B&W, 1944, 69 mins. 51 secs.
Directed by Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise
Starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Ann Carter, Eve March, Julia Dean, Elizabeth Russell, Sir Lancelot
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Warner Bros. (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

In The Curse of the Cat Peoplethe realm of unusual movie sequels, The Curse of the Cat Peoplefew can compete with the startling, genre-bending approach of The Curse of the Cat People, the inevitable sequel to the first successful horror film from legendary producer Val Lewton for RKO. That 1942 film's three stars are reunited here, but rather than a story of ambiguous supernatural repression and cultural clashes, it's a delicate, melancholy story of childhood loneliness and imagination with only a few graceful nods to its horror heritage. It also happens to be a beautiful, haunting experience unlike anything else out there.

Though she has loving parents in the form of Oliver (Smith) and Alice (Randolph), fragile young Amy Reed (Carter) is introspective and prone to living in a fantasy world. Though her personality isolates her from her fellow classmates, Amy does have a champion in the form of her teacher, Miss Callahan (March), and at Christmastime becomes attached to her imaginary friend, Irena (Simon), a spectral version of Oliver's deceased first wife. Equally unorthodox is her rapport with the eccentric, isolated aged actress Mrs. Farren (Dean), who lives nearby with her embittered daughter (Russell) and will play a role in a dramatic shift in Amy's fraught relationship with her parents.

A film loaded with Lewton regulars in front and behind the camera, The Curse of the Cat People was also a very personal project for the producer who added many elements of his own fanciful, disconnected childhood The Curse of the Cat Peopleto the original screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen. The film was started by Gunther von Fritsch, who ran over budget and schedule; he ended up being replaced for about half the film by The Curse of the Cat PeopleRKO editor and salvage operator Robert Wise, making his official directorial debut here and embarking on a long career that would include West Side Story and The Haunting. It was also the second of his RKO "horror" films (following The Ghost Ship) to skirt the very edges of the genre, with Lewton as always finding ways to work around the ridiculous box office bait titles he was ordered to use. Though Lewton reportedly wanted to call this film Amy and Her Friend, it most definitely hearkens back to the original Cat People in many ways even if the actual cat people curse is completely absent from the story. The film is studded with little cat references, Russell (who delivered the unforgettable "moya sestra" in the original film) is back again to creep out the audience, and the score by RKO vet Roy Webb even chimes in at times with themes from the prior film. As a result it can be somewhat disorienting when you see this film for the first time, but it's an understated, poetic gem with Carter delivering one of the decade's finest, most sensitive child performances. It's no wonder critics and child psychologists have been championing this one for decades.

Long available on home video since the VHS days and frequently aired on TV well into the '90s, The Curse of the Cat People made its DVD bow in 2005 as part of Warner Bros.' comprehensive The Val Lewton Collection The Curse of the Cat Peoplecomplete with a trailer and a solid audio commentary by Greg Mank (who also performed chat track duties on the first film), studded with samples of an audio interview with Simon. It's The Curse of the Cat Peopleespecially interesting as a portrait of Lewton including the personal demons he explored in this film and that would ultimately take his life far too early. A significantly expanded Blu-ray edition appeared from Scream Factory in 2018, and while this film has always been one of the best preserved of the Lewton cycle, it's a real sparkler in HD with Amy's nocturnal encounters with Irena looking especially strong. The Mank commentary and original trailer are ported over, while a welcome new commentary by film historian Steve Haberman puts the film in context with Lewton's RKO tenure, notes the literary influence of both "The Turn of the Screw" and "Srendi Vashtar," and reels off an impressive amount of heavily researched information about the cast and crew. Constantin Nasr, who crafted the Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy doc for the Warner set, delivers a new video essay, "Lewton’s Muse: The Dark Eyes Of Simone Simon" (31m19s), breaking down the significance of the actress' breakthrough role, the mystique surrounding her persona and career, and obstacles to her way to stardom including the disappointment of her attempt at a prestige film with Lewton, Mademoiselle Fifi. A relevant segment from an audio interview with Carter (19m6s) is a real treat as well, recorded in 2004 with Tom Weaver and presented in modified form in an issue of Video Watchdog. In addition to her memories of working for 32 days on this film, she also recalls her follow-up years including a bout with polio during her teenage years. Trailers for both Cat People films are included along with a still gallery including some hilariously misleading lobby cards ("The Black Menace Creeps Again!").

Scream Factory (Blu-ray)

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Warner Bros. (DVD)

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Reviewed on June 14, 2018.