Sunday, March 05, 2017

The Curse of the Cat People

Curse of the Cat People (4.5/5)

In the tradition of Aliens, Evil Dead 2, and Halloween III, Curse of the Cat People is a sequel that radically diverges from the original film. Where Cat People was a horror film about a woman who descended from people who could transform themselves into, well, a giant species of cat, Curse of the Cat People changes gear by eschewing most of the original’s horror film trappings and instead becoming a family drama about children and their imaginary friends. While some people might say to themselves, “I watched the entire movie, and not one person turned into a damn cat!” Curse of the Cat People actually serves as a worthwhile follow up to the original, and the genre hopping only reinforces the fact that this is a thoughtful and unique picture that stands on its own.

In the original film, Oliver Reed, a dopey middle class striver, marries a woman from Eastern Europe, Irena, who comes to believe she is descended from people endowed with the ability to transform into giant cats. Irena slowly loses her mind as her husband begins to strike up a romance with his coworker, Alice. By the end of the film, Irna dies, but not before transforming into a panther and killing her therapist.

Curse of the Cat People moves its characters from the city to the suburbs. Years later, Oliver is living in a house and now married to Alice, his coworker from the first film, and the two of them have a six-year-old daughter, Amy. Amy is estranged from her fellow schoolmates because she spends most of her time daydreaming. She knows that she’s different from other children, and on her birthday, Amy wishes that she could be normal just like other children.

Like many films after Curse, Amy’s childhood alienation is demonstrated by the fact that her classmates do not show up for her birthday party. But in a twist on what has become a trope, it’s not that the other children are purposefully avoiding her. Rather, Amy never mailed the invitation, instead stuffing them into a gnarled tree that she imaginatively transforms into a mailbox. It’s not that other children don’t avoid Amy--the film doesn’t shy away from the cruelty of kids--but on some level I think that Amy wants to be alone. Like any creative person, sometimes it’s easier to escape into fantasy than to be around others.

Eventually, Amy starts to have visions of an imaginary friend who looks just like her father’s first wife, Irena the Feline-American. And yet it’s not clear whether or not Irena supernaturally appears to Amy or if the vision is only in her head. Before seeing Irena, Amy uncovers photographs of her that Oliver keeps around, and her presence metaphorically haunts the home in the form of one of her paintings that Oliver still keeps around. This naturally makes Oliver’s current wife uneasy.

Amy also strikes up a friendship with a former actress, Julia Farron, who is now an elderly woman shut up in her creepy home with her adult daughter. Julia and Amy form a natural pair because both are interested in the world of make believe, but Julia also represents what happens when you find yourself too invested in the unreal. Julia has developed an unhealthy belief that her daughter, who has sacrificed much of her own life to care for her aging mother, is not really her daughter. Perhaps a sign of increased dementia, but almost certainly tied to her career as an actress, Julia believes her actual daughter died when she was six and that this woman who now takes care of her is somehow an imposter.

Curse wonderfully recreates the imaginative world of children. Amy finds a place of her own in the family’s backyard, a site of imagination. In fact, the backyard is referred to as a “garden,” which connotes a place of play and fantasy, a location where fairies might exist. Like the imagination, a garden is both wild and cultivated, containing plants that would not naturally appear in our backyards. It’s no coincidence that gardens have become metaphors for imagination in children’s literature as we can see in classic’s like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.

The directors, Gunther Von Fritsch and Robert Wise (more on them later), capture a child’s fantasy world. The one technique that I found particularly reminiscent from my own childhood is how brief shadows of clouds portend the arrival of the fantastic. I remember feeling a bit of a chill and a bit of wonder whenever a cloud would pass over a field I was playing in. For a moment, time seemed to stop, and I found myself looking around to see if anything around me had suddenly changed. This obviously come out of the overactive imagination of a child, but Curse suggests that I wasn’t the only child who took a passing cloud as a symbol for the supernatural.

Curse could easily stand on its own, apart from the original film. Without the first Cat People, I think most would read the appearance of Irena as solely the work of Amy’s imagination. At one point, Amy is told by her father that she must denounce Irena’s presence or suffer the consequences, which means he will spank her. This is referred to as a “special occasion” because it’s the first time Amy has had to endure physical punishment for misbehaving. (People sure were accepting of parents hitting their children in the 1940s).

While Oliver is smacking his child, Alice has a conversation with Amy’s teacher. (In another exchange that reminds us the film is made in the 1940s, Amy’s teacher is reminded that she doesn’t have children of her own, likely because if she did, she would be a housewife and no longer working.) The teacher reminds Alice that it’s healthy for children to have imaginary friends and that this is a phase that she will grow out of. She then quotes a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson on the subject, titled “The Unseen Playmate.” When Amy starts to truly connect with others, then her unseen playmate will disappear. It’s at this moment that the film unveils the moral of the story: having imaginary friends is a normal and natural part of a child’s progression to adulthood.

Curse has two directors, Gunther Von Fritsch and Robert Wise. Wise actually took over from Fritsch when he fell behind schedule, and it turned out to be Wise’s first directorial effort and served as the inauguration of an impressive career, which includes highlights like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Run Silent, Run Deep, The Haunting, and The Sound of Music. Moving from horror to domestic drama, Curse succeeds thanks to its empathetic and detailed understanding of a child’s imagination.

“When children are playing alone on the green,
In comes the playmate that never was seen.
When children are happy and lonely and good,
The Friend of the Children comes out of the wood.”

--Robert Louis Stephenson