Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

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 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 latent hormones stir, like a sleepy bear roused from fitful hibernation, whenever she appeared.

We became obsessed; Bast, the ancient Egyptian cat goddess, was invoked around playground pentagrams; Cat Woman to boys like me in the 70s was what Jacob the wolf boy from Twilight is to girls the same age today. Animal-human hybrids are a pop culture-raised nations' adolescent sexual surrogates --the anima / animus. The shaky parent runs from the room confident its role has been passably completed by some five minute rote 'sex talk' while 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 --as long as it's on, we don't have to worry about not liking what's underneath.

Alas, Newmar's Catwoman fell down a well (see Kitty Kali). 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 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 Robert Bloch scripted 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 like me you may have seen the first hour of a lot of these, then had to go to bed and hear the end the next day at school from kids raised with more permissive parents, and been disappointed (having dreamt a much better ending). Sill, 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), 70s horror TVMs provide a kind of comfort food opiate reassurance for we classic horror fans of a certain age. And when done right, as by Curtis Harrington, they're great sources for bits of classic Hollywood detritus, a way to keep fading B-list characters visible, and evoke the bygone classics while following the era's stately 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.

The best ones 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). A true fan of the classic horror era, Harrington single-handedly rescued James Whale's OLD DARK HOUSE from the edge of the abyss and here he salvages the gloriously sinister Gale Sondergaard from the blacklist, giving her ample room to flash her evil smile and dish out tarot fortunes (guess what card is drawn for the nosy archaeologist?) and generally carry on Mephistophelean relish and coded lesbian vibery. And she's just one of a glorious array, kicked off by--as first victim--Kent Smith, finally getting his comeuppance for trying to keep a kitten in a box all day at work and bring it to Irina like it's a goddamned Tamagotchi, as the dopey architect in the original CAT PEOPLE.

An appraiser archiving the collection of a recently murdered Egyptologist, Smith finds himself murdered too; the investigating detective Marco (Stuart Whitman) follows the trail of a missing cat amulet and the trail leads to 'The Sorcerer's Shop," an occult bookstore run by Sondergaard in downtown LA. and realizing he's out of his depth, recruits local archaeologist Roger Edmonds (David Heddison) to help him ID the stolen amulet. Roger and Marco hit the downtown pawn shops and flops in search of the amulet and/or perps; Roger vibes with the shy cute new clerk at Sondergaard's store, 'Rena' (Meredith Baxter). Jammed with great skulls, Satanic tapestries and assorted items much darker than you'll find in any new age bookshop today, it seems like one weird great place to work. Meanwhile the search is leaving bodies wherever it goes. John Carradine, Keye Luke, John Carradine, Milton Pearson (he played the escaped lunatic in THE HIDDEN HAND) and John Abbott (THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST) are some of the suspects or victims. 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.

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 score; the cool-creepy credits with the jagged horror font and eerie chanting. At a brisk 75 minutes it's over quite promptly, leaving me, at least, wanting more, 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's, 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 profound sadness in Baxter's Rena, in a way 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 in such an ephemeral yet profound way that the issue of sex with a cat creature (or mermaid) pales in importance next to the emotional involvement, sip that one coffee by the shore can evolve into a devotion beyond death through a hazy reincarnation style memory without so much as a kiss. The affection is there in their mellow loving unconsciously tactile manner with each other; we saw this too in Harrington's NIGHT TIDE --is a dreamy mythopoetic sense of being outside space and time, and a love that's somewhere between the affection one would have for both one's pet and one's inner anima/animus - that girl or guy you find only in dreams, whom you love totally and without reservation, yet seldom see, and who dissolves into air or sand if you try and hold onto them.

(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)
Kent Smith (remember him from the above movie, CAT CREATURE?) is once again loping around as Ollie, the amiable, super square, ship builder whose patience drove his late wife--the coded lesbian/feline Serbian Irina (Simone Simon)--to murder. Naturally he's remarried to Alice (Jane Randolph), the girl who Irina tried to kill in the first film, and it's their kid who's haunted by the ghost of Irina - but it's a good haunting, Irina has found peace in death, and the family has moved to the bucolic paradise of Sleepy Hollow. An only child more like Irina than Alice, Amy (Ann Carter) doesn't mix well with the other kids, preferring to follow butterflies down ominous driveways. Both Alice and Ollie still work at the ship building company, so Amy is minded by Sir Lancelot (the calypso singer from the previous year's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE). Their normal happy upscale middle class life includes bridge games with the neighbors, drop-in visits from the teachers, and drinks and songs with the Xmas carolers -- and the compassion is clear in Lewton's and screenwriter Dewitt Bodeen's treatment of their romantic evolution. There are even (rare for Lewton) exterior shots, full of 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 and Irina has left him understandably scarred, lashing out at any sign of shadowy imagination (he's still determined to believe Irina's condition was all in her imagination).

One of the real issues I have with Lewton, especially his later work, is something Tourneur would have probably kept more ambiguous - that is, the first two films of Lewton keep the idea that voodoo and this ancient Serbian curse could be real and not just vivid imagination. The reason that worked was that big 'if' that kept it from spilling over into straight out fantasy or tired 'it was all a trick' ending that makes horror fans groan. 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 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.

That's the malevolent aspect really  - Ollie himself. It's he who become Irina's shadow. when he spanks Amy for saying she has an imaginary friend, effectively punishing her for having a vivid imagination (he considers it Irina's imagination--believing she was a cat--that led to her death. We hate Ollie so much at that point 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 who were kids who came home alone to watch Batman after school and crush on Catwoman--can certainly relate. Maybe we didn't have a dad who punished us for having an imagtination, 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 closeted-even-to-herself lesbian (as per the 'sister' greeting of Elizabeth Russell at the cozy restaurant), her dislike of being touched (pawed, mauled) made her cinematically self-aware - we related. She 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, even the camera is off. 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 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 alchemical change.

And since we didn't understand it, sex became an important part 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 - people emerge from this place changed). 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 disturbed children is one where
women carry absolute authority.
Amy's teacher, Ms. Callahan (Eve March), even corrects Ollie's intolerant
behavior towards his daughter; 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, not at all the rational bundle of joy Ollie was blithely expecting all those patient weeks with Irina. Ignoring her friends to chase butterflies, mailing her birthday invitations to magic trees, and calling Irina 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 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 and Amy might devolve into if they're not careful).

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).

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 - 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, 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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