Begin ‘The Bagheeta’: Val Lewton’s fantasy/ reality world of Curse of The Cat People: fearing the female/feline monster and the engendering child. Part I

Val LewtonMaster of Shadow

Val Lewton’s short story ‘The Bagheeta’ appeared in Farnsworth Wright’s July 1930 issue of Weird Tales Magazine. Lewton was dabbling in concepts of terror, before he even got to RKO.

The story takes place in the Ukraine (from which MonsterGirl’s people come!) and is a coming of age story about a 16 year old boy named Kolya who helps his Uncle forge armor. Someone comes into the village with a slaughtered sheep, who claims to have seen a Bagheeta, a monstrous black leopard that can change it’s form into a beautiful woman. Only one person can kill a Bagheeta,  and that is a virgin male, for he needs to be able to resist her seductive powers. If he is seduced, the woman will change back into the black leopard and kill the boy and eat him! Lewton would eventually adapt and produce his story for RKO  in the form of Cat People  in 1942 starring Simone Simon  the suggested embodiment of a Bagheeta.

The Panther

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

Panther at the zoo, caged in Cat People 1942


Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch, scripted by DeWitt Bodeen, and stars Simone Simon as the ghost of Irena, Kent Smith as Oliver Reed, Jane Randolph as Alice Reed, Eve March as Miss Callahan, Julia Dean as Mrs. Julia Farren, Elizabeth Russell as Barbara Farren, Sir Lancelot as Edward, and Ann Carter as Amy Reed.

Ann Carter played Beatrice Carroll in the riveting noir classic  The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) with Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck.

Curse of the Cat People is filled with poignant original music by Roy Webb and with Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca (Cat People 1942, The Fallen Sparrow 1943, The 7th Victim 1943, The Spiral Staircase 1945 Bedlam 1946 and Out of The Past 1947) It’s no wonder Curse of The Cat People has many of the elements of a classic film noir piece.

CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) – A synopsis

After the tragic death of his wife Irena, played by the beautiful Simone Simon, Oliver Reed once again played by Kent Smtih has remarried his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph). They now have a very serious , yet gentle six year old little girl named Amy (Ann Carter) who is taken to day-dreaming and being a loner.

She does not mix in well with the other children at school who do not understand her sensitivity or her private world of fantasy that she has built around her as a survival mechanism.

“My beautiful friend”

Symbolic of Amy’s free spirit, the little boy captures her ‘beautiful friend’ and crushes it. Thinking that this would make her happy, he destroys the very thing that symbolizes her own spirit and her connection to the natural world.
Amy is framed here in absolute alienation from the rest of the world.

Amy’s father, Oliver, is constantly wielding an authoritative criticism of his daughters day-dreaming, and wants her to play with the other children, and exist in the ‘real’ world. Amy has a birthday party for which she invites the children in her class, but no one shows up that day, and Oliver discovers that she has mailed out the invitations by placing them in the magic wishing-tree, which is a hollowed out knot of the large tree out behind the house.

waiting for her classmates to share her birthday wishes. But no one ever comes….

Oliver reaches into the wishing-tree and pulls out the birthday invitations…


Amy is admonished once again for believing that the tree was a real wishing-tree. Something he himself had told her not too long ago…

Oliver had told Amy this was a magic spot when she was younger, and she remembers it,understanding it to be true because her father told her it was. She was taught to believe in magic and then without preparation, is expected to denounce all things wondrous without any serious provocation on her part. She is only six years old after all.

Saddened by the absence of her classmates at her party, Oliver, Alice and Edward the manservant from Jamaica throw Amy a smaller party instead, equip with a birthday cake decorated with 6 little candles.

Amy is told to make a wish, but not to tell anyone what it is or it won’t come true. Again, Amy is conflicted by the mixed messages the adults in her life are giving her. She tells her father, that wishes don’t come true. Oliver tells her “some do.” And her mother Alice embellishes by saying that you just can’t say it out loud or it will nullify the magic wish.

Once again, there is a suspension of disbelief on their terms, disavowing Amy and her ability to develop a clearly defined sense of fantasy and reality. How can she properly order her world.

The children at school are furious with Amy for not inviting them as promised. As they shun her, they lead her to an old sinister looking mansion, where someone calls to her from the window. A voice calls out to her to come closer. Amy looks around and the unseen person throws down a white handkerchief threading a gold ring.

While Amy picks up the ring and handkerchief to examine it, she meets Barbara, the very dour looking woman who comes out of the house, and grabs the handkerchief away, slowing walking back to the house  looking virulently at Amy.

Of course Amy is told to give the ring back, not to accept gifts from strangers. At first not even believing her story that there was a voice at the window at an old house.

Amy’s mother Alice is framed without a head. She is virtually struck speechless or cinematically silenced. Women have no real or strong voice in these Cat features from RKO

The paralleling of Barbara’s lost soul and Amy’s lost soul set inside one frame by the camera’s eye.

The stairs appear once again to be like bars across Barbara’s face like holding in Rilke’s panther.

When Edward is too busy to accompany Amy back to the creepy house, Amy discovers an eccentric old woman, Julia Farren, who proceeds to serve her tea and cookies, tell her the story of the headless horseman, as it is Terrytown NY.  She also tells Amy that Barbara is only the woman who takes care of her, an impostor, and a liar.

Swallowed up in a giant void of a house, like a small dove caught by the intruding shadows.
Amy stands by the closed door, giving the appearance of Alice in Wonderland.

Surrounded by those ‘dark holes’ those shadows that invade the day life.

Barbara witnessing her mother showing affection to Amy. She is a woman living in a house of polarizing consciousness.

Edward gives a disapproving look at Mrs Julia Ferran. Amy is unharmed by the story of The Headless Horseman…

In fact the dour , alienated Barbara (Elizabeth Russell) is Julia Farren’s real daughter. But an earlier illness has destroyed her cognitive abilities and because of this dementia, she believes that her daughter died when she was 6. The same age as Amy.

Amy desperate to have a real friend, conjures up a beautiful woman who becomes more like a mother figure to her than the benign, Alice. Irena becomes Amy’s beautiful friend now.

Amy standing as if evoking the spirit world with her wand. She is given the look of a little witch in training.

Amy is enchanted in a mystical realm far beyond what Oliver or Edward can see through the ordinary pane glass of the kitchen window. Simultaneously what they SEE and what Amy SEES are 2 different worlds.
Alice is a kind mother, but isn’t forceful in defending her daughter against Olivers’ constant assault on Amy’s free spirit.

Irena in a pale flowing dress appears more like a fairy queen than a shape-shifting fiend of ancient folk lore.

She is either the ghost of Irena or the cultivation of the desire to be wholly loved by someone nurturing and as gentle and imaginative as herself. This phantom is the identical embodiment of Irena. Since Irena’s death, the only remembrance of her that remains is an old painting of a boy surrounded by sinister looking cats, a cage of finches and a pet magpie.

A painting that Alice hates, but Oliver refuses to get rid of.

The painting is Goya’s portrait of the son of the conde de Altamira. Goya may have intended this portrait as an illustration of the frail boundaries that separate the child’s world from the forces of evil, or as a commentary on the fleeting nature of innocence and youth. -From The Museum of Modern Art.

When Amy finds a photo stashed away of Irena and recognizes her as the new friend who plays with her out in the garden, she confronts Alice and Oliver about it.

This troubles them, they do not tell Amy the truth, in fact Oliver burns the photo of Irena, but hides the one of them together in a photo album. Oliver grows more anxious and infuriated with Amy’s imaginary friend.

Irena real phantom or imagined warns Amy not to disclose her presence in order to protect her from being persecuted by Oliver any further.

Irena tells Amy that she must leave her so she won’t cause any more trouble between Amy and her father. But Amy, heartbroken runs after Irena because she can not bare to lose the only person who understands her. The one person who accepts her for herself.

She runs out into a snow storm in search of Irena, and winds up at the Farren house. Oliver, Alice and the police with hunting dogs in tow, are on the track of Amy, giving the appearance that she is being HUNTED and not searched for.

While at the Farren house, Julia, trying to climb the stairs, dies of an apparent heart attack in front of Amy. Barbara comes creeping in like a serpent, and discovers Amy transfixed, hovering over the dead old woman. The venomous Barbara tells Amy she’s even stolen the last moments she had with her mother.

The enraged Barbara is framed by the two lights as if her desire to kill Amy is now a burning need. It has been set aflame.

Amy sees that Barbara is dangerous, and calls out to “her friend” Irena to save her.

At that moment, the image of Irena superimposes itself over Barbara, so Amy walks toward the woman to wrap her arms around her. While Barbara struggles with the ache to strangle the child out of her irrational jealousy over the love her mother Julia bestowed upon Amy, her hands like claws begin to clench tightly around Amy’s head.

As Amy utters, ‘my friend, my friend’ Amy’s innocence and her unyielding love, transform the murderous moment into a moment of self reflection and surrender. Barbara lets go of her vice grip, and allows the child’s embrace and is saved from her own darkness.

In this way Irena has truly saved both Amy and Barbara really.

We hear the hunting dogs drawing nearer. Amy and Barbara both hear them coming closer as well.

Once Oliver arrives at the Farren house, he picks up his daughter and touches her for the first time with a full heart, and tells her he’ll believe anything she tells him.

In the backyard at home, Irena dressed in her fairy hooded cloak, waves goodbye, as Amy tells Oliver that she can still see Irena, and Oliver answers, “I do too.”

Until Irena fades out into the cold night air.

The End.


In Curse of The Cat People 1944, unlike it’s predecessor Cat People 1942, Irena is not perceived as a hysteric or a monstrous black panther. This time she is put in the light of a fairy god mother, perhaps even a good witch like Glenda from the Wizard of OZ. Quite a transfiguration of symbolic figure. From a mentally disturbed, predatory seductress to a fairy princess. It’s a grand switch between films, which makes this film less of a sequel or expected excursion into the realms of horror, and creates more of a childhood’s coming of age story threaded with elements of the fantastical…and at times, terrifying. The film still possesses those dark and ominously intruding shadows that Lewton loved to paint with.

For some children growing up is terrifying, especially for those of us who had to create dream worlds in order to cope with the existing reality of the day to day pressures of being considered ‘normal.’

I have to say that I’ve always loved Curse of The Cat People, but since revisiting this film with an eye on the aspect of childhood fears, fearing children, fearing the female monster and the very fine line between fantasy and reality, now the film just utterly breaks my heart. Not only because of my own self identification with the character Amy and her experience with the children who shun her gentle, imaginary nature, but the sense of alienation she feels strikes at the core of my own childhood growing pains.

Perhaps the film can be considered a very allegorical ghost story with a tinge of film noir to fill out the cinematic dark spaces and reflexive imagery. but mostly it’s a story about childhood fears, Rite of passage, and the matter of difference.

Lewton’s films often create a feeling of ambivalence by not presenting us with concrete evidence of the supernatural. In this way, we can perceive Curse of The Cat People to be either one. A classical ghost story, or a tale about a lonely child in need of an imaginary playmate, she must create in order to survive her hostile environment.

And yes, to a child who’s nature is being thwarted and crushed at home, and bullied at school, one could say that’s hostile. The film allocates the blending of 2 worlds where fantasy meets reality and reality meets fantasy so that we the audience can participate in Amy’s contextual world. When she see’s Irena, we see Irena through Amy’s eyes, yet…once Amy is out of frame, we can still see the presence of Irena. Is that to indicate to us that this phantom truly exists? Or is it part of the narrative letting us know that what matters, is that she could, might and does exist for Amy.

If you read Lacan, Hillman, Freud or Jung, you’ll learn about the ‘fear of children’, and how their innocence challenges our taboos, myths and doctrines of ‘normalcy.’ It triggers questions of morality, sanity and our own self-reflection of failure and desire.

And can a child be corrupted by…evil…or can they be too young to be clinically mad….?

In some ways Julia herself has reverted back to a sort of childhood because of her dementia. This is why she is able to be so provocative and imaginative.

Julia is framed and lit to give the appearance of madness and instability. A wave of madness to her shimmer.

We fear children’s freedom to break through the boundaries of whats acceptable. They flaunt their imaginations in the face of expectations of what is good or proper ‘behavior’ They are seen as closer to our primal selves because they do not filter out what they think, feel or perceive to be.

And they embrace, ‘Difference’ without prejudice, until conformity oppresses the collective group of children, and the ‘different’ one, becomes the odd one out. Society forces or pushes this ‘effusive abandon’ , this glorious ‘openness’ out of children the moment they’re off their mother’s tit, and inflicts conformity on them like a staff infection. They do not see ugliness until we teach them what to look for, or until we then brand it ‘ugly.’

First we tell them about the miracles in The Bible, stories that require FAITH, and yet in a contradiction of harms, teach them not to believe in their own dreams, not to embrace their own unique identity as a miraculous occurrence of the very nature god created. We tell them harmless, lyrical fairy tales to engage them, and then damn them when they allows themselves to react in order to find their place in the order of things.

They must stay grounded on earth. Yet varieties of religious expect us to believe the unreal. Before a child must deal with puberty, they have their innocence ripped out of them like an appendix about to burst.

Children get smacked across the face with this double standard and not conforming to the ideal which is then perverted into something dark, immoral, profane, wicked or worse deemed insanity.

Women in particular are demonized, if they show too much independent thinking or perceived as willful. Think of how a female child is threatening too. She will soon emerge into womanhood. The female child is fermenting all the threatening provocations that a grown woman and her body will possess. She engenders the willfulness, and alarms the adult to disarm her before she can flare up into the element that is ‘desire.’

Irena is sketching the black leopard in the cage in Cat People 1942

The little black cat in the beginning of Curse of the Cat People, that little boys pretend to shoot with an imaginary gun. The metaphoric cat is here as fetish.

Because there is too much to be said about the fear of children, in particular female children, I will only add a small comment about the fear of black cats invoked in both of Lewton’s Cat titled films. There has always been a superstitious mistrust of cats, especially black cats. Because of this, cats suffer at the hands of abuse or are left to a horrible end abandoned in kill-shelters or purposely stolen for use in University lab experiments for medical training.

Cats are generally misunderstood to be, unfeeling, independent, unfaithful and even vicious rogues come up from the depths of hell to scratch our eyes out, take the breaths of babies away and puke on our most expensive rugs. Well, that last part is true.

At the beginning of this film, two little boys see a small black cat in a tree, and their first instinct is to feign shooting at it. If you read my blog enough, you’ll understand how I feel about cats, the rescue work I’ve done, has given me a small tribe of felines to watch over and share my home with, and I adore them as fiercely as a mother lioness. I worship cats. They possess a certain something I feel not everyone quite gets, or can see just how sacred they truly are. Those of you who know this kind of cat love, know they can be the equally fiercest friend, intuitive when we need love, and devoted to the point of annoyance, though I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The only thing I will say at this point about them in regards to this film, is that it is easy to make an association with felines = the feminine. And the use of cat as fetish symbol.

Cats are often represented with a feminine mystique. In folklore, If you fear black cats or cats in general, the natural connection in a terror tale, would be to also fear what’s feminine, what’s mysterious, what’s dangerous. So we’ve established by the title that there is a confluence of danger, between cats and women equally.

The first three and a half minutes of Curse of The Cat People, says it all. Amy’s Reed’s wonderful heart embraces the natural world. Leaving her classmates in the middle of a childhood game of pass the ‘what ever’, Amy flies off on her own,  toward a butterfly whom she calls her ‘beautiful friend.’  Her teacher makes excuses for Amy, while a few of the little girls just don’t get Amy’s behavior at all, and take it as a personal slight, and interpret her as ‘odd.’

While one of the little boys, who is trying to impress Amy, catches the butterfly, whereby kills the very thing she is honoring, by crushing it in his folded hand. He now possesses it, takes it out of it’s natural environment, capturing it and destroying it’s freedom and ultimately it’s existence in the world. It is a foretelling of Amy’s spirit that is threatened to be crushed.

The Butterfly is a symbol of change, joy and love, metamorphosis.

The Butterfly is a powerful symbol in myth and religion. For Early Christians, it represented the soul itself. In China it symbolized conjugal bliss and joy. American Indians call upon the butterfly for guidance in change, color, and happiness.

Amy’s butterfly symbolizes transformation, and metamorphosis, of endless possibility, of her beautiful ability as a child to embrace the natural world, and her own imagination. An active imagination that thrives on love, not something nefarious ,darkly mischievous or beset by madness.

The little boy represents, things to come. How her father Oliver, will destroy any freedom, any expression of Amy’s ability to love and create any illusions of happiness, even if they are merely daydreams and not loving phantoms like Irena, who act as companion to a very lonely child. Who cares!, she’s only six years old…

The child’s innocence and faith in herself and in the people who are her guardians will be destroyed, if they disavow her identity.

This is a fairytale about fear of children, fear of the feminine in particular, fearing the freedom of the feminine ‘being’, the need to possess, contain and ultimately consume it with rational, male ideology and intellectualism vs the flowing emotional feminine essence. It is a patriarchal morality play about the dangers of allowing your female identity to run too wild, in a rational world created by and for men, and by the women who adapt to this structured world.

Amy’s belief’s can be manipulated as she puts the letters in the wishing tree because at 3 years old her father told her that it was a wishing tree. She remembers his story and so she thinks she is doing the right thing by placing the party invitations in the trunks great hole, believing they will be delivered like regular mail. And yet now only 3 years later is she expected to forget what she’s been taught. She is reprimanded and shamed for having placed the invitations there. Who is the culprit for placing ideas in Amy’s young mind, and then punishing her when she adheres to the lesson.

Amy tries to fit in, if only to please her father. At her little birthday celebration, after the children don’t show up to the formal party, Oliver tells Amy to make a wish on her birthday candles.

“But wishes don’t come true.” Amy says lamentably, ” Oh this one will… ” Oliver tells her.

Her mother Alice says you mustn’t tell anyone or it won’t come true ” Amy tells her…“But it’s already come true”...“Well then we must keep it true.” answer her mother.

So once again Amy gets conflicting ideas and mixed messages from the adults who sit and appraise and evaluate her behavior. The people she should be able to trust and have faith in the most, keep inverting her world for her.

Of course Edward, the Reed’s trusted and little misses’ servant tells her that he wouldn’t be surprised if the ring that Julia Farren tosses down to Amy, weren’t a true wishing ring.

Again an adult is telling her about something fantastical. But of course Edward is from the Islands, he is foreign born, He is considered an exotic , they are allowed to have and practice magical thoughts, ideas and rituals. Anything foreign is dismissed, eschewed or scorned.

We don’t considered them Christian or rational…Americans have been taught one story about foreigners like Edward, that they are heathens, and do not have the same life experiences as ‘us’ presumed white American or British Colonialist.

And that ‘foreign’ equals darkness, the mysterious, the uncanny, unholy, blasphemous, pagan, savage…etc. Any thing that is contrary to a good christian life.

When Oliver tells Amy her wish will come true, he is being a nice Christian father, when Edward tells Amy that Julia Ferran’s ring might very well be a ‘wishing ring’ he infuses the idea with a sense of real magic.

Then Amy does try to be a ‘Good Girl’ and fit in. She tries to play with the other children and not be so solitary. But the other classmates ignore her, and are very cruel, forcing her back into her own safe world, where butterflies are her true friends.

And why not…why is it so bad to be connected to the world in a different way, than other children. Amy’s teacher Miss Callahan even says that “it’s not such a bad emotion to feel love for a precious thing like that”…

As I stated earlier, watching this film again, brought back all my own memories and how much my childhood mirrored Amy’s although I must clarify that my mother and father encouraged my imagination and always allowed me to explore the world in my own way. I’m grateful for that.

Unfortunately it was certain teachers and the children around me, who teased me, and forced me back into my own little world. That’s why monsters became sympathetic friends. Why I name inanimate objects still, and speak to trees, dolls, bugs, animals, anything that I know has a soul.

How they tried and often did crush my spirit, But I held on. and it forced me to create my own world, that was kinder, more understanding and broader in scope, and had a range of possibility that was boundless.  In some ways, it’s been painful for me to watch the children and Amy’s father be so hard on her beautiful little spirit. It evokes those painful memories of being bullied, purposefully ignored or intentionally lashed out at as being a freak, a creative, sensitive freak…a monster girl...

I remember the whispers and I remember having the children synchronized to run away from me, so that it would hurt all the more.

Why then wouldn’t a butterfly make a good friend to a kind and loving child like Amy, I know they made great friends to me, and still do…

The old women in the old creepy house, Julia Farren is an aging actress who is now delusional and of course given the persona of a crone or witch…the natural progression for older women once they become sexless.

Barbara the sexless, childless woman who has no identity of her own.
The old crone, who through some trick of the mind, remains childless, and haunted by the memories of a daughter she once had.

Women without children are also perceived as not  ‘normal’, so Julia’s bitter daughter Barbara comes across as a sinister spinster, a threatening presence. And old women are often perceived as witches, unmarried women are repressed axe murderesses or poisoners, young female’s are spawns waiting to grow into she-devils or shfe-lines and sexual women are just plain, devils.

It’s the Monsterization of the female being. The ironic disconnect and hypocrisy for women is that she is damned when she is perceived as a sexual being, and demoralized when she is perceived as not being a sexual being. Women therefor can never take a bold place of honor amidst a patriarchal society.

Anyway, I digress yet again…

Amy comes home after being humiliated and alienated by her classmates, Oliver scold’s her once again, making it her fault that they won’t play with her. And for making up stories about meeting an old woman who gives her a ring. Alice comes into the garage and sees Oliver being so stern with this little tree sprite who is so filled with love, and with no where to put it.

For one moment while Alice and Oliver are arguing in the garage. Amy’s mother Alice’s head is cut off in the frame by the camera. For several seconds. she is given no head, therefor no voice.

Amy’s mother Alice eventually bends down into the frame with father and Amy, but I couldn’t help feel that she was cinematically silenced there for a few seconds to illustrate the point. that women have NO VOICE…

Again Amy promises her father that she will play with the other children. She goes out back in the garden behind the house. Amy puts her hands in the pond, staring at the reflection of her own hand in the water.

We get a sense of Amy discovering ‘herself’. The water is a reflective symbol. She is trying so desperately to find herself. As she studies her hand that wears Julia’s ‘wishing ring’ Amy makes a wish for a real friend. The landscape suddenly darkens, the atmosphere shifts and manifests a surreal dreamlike scene, suddenly Irena appears to Amy. In the kitchen the dutiful Edward notices Amy romping outside after she makes her wish for a friend. Inside, we see a calm and sunny day, with a little girl running around like a gleeful little tree sprite, from our perspective as well as Edward’s and Oliver’s, Amy is alone and frolicking in the sunshine.

But from Amy’s point of view, the atmosphere has morphed into a mystical realm of blowing leaves and glittering air. Edward exclaims ‘Amy looks happy’. And isn’t that the point. If the child is happy, why take that emotion away from her, why question that wonderful state of ‘being’? Because it doesn’t fit into Oliver’s framework of how to behave like a normal child. Oliver will try to crush Amy’s spirit so that she will never evolve into another Irena. A woman he desired, and feared because of that very primal urge she evoked in him.

THE REOCCURRING ICONOGRAPHY OF  ‘the mirror.’ In other blog posts I’ve mentioned the significance of the use of mirrors.

Another frame of Barbara and Amy being reflected back at us in the hall mirror…

When Amy enters the old house in order to return Julia’s ring, there is a powerful frame using the large hall mirror to reflect both Barbara and Amy at us. Amy’s back is reflected to us, as she appears to be Alice in the looking glass, we see also the reflection of ‘the angry witch’… who is gazing back at us.

Like Alice, Amy does inadvertently stumble into a strange world in the decrepit, eerie and  isolated Farren house in which the two reclusive women inhabit. One bitterly unfriendly, a cruel scowl seared across her face, the other a kindly yet eccentric and sad old woman.

Amy is swallowed up in the old dark house, awaiting her meeting with Julia. The film once again frames a fairytale like quality that both Wise and Lewton are purposefully cognizant of creating for Amy as she is like a small dove caught in a dark hole, with the sense of the unknown lurking in the shadows, until the darkened room, is transformed into a burning white hot light, that causes Amy to hold both arms across her eyes to shield herself from the assaulting daylight. Symbolic of Amy’s pending awareness..

Old Julia stands there with a rascally grin, nearly a child herself in some ways, as she closes the shades and tells Amy,  “I quite agree with you, God should use a ROSE AMBER SPOT!”

A spot referring to a type of light used in theatrical productions for stage or film. but…There in lies the little moral of the story in that one line, yet I won’t digress on you again….

“You didn’t see me but I could see you. It was like peeking thru the curtain before the play began.”

Julia Farrin is a stranger to Amy. She was once a great stage actress…Although Julia suffers a type of dementia that won’t allow her to recognize her own daughter, this scenario works as a continuum on the film’s premise that if you do not honor or recognize your children for who they are, this is the culmination of what happens when you smash a child’s spirit.

Barbara is the embodiment of the older woman, the potentially exemplified Amy who has been deprived of her joy, her freedom…and most significantly, her identity.

Notice how both Barbara and Amy are dressed in very dark colors in this ending scene. It’s Lewton’s way of saying that these two characters are experiencing a confluence of personal conflicts. In a figurative way, they are both interchangeable grasping for a sense of reality and a sense of the truth that has been hidden beneath years of deferring realities.

That’s why she hates Amy, why Amy poses such a threat to her. Because Amy still has a chance to thrive…and Barbara is jealous of her mother Julia’s attentions toward Amy, when she herself seeks that valuable reward but is told,  “My daughter Barbara died when she was 6…you’re only the woman who takes care of me.

This gives us parallel stories of conflicting motherhood, while Irena is nurturing and embraces Amy as she is, Julia is cruel, dismissive and hateful to Barbara…and denies who she is.

One mother who refuses to look into the eyes of her real child and see her there, and Irena, a mother figure, who has to go away, disappear BECAUSE her surrogate daughter truly sees her.

The juxtaposition of this contrary motherhood is heartbreaking…and a central theme within the context of the film’s narrative.

Julia tells Amy,  “That woman is an imposter, she’s a liar.” Julia has destroyed any existence of Barbara. Oliver threatens to do the same to Amy, yet gradually, systematically over the course of her growing years.

While Amy is visiting with Old Julia, Amy’s mother gets a visit from Miss Callahan. As they both study the painting in the living room, Alice tells the teacher, “it’s like there’s a curse. I sometimes think that Irena haunts the house.”

Irena believed in the folk lore about the race of cat people. This film preserves those fears and superstitions created in Cat People and injects the same consternation and dread surrounding Amy’s journey. Will she too, emerge a woman to be feared, because of her wild imaginings and proclivity for isolation and fantasizing?

Back at the old dark house, Julia Farrin wants to tell Amy a story. “You live right here in Tarrytown and don’t know the legend of Sleepy Hollow?”

Even the town the film is supposedly set in, is filled with the essence of the supernatural being a historical  place of such legend. But it takes the actress, the crone, the eccentric Julia to be able to share a ghost story, a fantastical story with Amy instead of shielding her from something dark and forbidding…

Amy calmly, plainly asks Julia,  “Why doesn’t he have a head?”

Julia just gives Amy the literal answer, no fanfare, no ballyhoo with which to startle the child, yet….” it was shot off in the war with the British”… no hysterics, no fears…Julia continues her dramatic reenactment.

Clearly Edward, who has come to take Amy home, is disturbed at this story the old woman is telling his little miss. Julia finishes the tale and then the camera frames Amy being held in-between Edward and Julia, as they each hold one hand. A child torn between two worlds.

Torn between the world of the kindly Jamaican man who finds it suitable to tell Amy about wishing rings, and the world of a theatrical, reclusive and mentally frail woman who dares to tell the striking and infamous story about a headless horseman who roams the woods.

Julia is a lonely tragic soul, and Amy is a source of joy.

Daughter Barbara tries desperately to reach her mother somehow…

Look at the parallel framework of motherhood Barbara&Julia and Irena &Amy.

As Julia slowly emerges through her dementia and delusion, it brings up the other point about Cat People, and motherhood. Irena’s persona was conjured as a type of madness. Although in Curse of the Cat People she is portrayed as a fairy she is still not considered by Oliver or real mother Alice as an ideal role model as Amy’s imaginary friend. And Julia is depicted as batty, almost unnerving or creepy in her mannerism. For Oliver and Alice, these are bad examples of motherhood for Amy.

And propriety is very essential to the core of Curse of The Cat People. While the Christmas carolers are singing around the piano, another young girl tells Amy, that opening gifts on Christmas day instead of Christmas Eve is improper, Amy tells her “Guess were not a proper family.”

Amy asserts her independent streak there in a telling come back, to this snotty privileged girl.

In the film, Irena is not really a true ghost more aptly she is OTHERWORLDLY- conjured from a realm beyond what would be considered Heaven or Hell. Plus, Irena was Serbian, a foreigner again, don’t forget…they have totally different rules and trajectories than the white American or British Colonialist..

The film is purposefully ambiguous as to whether Irena manifests herself in times of Amy’s need and if Amy can only see Irena because she’s the one who has an open mind, only Amy can embrace love either through the lens of fantasy and with a beautiful wildness, like that of a cat.

Her father Oliver is so repressed and shut off that he cannot see anything. Oliver designs ships, he only understands measurements and mathematical equations. Those are concrete concepts he can wrap his brain around. He can see and touch and know for certain. He can control.

“I came because you called me into being. Out of your loneliness, I came so your childhood would be bright and full of friendliness.” -Irena

When Amy runs away from home to try and find Irena, shortly after Irena tells her goodbye she runs out into an epic snowstorm that takes on an eerie quality of it’s own. Oliver enlists the help of the local police, who bring bloodhounds to pick up Amy’s scent. The film creates the suggestion that Amy is being HUNTED, not searched for….think about that for a bit….!

The climax of this haunting and melancholy film takes place at the old dark Ferran house, where Julia finally dies of an apparent heart attack, in the presence of Amy. Barbara finding Amy standing over her mother’s body on the stairs exclaims!  “Even my mother’s last moments you’ve stolen from me…”

Barbara who has suffered for years going unrecognized wants to now destroy this beautiful child. She now becomes the film’s embodiment of the female monster. The loveless, sexless fiend, who could strangle a child out of rage and jealousy. Who resents Amy because she still has a chance to dream, and be loved and bring joy to someone.

Ultimately, it is Amy’s real/imaginary friend, the imagined bloodline that is Irena’s, that saves Amy and transmutes the dangerous moment into love and self discovery.

Curse of The Cat People is perhaps a ghost story on one level, but on a more authentic level that Lewton was aiming at, is a story about abject loneliness and friendship… the need to belong, even if its to something or someone you create from your own mind, and heart.  To be needed and to be wanted..and to be seen for who you truly are.

Both the characters of Barbara and Amy have been trapped by denial… the denial of recognition, or seeing them for who they are. For embracing the whole parts of them…. But they come together in the end. Two hapless children living in a sort of dream world.

When Amy looks out the window of her house, looking for Irena, she is framed looking through bars created by the camera. Not unlike Irena’s bars. The ones that hold the panther in…Both Irena and Amy are trapped behind the bars of imposed patriarchal normalcy. Barbara too was a prisoner of her solitary confinement, being locked out of her mother’s love and recognition.

Val Lewton’s Curse of The Cat People (1944) To Be Continued Tomorrow in Part II! “God should use a ROSE AMBER SPOT!” Part II

Link to Part II below:

9 thoughts on “Begin ‘The Bagheeta’: Val Lewton’s fantasy/ reality world of Curse of The Cat People: fearing the female/feline monster and the engendering child. Part I

  1. Joey, your review of CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE is so beautifully done, it often brought me to tears (in a good way)! I was lucky enough to have a wonderful mother who was as strong, kind, and loving as she was fun and imaginative. I wish you’d been lucky enough to meet her; I think you’d have liked Mom, too! But I have a habit of digressing, too, so I’ll do my best to stay on track! :-)

    Is it me, Joey, or do Val Lewton’s films have an awful lot of tunnel-visioned characters in them, especially characters played by Kent Smith? (I happened to have read our pal Ruth Kerr’s review of NORA PRENTISS, too before I turned to your review.) Amy was lucky to have imaginary friends and fancies, considering all the broken people surrounding her! Was that Barbara a seriously disturbed so-and-so, or what? Of course, my strong feelings about these characters show how caught up I became as I watched the movie! Like you, I found CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE heartbreaking. Childhood can be a double-edged sword, with joy and sorrow running neck and neck. Val Lewton’s work truly touches our hearts as well as thrilling us with suspense. Great job, my friend; I’m looking forward to Part 2! Happy Halloween!

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