Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Julie Newmar in the old BATMAN TV show--her lithe playful grace, her tender malevolence with her dopey underlings, her black spangly bodysuit and languorous ease in her own alluring body, the languorous stretching way she'd climb up and dismount the boxes and thrones in her secret lair--even as a seven or eight year old I could feel my still-slumbering hormones stir within me like a sleepy behemoth whenever she appeared (it was a regular after-school rerun throughout the 70s). And so, because of her, we all began to worship cats. Bast, the ancient Egyptian cat goddess, was invoked around playground pentagrams; Cat Woman to boys what My Pretty Pony, or National Velvet was to girls, and nowadays Jacob the wolf boy. Animal-human hybrids are a pop culture-raised nations' adolescent sexual surrogates. America the parent sits on our bed, fidgets in its after-work tie, glances at our weird posters, and says "this has been a good talk," then runs from the room confident its role has been passably completed. The TV smiles, rolls its eye and returns to regular cat channel.  We may not know the mystery behind that impassive mask, but that's why it's there - and as a result it's a real relief.

Alas, Cat Woman fell down a well (see Kitty Kali). Other ladies took the role. None the same; 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 and struck my gong in this department. 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).

(TVM - 1974) Dir. Curtis Harrington

The story of a strange necklace stolen off of a mummy and the curse that follows it (everyone who handles the piece gets mauled to death by Bast, a mummy cat god), THE CAT CREATURE is solid as far as 70s TV horror movies go--and there were a lot of them. If you were a kid in the 70s (this post is heavily nostalgic, because cats are outside space and time), now you may find you love them, despite their shallow depth slow-amble cop show vibe, their general avoidance of anything like sex or gore, their low budget and clear reliance on commercial breaks for pacing (which makes their video and digital versions seem strangely incomplete, as if 'the good parts' are missing). In their gentle nostalgia-evoking haze they provide a kind of comfort food opiate quality. And when done right, as by Curtis Harrington, they're great sources for bits of classic Hollywood, a way to keep fading B-list characters visible, and evoke the bygone classics while following cop show rhythms and doling out just enough scares and suspense to keep you from changing the channel at the next commercial break, but not enough to give you a panic attack, rob you of your very-70s faith in humanity, or even bum you out. They trade on ambiguity, which is something that Curtis Harrington proved himself a master of straight out the gate with his first film, NIGHT TIDE (1962). Harrington is a true fan of the classic horror era; he single-handedly rescued OLD DARK HOUSE from the edge of the abyss and here he salvages the gloriously sinister Gale Sondergaard from her decades on the black list, giving her ample room to flash her evil smile and dish out tarot fortunes (guess what card is drawn for the nosy archaeologist?). The cast also includes Keye Luke, John Carradine, Milton Pearson (he played the escaped lunatic in THE HIDDEN HAND) and John Abbott (THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST). CAT PEOPLE's Kent Smith kicks it off as an appraiser archiving the collection of a recently murdered Egyptologist. Smith is soon murdered himself; the investigating detective Marco (Stuart Whitman) follows the trail of a missing cat amulet and the trail leads to 'The Sorcerer's Shop," run with Mephistophelean relish and coded lesbian vibery by Sondergaard

Harrington deftly uses that mellow 70s TV rhythm to parcel out the ambiguous details in the intimate relationship that develops between archaeologist named Roger Edmonds (David Heddison) who Marco enlists to help him ID the stolen medallion, and shy cute newcomer 'Rena' (Meredith Baxter), the new hire at Gayle Sondergaard's occult bookstore (jammed with great skulls, Satanic tapestries and assorted items much darker than you'll find in any new age bookshop today). Roger and Marco make the scene at the downtown pawn shops and flops in search of the amulet and/or perps. 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--a goddess who was then locked away for all eternity because of her blood-drinking and evil.

Suspiria-prfiguring exterior shot set to eerie percussion and yowling
I confess I liked the teaming of Heddison and Whitman, each with a voice deeper than the other's, and manly gravitas long vanished, sadly, from our post-MTV generations. I also found myself drawn to Baxter's shy new store worker Rena --there is a profound sadness to this character that makes her almost like Amy in CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, grown up and out on her own for the first time, history all set to repeat itself. (Rena being clearly taken from 'Irina').

One of Harrington's great skills is in using the commercial break to muddle the "did they or didn't they" fade-out into an actual supernatural asset. The issue of sex with a cat creature (or mermaid) pales in importance next to the emotional involvement, so that one coffee by the shore can evolve into a devotion beyond death through a hazy reincarnation style memory without ever getting to first base - that feeling of "I feel like we go way way way back" spread along the axis of THE MUMMY and SHE and the endless slog of epochs, all without any clear sense of 'how far' things  have gotten. We never learn how far around the bases he got since hooking up with her, and neither-one suspects--does he. Their romance sheathed as it is almost in paternal warmth vs. sexual heat is very 70s--in well-laid LA especially--since once it's had with some regularity, sex becomes just a facet of a relationship, not the be-all end-all; that plus the inherent censorship of prime time equals sex as just a thing that may have happened --this is as it should be. An archaeologist never kisses and tells, and so their romance stays fairy tale abstract and perfect for children, who want to have a girlfriend or boyfriend but who neither know about nor want to know nor should have to know about sex yet. That's the 70s prime time TV movie in a nutshell. Now I sound old, and PG, safe and neutered, but even the dirtiest of the oldest men are soon washed clean by time's scavenging sponge.

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.

What's so haunting is that eventually she turns into a monster being devoured by stray cats, sort of - a scene that was clearly difficult to pull off (a hard day those cats put in - god only knows how their wrangler got them to all attack that poor stunt man) and looks like one of those guys in INVADERS FROM MARS if he fell in the mud and was wearing a big clay cat head (the bandages are all very loose). It's odd as its twice the size of little Meredith and adds a whole extra level of frisson. Roger has been hooking up with this monster? Either way, it's still sad - we feel for this poor creature, trapped in darkness for thousands of lonely years- I would have liked this better if Roger was at least tempted by her offer of immortality, but the cops are closing in by then anyway, and so there's more than a hint of the kiss-off in both VERTIGO and MALTESE FALCON.

Robert Bloch wrote the script; there's a solid Leonard Rosenman score (some meowing violins, pensive percussion, slow sustains and yowling gongs). I even dig the creepy credits with the jagged horror font and the chanting. And at a brisk 75 minutes of so it's over quite promptly, leaving me, at least, wanting more, from the plaster Egyptian 'artifacts' to the autumnal color scheme, Harrington ensures every frame is a-drip with classic horror fan / 70s childhood manna (it's streaming through Shudder).

(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 cinematic language, that low-key visual poetry and gift with extended dialogue-free scenes of young girls making their way through a strange night landscapes, the quiet and sudden rush of trains, zombies, busses or (here) snow tires in deep quiet punctuated by sudden shock scares. What do we remember about I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE? The whistle of the cane stalks in the dry wind. What in LEOPARD MAN? The blood under the door. CAT PEOPLE, 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. Often the story itself is rather inconsequential compared to the marvelous little 'touches'.

Famously, Lewton was given his lurid titles by the studio brass and had to make films to match; luckily for us he made sure to honor them even while doing his own thing. For CURSE he bucks the RKO brass-mandate of the title to eke out a weird but quietly beguiling fable that moves through THE SECRET GARDEN and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER-style mytho-poeticism and builds to a weird climax of faith and wind effects. It's a film with may more women than men (the war was on); but there are no shrill gadflies here (unlike THE WOMEN, for example), 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 can be seen 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, rather than repeat the same formula, as RKO no doubt hoped (but Irina's virginity in the previous film made a literal child impossible, so they had to improvise).

Irina dreams in CAT PEOPLE (1942)
Kent Smith as Ollie the amiable square ship builder, whose pawing drove his late wife--the coded lesbian/feline Serbian Irina (Simone Simon) to murder--has remarried Alice (Jane Randolph), the girl who Irina chased into the pool in the first film and they've had a kid, Amy (Ann Carter),--a dreamy girl more like Irina than Alice. Sir Lancelot (the calypso singer from the previous year's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) is there as the housekeeper/cook and they only have one child. Clearly they're affluent in this upscale Sleepy Hollow bucolic idyll --their normal happy life includes bridge games with the neighbors and drinks and songs with the carolers and the compassion is clear in Lewton's and screenwriter Dewitt Bodeen's treatment of their romantic evolution. (We wonder what Alice does all day since Sir Lancelot cooks and cleans and looks after Amy). All should be well. There's even (rare for Lewton) exterior shots filmed outdoors in the sun, full of that insufferably bucolic small town post-code 'charm'. But psychic and inward daughter Amy doesn't quite fit Ollie's uber-generic idea of what kids should be. Irina's ghost shows up to help Amy in her loneliness, as a kind of psychic apology (since Ollie's irrational fury towards Amy's flights of imagination are due to Irina's 'madness')-- in other words, Ollie has become Irina's shadow rather than vice versa. In a way he becomes the villain of the piece - he spanks Amy for sayings she has an imaginary friend, which is kind of horrible, punishing her for imagination, since he considers it Irina's imagination that she was a cat that led to her death. We cheer her 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 who were kids who came home alone to watch Batman after school and crush on Cat Woman--can certainly relate. Maybe we didn't have a dad who punished us for imagining things, but it felt like that; we related to Amy's desolation the same way we related to Irina's frigidity in CAT PEOPLE. Whether or not she was coded closet queer (the lesbian 'sister' greeting of Elizabeth Russell at the cozy restaurant), her dislike of being touched (pawed, mauled) made her cinematically self-aware. She knew that the only thing keeping her human was the safety of the camera, our gaze, director Jacques Tourneur's simple but elegant daytime shots of her apartment, the restaurant, and the zoo. When darkness comes and the camera is elsewhere or off, i.e. inside the fade-out when sex happens-- the demons take possession; the animated cats dance in her head. We kids knew this from being brave all day in the sun with our parents around, and then huddling in bed at night, aware of every little sound. Without our parents to name and diffuse them, they took on monstrous life. 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 alchemical change. Since we didn't understand it, sex became an important part of a marriage due to its subtextual absence (it's the thing we don't see - at least in older movies), in other words, 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.

The Women: reflecting the wartime shortage of men by having a strong mostly female cast,
where everyone, even Amy, is more or less a mature adult.
As in SHADOW ON THE WALL, the world of children is one where women carry absolute authority.
Amy's teacher, Ms. Callahan (Eve March), even corrects Ollie's intolerant
behavior; Ollie sends Amy upstairs but he's the brat;
Ms. Callahan sends Ollie up after her, but far more maturely.
Either way, Amy herself is the product of piercing that veil. the evidence of Ollie finally getting laid. But she's dreamy and otherworldly- ignoring her friends to chase butterflies (the sort of thing that clearly inspired PAN'S LABYRINTH); mailing her birthday invitations to magic trees, and calling Irina (Simone Simon) into being. By day Amy goes chasing butterflies and walking past the gloomy old 'haunted house.' Amy's not afraid, an old lady in the window throws her a magic ring wrapped in a kerchief and soon Amy finds herself swept into the drama inside the crumbling Gothic mansion, and swept into a maternal drama between super-creepy Elizabeth Russell (the 'sister' in the first film), whose elderly mom, who an old stage actress (Julia Dean) refuses to recognize as her own daughter (not unlike Ollie with Amy in a less decayed orbit). The maternal triangle, the elder lady lavishing affection on young Amy while her older ignored flesh and blood watches in envy, is almost exactly like 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).

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). Hers is a heightened cinematic reality: any fantasy or paranoid hallucination is just as real and vivid as the reality itself.  One of the scarier parts of the film is one level just an old lady telling the tale of the Headless Horseman, but it's the way it's filmed, Dean's commitment to the role, the wide-eyed way she stares directly into the camera while delivering the oration (and in we hear, through Amy's mind presumably, the thunder of approaching hoofbeats), the nervous fretting of Lancelot who's come to fetch her home, all create 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
Directed with some of Tourneur's visual poetry by Robert Wise, once we leave the daytime shots for the surreal studio snowdrifts and spooky mansion with its rattling shudders and wind billowing through the curtained foyer, flickering the oil lamps, the film finally lets go of its central theme of childhood imagination to focus on something closer to spiritual transubstantiation. We come away wondering if Amy's found a new friend, a babysitter, or at least a friendlier (or at the very least, marginally less hostile) neighbor in Elizabeth Russell. And dad comes around too - at last at which point Irina can safely disappear into the idyll. THE END flashes in an ominous touch, just as it does in Curtis Harrington's CAT CREATURE, without a specific orchestral crescendo, implying the story is still going on, even after the house lights come up. It might be over for us, the 'End' and heavenly 'Exit' calling us forth from our air-conditioned tomb, but cats do not die, nor does darkness.


America of Ghosts: Why Lana Del Rey is the New Val Lewton
CinemArchetype 2; The Anima
CinemArchetype 15: The Animal Familiar
A Moon, Cat Women, and Thou: CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON
“What It Takes to Make a Softie”: Breaking Noir Tradition in THE LEOPARD MAN

1 comment:

  1. By any weird off chance, do you remember a movie from way back when, with a kind of ghost cat that got revenge on someone by eating a guy's whole head while he was in a jail cell? That's all I remember about the movie is that final scene, a guy is locked up in a jail cell, and a cat comes in between the bars, and the guy starts to panic. Fade in and the jailer is coming into the cell the next morning, and the guy's body is on his bunk, but his entire head is gone, chewed off at the neck! That was the freeze frame ending! Freaked my preschool aged mind out! I don't even know where I saw it. Maybe a drive in. Anyway, another great write up. There used to be some pretty good made for TV movies, like you said, that worked well with the commercial interruptions and other limitations. I am subscribing to Shudder based on your last couple of write ups referencing it.


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