REPOST: Curse of the Cat People (1944)

EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s Val Lewton’s birthday and thanks to Shudder adding so many of his films, I’d love to get more people watching them. This one is probably his best effort. 

fter the success of Cat People, RKO demanded that Val Lewton get started on a sequel. The original director was Gunther von Fritsch, but when he fell behind schedule, Robert Wise took over.

It was the first film for both men. Fritsch would eventually make Body and Soul and Stolen Identity while Wise would win Best Director and Best Picture for both West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Of interest to genre fans would be his films The Body SnatcherA Game of DeathStar Trek: The Motion PictureThe Andromeda Strain and, of course, The Haunting.

Sharing sets with The Magnificent Ambersons — just as the original Cat People did — this film may be a sequel and have the same cast and characters, but it is a much different movie. Lewton wanted to call it Amy and Her Friend, but the studio wanted to make money.

Lewton invested so much of his time and himself into this movie, basing it on his childhood and own mindset. RKO, on the other hand, was upset that it wasn’t the same movie that Lewton had already made.

Sometime in the past, Irena (Simone Simon) died — see Cat People — and Oliver Reed (Kent Smith, The Cat Creature) moved on to marry Alice Moore (Jane Randolph, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). Now, he has a six-year-old daughter named Amy (Ann Carter, The Boy with Green Hair) who lives in a dream world. At the center of it is Irena — now a ghost who she only knows from a photograph.

Amy also becomes friends with an aging actress named Julia Farren (Julia Dean, Nightmare Alley) whose daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell, who was also implied to be a cat person in the original film) hates her. Barbara also begins to hate the attention that Amy receives from her mother.

The end of this film — with Barabara about to kill the young girl and Irena’s spirit returning to save her — is sheer artistry on celluloid. It astounded me and I still can’t shake the feeling I had as I watched this film.

The theme of this film — everyone believes that Amy is insane because she cannot leave the world of fantasy — was pretty much how Lewton lived as a child. In fact, his wife believed that he never truly came back to the real world as an adult. He also based the tension between Amy and her father on the relationship that he had with his daughter Nina.

You could see this as a holiday movie. You could also see it as a story of what child abuse does. Several therapists used this movie as a teaching tool for years, even asking Lewton why he had such a silly name for such a serious movie.

Shout! Factory has a blu ray of this that I urge you to purchase. This is pure cinema and has my highest recommendation.

Mademoiselle Fifi (1944)

One of the few failures of Val Lewton’s RKO era, Mademoiselle Fifi is based on two Guy De Maupassant tales, with Boule de Suif being the main inspiration. This was his shot at breaking out of horror and RKO had suggested a period film with Erich von Stroheim directing and Simone Simon and George Sanders as the stars.

Instead, Robert Wise directed. He’d stepped in to work on scenes for The Magnificent Ambersons when Orson Welles was called to South America. Welles had been working on that film and It’s All True at the same time for RKO when he was personally asked by Nelson Rockefeller to make a film in Latin America as part of the wartime Good Neighbor Policy. But the story of how Welles’ films were taken from him is one for another time. Wise’s directing here — and taking over for Gunther von Fritsch on The Curse of the Cat People got him this job.

With just a $200,000 budget — low for a period costume picture — Lewton had Wise study the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, Daumier and Detaille to bring out the details that they could in spite of the lack of funding. Some of the sets from The Hunchback of Notre Dame were used, but if you look closely, you can see that many of the sets are made from cardboard.

The story takes place during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, though it’s obvious that the film is about World War II. Indeed, it was released on D-Day and would be the first film shown in France after the Allies liberated the country.

Mademoiselle Fifi refers to a Prussian officer (Kurt Krueger) who has taken over a village. When a stagecoach comes into town, they are all detained by the man, with the passengers pushing Elizabeth (Simon, who wore false breasts that for this film, calling them “her eyes,” yelling “Bring me my eyes!” before each scene) to give her body to the madman so that they can be free. She’s amused by the way that the passengers treat her, as they’d looked down on her as a woman of loose morals before, but now depended on that very same lack of modesty to save their lives. The truth is, she’s too loyal to France to allow any Prussian to invade her southern border.

While this was the worst Lewton would perform at the box office, he would soon release four more films for RKO — Youth Runs WildThe Body SnatcherIsle of the Dead and Bedlam — before RKO head and Lewton supporter Charles Koerner died in 1946. Lewton himself would have a minor heart attack from the stress and leave the studio to work at Paramount and MGM. A failed attempt at starting an independent production company with former protégés Wise and Robson left Lewton in the cold after no one could agree on which production to start with, leading to him working at Universal and Columbia before two heart attacks would end Lewton’s life way too early at the age of 46.

I Accuse My Parents (1944)

James “Jimmy” Wilson (Robert Lowell) is up on charges of manslaughter. How does he plead? Well, when he speaks for his defense, he has one thing to say: “I accuse my parents.” That’s because despite the award he won for the essay about how great his home life is, the truth is that their house is filled with empty bottles and blow-out arguments.

Jimmy then falls for a tough girl played by Mary Beth Hughes who happens to be the main girl of mobster George Meeker, who ends up setting him up and then trying to kill him. Jimmy finally finds God and a good job working in a diner before going to turn himself in and, along the way, being involved in the mobster’s death.

The judge decides to not send him to jail but to live with his parents again, which is how we got here in the first place.

At the end of the movie, we’re informed that the production company is paying all costs to send the film overseas to entertain our brave men fighting World War II. This is perhaps the worst thing done to an American soldier.

Director Sam Newfield, who also made Lost Continent, made so many movies that he also directed under the names Peter Stewart and Sherman Scott so that people didn’t think he made so many films. He made around three hundred movies for about $500 a pop, which didn’t make him enough to pay for his gambling. At one pint, he was so destiutute that his brother Sigmund Neufeld, the head of PRC Studios, took care of his gambling debts and gave him an apartment.

You can watch the Mystery Science Theater riff of this on Tubi or get the original version on the Internet Archive.

Cry of the Werewolf (1944)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Rochester is a librarian. Mad about movies and books and film soundtracks. His favorite film is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. He recently reviewed Death Played the Flute for us.

Made by Columbia Pictures on a low, wartime budget, Cry of the Werewolf (1944), also known as Daughter of the Werewolf, is a notch or two down in quality and entertainment from the fabulous Universal horror films of the 30’s and 40’s. For one thing,  there is the cast – there are no A-listers or even B-listers here. Top billed, as the Gypsy Princess and werewolf, is Nina Foch, the Dutch-born actress who went on to have a distinguished career in Hollywood, starring in An American in Paris (1951) and getting an Oscar nomination for Executive Suite (1954).  But Cry of the Werewolf was only her second movie and her unpolished performance here is both unconvincing and uneven.  Extremely stiff in his debut movie (the first of, thankfully, just three movies he made) is Stephen Crane, as Professor Morris, son of the eminent Dr Morris who is killed at the start of the movie by the werewolf Princess after he discovers her secret.  Equally as poor as Crane is Danish actress Osa Massen as the ‘love interest’ – however, with her ‘foreign’ accent and long curly locks, her Simone Simon look ties in nicely with the other obvious influences of Cat People (1942) on this movie, most notably in its use of shadows.  Sturdier performances come further down the pecking order, in particular from Barton MacLane, who as the bullish police chief, provides some of the movie’s better moments with his (often comical) investigation of the series of weremurders.

Unfortunately, as a murder mystery, or whodunit, this film flunks badly.  Right from the first ten minutes we know who the werewolf is….the film gives it all away. The film is also very low on atmosphere and excitement. One of the few really good moments comes midway through the film when the Professor is stalked by the werewolf in the records room of a mortuary – effective use of lighting and stock music creating a memorable, shadowy scene only matched by the last five minutes of the film when the police and then the Professor are attacked by the werewolf.

Fans of horror movies will probably be most disappointed by the ‘transformation’ sequences of this movie.  Werewolf films are, in some ways, measured by the scenes in which the human turns into a wolf or back again, and the wonderful make-up that transforms an actor into a werewolf. Jack Pierce famously did the brilliant wolfman makeup in The Wolf Man (1941) and the underrated Werewolf of London (1935) – and it is a shame that someone with his talent could not have worked on Cry of the Werewolf,  because the result would have been totally different.  Instead, probably for budgetary reasons, as a substitute for a transformation, we just get to see Foch’s shadow replaced by that of a wolf shadow, and, instead of seeing a hairy, snarling half-woman half-wolf, we get, as our werewolf, an actual wolf that looks suspiciously like an Alsatian dog.

Although it is hard not to be disappointed with Cry of the Werewolf,  if you are a fan of old horror movies and go into it not expecting too much you will probably not be too miffed – and it is only an hour long.

Points of interest  – 1. During the opening credits we see a wolf snarling and chewing at something – maybe a bone?  No. If you look closer, you can see an elastic band around its jaws, put there to make it look fiercer.   2. Actor Stephen Crane infamously married actress Lana Turner twice – in 1942, and then again in 1943 after the first marriage had to be annulled due to Crane’s bigamy.  3.  Although female werewolves are fairly commonplace in movies nowadays, Foch was one of the first female werewolves on screen, with the honour of the first going to Phyllis Gordon in first-ever werewolf movie, The Werewolf (1913).

You can watch this on YouTube.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

After the success of Cat People, RKO demanded that Val Lewton get started on a sequel. The original director was Gunther von Fritsch, but when he fell behind schedule, Robert Wise took over.

It was the first film for both men. Fritsch would eventually make Body and Soul and Stolen Identity while Wise would win Best Director and Best Picture for both West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Of interest to genre fans would be his films The Body SnatcherA Game of DeathStar Trek: The Motion PictureThe Andromeda Strain and, of course, The Haunting.

Sharing sets with The Magnificent Ambersons — just as the original Cat People did — this film may be a sequel and have the same cast and characters, but it is a much different movie. Lewton wanted to call it Amy and Her Friend, but the studio wanted to make money.

Lewton invested so much of his time and himself into this movie, basing it on his childhood and own mindset. RKO, on the other hand, was upset that it wasn’t the same movie that Lewton had already made.

Sometime in the past, Irena (Simone Simon) died — see Cat People — and Oliver Reed (Kent Smith, The Cat Creature) moved on to marry Alice Moore (Jane Randolph, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). Now, he has a six-year-old daughter named Amy (Ann Carter, The Boy with Green Hair) who lives in a dream world. At the center of it is Irena — now a ghost who she only knows from a photograph.

Amy also becomes friends with an aging actress named Julia Farren (Julia Dean, Nightmare Alley) whose daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell, who was also implied to be a cat person in the original film) hates her. Barbara also begins to hate the attention that Amy receives from her mother.

The end of this film — with Barabara about to kill the young girl and Irena’s spirit returning to save her — is sheer artistry on celluloid. It astounded me and I still can’t shake the feeling I had as I watched this film.

The theme of this film — everyone believes that Amy is insane because she cannot leave the world of fantasy — was pretty much how Lewton lived as a child. In fact, his wife believed that he never truly came back to the real world as an adult. He also based the tension between Amy and her father on the relationship that he had with his daughter Nina.

You could see this as a holiday movie. You could also see it as a story of what child abuse does. Several therapists used this movie as a teaching tool for years, even asking Lewton why he had such a silly name for such a serious movie.

Shout! Factory has a blu ray of this that I urge you to purchase. This is pure cinema and has my highest recommendation.