the cat), she meets Ollie Reed (Kent Smith) – an architect. A brief flirtation and falling deeply in love, Irena and Ollie are married despite the paranoia that eats away at Irena each day. She recalls legends of the “Cat People” in her native country whereby women would turn into cats when filled with envy or greed – in fact, she believes that if she kisses a man, she will devour him shortly after. Suffice to say, the no-kissing and lack of intimacy within their marriages takes its toll. Ollie’s flirtations with his friend Alice (Jane Randolph) only makes matters worse and Irena’s paranoia may have more truth in it than people realise…

Highlighted in the BFI notes, producer Val Lewton “tossed away the horror formula right away from the beginning”, he adds “no grisly stuff for us”. Indeed, this is Cat People’s strength. We are forced to consider who Irena really is and stand-out scenes linger in your mind through Simone Simon’s edgy, convincing performance. In one scene she follows Alice home while director Jacques Tourneur cuts between the two sets of feet running down the street. Another sequence remains eerie as Alice leaps into a swimming pool as reflections flicker around the pool as we hear cat sounds. Val Lewton/RKO-produced horror films of the 1940’s were hugely influential, and Cat People has a charm that resonates. In 1942, it became RKO’s highest grosser for the year bringing in $4 million. Because it was cheap and successful – like a contemporary Hollywood horror film such as Paranormal Activity – it was copied across Hollywood in the following years. But, the subtlety and growing intensity was harder to imitate. Getting under your skin, Cat People toys with a fear of loneliness and detachment, as if we are witnessing a husband who fails to understand his wife’s challenges – and pushes her away in the process.

As part of a double-bill, BFI Gothic additionally screened The Curse of the Cat People, Robert Wise’s strange sequel starring the same characters but with shoe-horned Gothic elements that fail to truly connect to each other. Strangely, The Curse of the Cat People does not feature any cats – except a feline that runs up a tree in the opening moments of the film. Taking place roughly 9 years after the events of Cat People, Alice and Ollie are now married with a young daughter named Amy (Ann Carter). Amy is a day-dreamer, often becoming side-tracked by butterflies and old, scary houses. Akin to Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, within the spooky house resides a reclusive old lady. Serving as a minor-narrative, Amy befriends this woman not knowing how fractured the old lady’s relationship with her own daughter is. Meanwhile, Amy has created an imaginary friend in her garden – and we realise it is Irena from Cat People. Understandably, Alice and Ollie are concerned and worried for their daughter – and perplexed by how she could imagine a woman whose death was prior to her birth.

Cat People toyed with the pseudo-psychological reality of the ‘Cat People’, while The Curse of the Cat People seems to only flirt with the idea that there is a wealth of psychological theory in a child’s behaviour. In one sequence a primary school teacher relays multiple justifications for the imaginary friend of Amy’s – quoting a poem and specifically highlighting a book named ‘The Inner Child’. Instead, The Curse of the Cat People uses Gothic tropes to give the film a look that enhances the environment. Cat People has an almost film-noir tone in New York, while The Curse of the Cat People moves the story to a suburban estate with white-picket fences. A decrepit house, replete with cobwebs and old jewellery becomes the haunted house on the hill. Irena’s gown is white, flowing down her feminine figure so that standing in the garden, Irena is a mysterious ghost that offers advice and friendship to Amy.

A fascinating double-bill as Cat People inspires cinema and remains an established staple of tense, mysterious horror filmmaking, The Curse of the Cat People is a misjudged amalgamation of child psychology and haunted-house genre filmmaking. Director Robert Wise went on to direct The Sound of Music and West Side Story, so it is worth seeing a director in his early years flexing his artistic muscles, but it is Jacques Tournier’s suspicious characters and story that remains with you into the night.

Find out more about the BFI’s Gothic film season here.

Simon Columb