Julie Newmar in the old BATMAN TV show: her lithe playful grace, her tender malevolence with her dopey underlings, her black spangly bodysuit and ease in her own long, languorous dancer's body; the way she'd climb up and dismount the boxes and thrones in her secret lair, stretching out, slowing down dance moves and yoga stretches into cat-style longwise stretches, using her Stooge-like cat creeps as balancing beams. I know I'm not alone in feeling my own unconscious / anima rouse itself from fitful hibernation, whenever she appeared. She had me. All of us. We'd always play fight after a Batman rerun, in the front yard, shouting "Pow" and comically falling over, afterwards.
When Julie Newmar was on, we'd fight for real, to prove our alpha mating potential, though we were but seven or eight.
Bast, the ancient Egyptian cat goddess, was invoked around playground pentagrams. To boys like me in the 70s, she was what Jacob the wolf boy from Twilight is to girls the same age today. That's why I "get" Twilight, because of Julie Newmar. Animal-human hybrids are a pop culture's 'safe' pre-adolescent sexual surrogates, i.e. the anima / animus. Long before the shaky parent runs from the room confident their role has been passably completed by some five minute rote 'sex talk', the TV smiles, rolls its eye and returns to regular cat channel. Cat Woman has covered all this before, without the messy biology of reproductive science or messy things like 'real' girls. We may not know the mystery behind that impassive mask, but that's why it's there. It's pagan idolatry at its best.
As long as it's on, we don't have to worry about not liking what's underneath. Lord knows, we'll have enough of those dates in the early years of AOL.
Alas, Newmar's Catwoman fell down a well (see Kitty Kali) and left us all bereft. Other ladies took the role. But what cat can compare to luminous Newmar? Genres change, boys become men; men become wolves; graven images are smashed by heretics' hacking hammers; the beat goes on; and cats come back / the very next day. As Boris says in THE BLACK CAT (1934), "Cats do not die." So can we deny that the crazy old lady with the ton of cats is within us all?
Lately two film ambled forth (though hardly knew I saw them with new eyes), cat-related. Timeless, strange, evocative, ephemeral, mysterious, kind of goofy, and short. What can we do but cherish them, and never try to put them in little cardboard boxes? You heard me, Ollie, in CAT PEOPLE (1942).
THE CAT CREATURE
(TVM - 1974) Dir. Curtis Harrington
A true fan of the classic horror era, Harrington single-handedly rescued James Whale's OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) from the edge of the lost film void and here he salvages the gloriously sinister Gale Sondergaard from the blacklist, giving her a job as owner of 'The Sorcerer's Shop', with ample room to flash her evil smile, dish out tarot fortunes (guess what card is drawn for the nosy archaeologist?) and generally carry on in great scenes of Mephistophelean relish and coded lesbian vibery. Harrington also gives us Kent Smith, finally getting his comeuppance for trying to keep a kitten in a box all day at work as the dopey architect in the original CAT PEOPLE. getting murdered while archiving the collection of an already murdered Egyptologist collector. Each time... a cat silhouette!
Investigating detective Marco (Stuart Whitman) realizes the murders center around a missing cat amulet; the trail leads to 'The Sorcerer's Shop," since Sondergaard used to deal in hot jewelry. Marco recruits a local archaeologist Roger Edmonds (David Heddison) to help him ID the stolen amulet and together they tool around LA, talking to each other with their great gravelly TV male 70s smoker voices, searching the flop houses and antique shops in search of the amulet and/or recently flush winos. What a unique experience for professor Edmonds! Turned on by the mystery (Agatha Christie is his favorite author, he tells Marco) vibes with the shy cute new clerk at Sondergaard's store, 'Rena' (Meredith Baxter), little guessing the occult connection.
Jammed with great skulls, Satanic tapestries and assorted items much darker than you'll find in any new age bookshop today (with a great palette of golden oranges, browns, and blacks) Sondergaard's shop seems like one weird great place to hang out, as does Reina's apartment and the wickery restaurant. John Carradine, Keye Luke, John Carradine, Milton Pearson (he played the escaped lunatic in THE HIDDEN HAND) and John Abbott (THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST) saunter past as the suspects, coroners, or new victims, as Marco and Roger keep orbiting back to Sondergaard's and cute Rena, I know this is hard to believe, lieutenant, but the murders seem to have been done by a cat! And then Roger brings up the subject of Bast-- the cat goddess worshipped through human sacrifice by ancient Egyptians. And all the victims were drained of blood!
|So much more than just a restaurant - dig the weird waiter and art direction|
I love the little weird details here: the skulls and weird old Universal horror props in every corner of the frame; the meowing violins, pensive percussion, slow sustains and yowling gongs in Leonard Rosenman's score; the cool-creepy green font of the credits: the eerie chanting of the exit music. At a brisk 75 minutes it's over quite promptly, leaving me, at least, wanting more, rather than less, which is a rare good feeling to have with a 60s-70s TVM. From the plaster Egyptian 'artifacts' to the autumnal palette, Harrington ensures every frame is a-drip with classic horror fan / 70s childhood manna (it's streaming through Shudder). Adding a manly contrast, I like too the teaming of Heddison and Whitman, each with a voice deeper than the other, displaying a manly gravitas long vanished, sadly, from our post-MTV landscape.
|Dig some of Harrington's 'uncanny' extras - the lesbians at the Sorcerer's shop,|
waiter at the hippie-ish restaruant, "Maybelle" at the hotel, etc.
Best of all is the way the odd sense of isolation, the superb contrast of run-down LA studio backstreets and Addams Family / Christine McConnell-style posh interiors finds a doomed resolution in the sadness in Baxter's Rena. When she tells Roger of her centuries being alone in the dark, getting closer and closer to him in a romantic heat blast, you feel just how tempted he must be to take her up on her offer and just go racing out of town. Masterfully underplaying as she goes, she conjures a grown-up Amy from CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (perhaps intentionally), history all set to repeat itself (Rena being clearly taken from 'Irina'). Taking a page perhaps from Lewton, Harrington ably syncs the mellow rhythm of 70s TV to the languid sense of timeless affection that develops between Rena and Marco--evoking that SHE/MUMMY ages-echoing amor. The "did they or didn't they" question is sidestepped in such an ephemeral yet profound way (we feel how a casual coffee after work can evolve into a devotion beyond death without so much as a romantic kiss; the affection is there in their mellow loving unconsciously tactile manner with each other the morning after). It's the same sweetly aching connection we get in Harrington's NIGHT TIDE, that ephemeral mythopoetic love we find only in dreams, they dissolves into air and surf if you try and hold onto them past waking. Alas, the climax, with its surplus of cats and Rena... well, I can't spoil it but the ending tosses less-is-more ideals to the wind, replete with ceremonial Egyptian garb, skulls, dust, and massive cat attack. As so often happened with prime time TV movies, despite the cool font and chanting-Morocco-style desert wind fade out, it might end better if you go upstairs before the last five minutes and watch safely from the embryonic depths.
CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE
(1944) Dir. Robert Wise
Just as CAT CREATURE's low-key success hinges on hazy classic B-movie nostalgia, CURSE's success hinges on the Lewton's unique wartime quietude and visual poetry, his gift with extended dialogue-free scenes of young girls making their way through a strange landscapes at night, menaced by the quiet and sudden rush of trains, zombies, busses or snow tires, the whistle of the cane stalks in the dry wind the shadows in the pool room, and so on. Each is, in its way, a transient event, ephemeral; the supernatural is always ready to dissolve in the salty brine of rational overhead lighting.
CURSE goes Lewton's bucking of the RKO brass-mandate of the title one better, to eke out a weird but quietly beguiling fable that snakes through THE SECRET GARDEN and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER-style child's eye mythopoetica, building to a weird climax of faith and wind effects. It also has a cast of way more women than men (the war was in full stride) but unlike so many woman-dominated films of the era, there are no types, no floozies and caricatures, just low-key confident professionals, including a cool teacher whose authority on child psychology is delivered in the same calm-assertive manner of Nancy Davis in the Lewton-esque SHADOW ON THE WALL (and sadly almost nowhere else).
Though it's often avoided in principle by classic horror fans (there's no actual cat people, too many kids), there's much more to this sequel than the casual viewer of the first ten minutes will suspect. The story is unique among sequels in that is very faithful to its predecessor as far as cast and continuation, but rather than repeat the same formula, as RKO no doubt hoped (i.e. some young girl coming of age ignorant of her cat-like ways, headed to a bloodier honeymoon than the censors can imagine), Lewton could cite Irina's sexual hysteria in the previous film made a literal child impossible, so his weird 'imaginary friend' thing would have to work.
|Irina dreams in CAT PEOPLE (1942)|
One of the real issues I have with Lewton, especially his later work, is something Tourneur would have probably kept more ambiguous, the line between fantasy and reality. The first two films of Lewton keep the door to the unknown open: voodoo and this ancient Serbian curse could be real and not just vivid imagination. A big 'if' kept them from spilling over into straight-out fantasy or the tired 'it was all a trick' ending that makes horror fans groan (the sign the producer really doesn't like the genre he's assigned). When Irina's ghost shows up to help Amy in her loneliness, we may read it as a kind of psychic apology (since Ollie's irrational fury towards Amy's flights of imagination are due to Irina's 'madness') or just take her presence at face value - that Amy saw a picture of Irina in a book and thought she was pretty, and Ollie blowing up at her for showing it to him gives it a kind of holy cachet.
Either way, if she's just 'an imaginary friend' it kind of errs on the side of whimsy, a whimsy that' compels Ollie himself to become Irina's shadow. When he spanks Amy for saying she has an imaginary friend, we hate him so much it's hard not to cheer her for running off into the night, utterly abandoned as even her imaginary friend decides to leave her (since she broke the cardinal rule and mentioned her existence to dogmatic Ollie).
We relate to Amy's desolation the same way we related to Irina's frigidity in CAT PEOPLE. Whether or not she was coded closeted-even-to-herself lesbian (as per the 'sister' greeting of Elizabeth Russell at the cozy restaurant), Irina's dislike of being touched (pawed, mauled) made her cinematically self-aware - we related, since Kent Smith so ably played a kind of neutered version of the American male it was easy to see how she might presume marriage would be lavender in nature. Since the code is in effect, on a meta scale, it was also as If Irina knew that the only thing keeping herself human was the safety of the camera, our gaze. In director Jacques Tourneur's simple but elegant daytime (studio-bound) shots of her apartment, the restaurant, and the zoo, she was immortal - give her the black night and sooner or later, there'd be no escape from the pawing of the Ollie.
As per the code, it's inside the fade-out when sex happens-- the demons take possession; the animated cats dance in her head. We kids knew this as kids, from being brave all day in the sun with our parents around, and then huddling in bed at night, aware of every little scratching noise inside the walls. Imagination is--in the land of children and Lewton--not merely some Spielbergian whimsy, but also a source of unfathomable danger and dread. Irina's fear of sex was like our fear of the dark, a ruptured vein of mythic alchemy.
And since we didn't understand it, sex became an important mystery initiation, a ritual, notable for its subtextual absence (it's the thing we don't see - at least in older movies - it's what happens in the place no children or cameras can trespass. We only knew that people emerge from this place changed - bonds are somehow stronger in the morning or after a cut to the fireplace or a tower, or the train going through a tunnel). The darkened portion of human knowledge, all the things we kids were afraid to find out but were nonetheless drawn to like a magnet, lay behind the wedding veil, in the dark of the dissolve.
These visits are fascinating, Amy offering completion of a kind of maternal love triangle that is almost exactly like the one Hitchcock would later depict in MARNIE and one is compelled to realize the rarity of it since these are the only two instances (though it shows up on a more sexual note in, say, Von Sternberg's Dietrich films) as the old woman pampers Amy almost intentionally to drive Russell into a jealous sulk.
On the other hand, why is this weird daughter hanging around, taking care of her mom and not, seemingly, having a life of her own?
Ann Carter is a very unique actress, with something of Veronica Lake's blonde otherworldliness (she even plays Lake's daughter in the last scene of I MARRIED A WITCH). She bring to Amy a heightened cinematic reality: any fantasy or paranoid hallucination is just as real and vivid as the reality itself - and for the film to work properly we must take them as literal. If we do, one of the scarier parts of the film is one level just an old lady telling the tale of the Headless Horseman. It's the way it's filmed that makes it so eerie: Dean's commitment to the role, the wide-eyed way she stares directly into the camera while delivering the oration (and we hear, through Amy's mind presumably, the thunder of approaching hoofbeats) creates a uniquely weird and original mood that won't be duplicated again until the big climax.
Though there's no immanent threat, and it's the afternoon, and Edward (Sir Lancelot) is right there to whisk her away, the mood--one imaginative woman's mind to another's--lingers. Sir Lancelot's discomfort can't compete with that kind of wild imaginative prowess, so he fears it. For Lewton fans it's an ironic counterpoint: the last time we saw Lancelot in a Lewton film he was slowly advancing towards Frances Dee in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (below, 2nd down), singing a creepy ballad about the 'trouble' at the plantation, staring into the camera in the same way. Now, a year later, he's shifting with the same unease he generated in Dee; and he's sort of playing the Dee role here, a caregiver to a blonde with far-away eyes - just a touched and wayward girl instead of a zombie.
|Don't stare into the camera, lest the camera stare back|