All the ingredients for horror are there: Tarrytown, New York, with its legend of the headless horseman; a seemingly haunted house; a woman come back from the dead; and a lonely little girl who will do anything for a friend. Except that this is a Val Lewton film. The horrors are all there in the background, waiting to pounce. That they never do makes the film more profound in a way, as if all the darkness we imagine in life were really just the result of looking at things the wrong way.
The headless horseman never shows up, although at one point we think we will. The haunted house isn’t really haunted: It’s inhabited by an unhappy mother who doesn’t acknowledge the daughter who loves her. The woman come back from the dead (above) is a loving and friendly ghost who wants nothing but good for Amy, the lonely little girl who keeps getting in trouble for being lost in her dreams.
Oh, and by the way, there is no menacing black cat as shown on the lobby card above. There is a black cat who appears on a tree branch briefly at the beginning, but jumps away to avoid a mischievous boy.
There is one beautiful little French Christmas carol sung by the ghost Irena, played by Simone Simon, that runs through the film—a song without menace of any kind. Here is a link to the carol—“Il Est Né le Divin Enfant”—as sung by Edith Piaf:
So, The Curse of the Cat People is either a total failure, or it’s not quite what it’s advertised to be. My vote is for the latter.
That is so typical of Val Lewton, who produced a series of films in the 1940s that are still being seen and loved. Thousands have been seduced by the prospect of horror that never quite emerges. It is suggested, but is rarely what it seems. There is a death in The Leopard Man, but it happens off screen. There is plague on The Isle of the Dead; grave-robbing in The Body Snatcher; devil worship in The 7th Victim; a real zombie (though not the brain-eating variety) in I Walked with a Zombie; and a menacing panther at a swimming pool in The Cat People. We are brought close to the edge of our seats, but in the end are protected from any direct contact with anything vile: Instead what at first promised to have a terrifying dimension winds up with more of a psychological dimension.
One interesting fact about Lewton is that he never directed any of these films: He produced them. Yet his stamp on these pictures—which are directed by excellent directors such as Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise—is as decisive as the stamp of an Alfred Hitchcock or a John Ford.
I had purchased a collection of Val Lewton films on DVD from Turner Classic Movies (TCM). It arrived yesterday, so I decided to watch The Curse of the Cat People this afternoon. I look forward to re-acquainting myself with the other eight titles in the series as well.