Val Lewton’s Curse of The Cat People (1944) “God should use a Rose Amber Spot!” Seeing the darkness thru the ‘Fearing Child’ and ‘The Monstrous Feminine’ Part II 

This post is continued from Part 1: at the link above!

And now Part II

From page 112 Chapter 7 J.P Telotte Dreams of Darkness


The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

-The child per se makes us uneasy, ambivalent ; we are anxious about the human propensities concentrated by the child symbol. It evokes too much of what has been left out or is unknown, becoming easily associated with the primitive, mad and mystical. – James Hillman ” Abandoning the Child” in Loose Ends

The evil little girl in Master of the Macabre Mario Bava’s Kill Baby Kill (1966)
The embodiment of evil in a little blonde girl from Federico Fellini’s segment Toby Dammit of 1968’s Spirits of The Dead
In stark contrast to those 2 iconic evil imps of horror (above), Amy Reed is not supposed evil incarnate, but she does threaten the equilibrium of the ‘normal’ world her father inhabits.

To continue with this blog post about one of Lewton’s very precious stories, less darker than his others, and dealing with childhood, the fears of and by children.

All of Lewton’s works dealt with subject matters that forced us to push the boundaries of ‘the familiar’ and challenged us to face a darker more mysterious reality of the natural world, and the incomprehensible landscape of the human psyche.

Curse of the Cat People (1944) acts as a cinematic continuum to Lewton’s Cat People 1942, featuring Simone Simon once again as the alluring, and sensual Irena Dubrovna Reed, who may or may not have belonged to a race of beings that could shape shift into the physical form of a large cat or black panther, when sexually aroused.

The symbol of Irena synthesized the fear of women’s sexuality, sexual freedom, the women’s body, and often the correlation that is made with women’s emotional existence and madness. What is engendered in Cat People (1942) is far less about a woman who can morph into a predatory feline, and more about the collective fear of ‘The Monstrous Feminine.’

Amy lashes out at the little boy who has crushed her beautiful friend, the butterfly. Fear the woman/child.

While Amy is not Irena’s biological daughter. Amy is truly more of a progeny to Irena and the mystique she embodies, because they are both alienated figures who are frustrated and misunderstood. Who stand outside the social community which is pumped from the veins of ‘rational’, normative thoughts and behaviors. Amy is the figure of ‘The Fearing Child’, an innocent who not only has ‘power’ she can wreak havoc in our ‘normal’ world.

Both characters are imaginative, and rely on their senses. They are more connected to the natural world, to the darkness which is associated with the feminine energy and less intellectual which is considered a masculine marker. They are considered emotional, irrational and dangerously unpredictable. Oliver Reed is just as frightened and moreover threatened by his six year old little girl as he was of his beautiful and tragic wife Irena, who was more a victim than ever the ‘monster’ she was perceived to be.

In Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, The Leopard Man, The 7th Victim and Isle of The Dead there aren’t concrete Monsters as in Universal films as in Frankenstein’s creation, Dracula or The Wolf Man.

Universal’s Bride of Frankenstein 1935 Literal monsters in a corporeal world.

RKO studio heads had a mistrust of Lewton’s creative vision, his unconventional approach to some esoteric subject matter or volatile subjects such as a woman’s sexual desires. Lewton, rather than using literal lumbering, fanged or hairy monsters, used the powers of suggestion and shadow to tell the story.

Irena emerging from Lewton’s shadow world in Cat People 1942
Little Amy lost within the emerging shadows of the old dark house in Lewton’s Curse of The Cat People 1944
Barbara Ferran always placed by a door like a bystander, she is bombarded by Lewton’s shadows.

Lewton disliked mask like faces, that were hardly human, the kinds of images that were expected from the horror genre he was infiltrating. Lewton liked to reveal the monsters that were lurking in the subconscious primitive recesses of our own imaginations. Shadows become the monster in these films, they are the mysterious layer that surfaces in world that only makes sense in the light of day. And Amy draws the shadows to her…

They do not have scary faces, they are quite human and in fact ordinary. He takes the ‘familiar’ and inverts it, subverts it, rattles the soundness of an accepted experience, and turns it into either an illusion, a nightmare, or a fit of paranoia. He taps into our childhood fears, and sets those fears on the frightened characters in his shadow plays. Usually because the thing they fear, is uprooting of their own personal desires and the fear of coming face to face with them.

The tragic and tormented Irena in Cat People 1942

Oliver couldn’t handle Irena’s sexual desires, nor her desirability, it triggered too much of his own primal urges, and so he demonized her, a fragile girl in a foreign country who believed in folklore from her very ancient set of beliefs handed down for centuries.

Oliver Reed has a fear of foreign Objects!-Cat People 1942

A story which quite often itself was ambiguous as to whether the threat was real or imagined. RKO wanted to be in competition with Universal, so they added footage of a menacing Panther which was inserted into several scenes of Cat People.

In Curse of The Cat People as in Cat People, there isn’t any clear evidence of a malevolent force. What operates is mostly that which is evoked in the character’s own minds, how they perceive and react to the film’s protagonist Amy and the fervid memory/ghost of Irena that still haunts Oliver and Alice’s marriage. In fact Irena is not the mysteriously predatory cat women in this film, here she is more like a fairy Queen from an ethereal plane.

Amy has several dolls, she tells Irena, that some are very good and some are bad..She has already been taught the dichotomy of imposed social morality.

Is Irena truly a ghost? or is Amy creating a friend? It isn’t essential to the story and yet both are true.

In this way Lewton’s films are very reflexive. The imagery plays off the subconscious mind and extracts the primitive fears that lye within our own psyches.

As Curtis Harrington stated in –“Ghoulies and Ghosties” , The Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television 7 (1952-53),195.

Lewton observed that the power of the camera as an instrument to generate suspense in an audience lies not in it’s power to reveal but it’s power to suggest; that what takes place just off screen in the audience ‘s imagination, the terror of waiting for the final revelation, not the seeing of it, is the most powerful dramatic stimulus toward tension and fright.

Robert Wise who stepped out of the editing booth, and directed Curse of The Cat People, himself utilized this philosophy when he went on to direct his own masterpiece in 1963. His adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s book The Haunting of Hill House. Wise’s  The Haunting, in my view even surpasses the authors book, with it’s own powerful use of the camera as a tool to suggest, distort and defy what the audience can see or not see or thinks it sees. It’s this premise that make’s all of Lewton’s work, or The Haunting and Jack Clayton’s  The Innocents 1961  such potent theatrical chimeras.

Deborah Kerr in Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry Jame’s story Turn of The Screw. The Innocents 1961
The staircase scene from Robert Wise’s masterpiece The Haunting 1963

What Curse of The Cat People and it’s companion Cat People, shows us is that Val Lewton, and directors like Robert Wise, Mark Robson and in particular Jacques Tourneur understood about the fundamental relationship between our perceptions of the world and our conceptions of it’s nature.

Citing James Hillman at the beginning of this post, I felt was relevant to the concept of fear of children , Hillman contends that while engaging our imaginations as an audience, the absence or holes that are marked by DARK spaces, informs us of the fundamental and conflicting relationship  between people and the world they inhabit. It is representational of a black hole, a vacancy of any meaning in the physical realm. And while we struggle through our desire to fill in those dark spaces with rational, conscious thought and reach out to find it’s significance, it’s a constant that remains open for us. A darkness that will forever lurk…

Interior of the Ferran house, a place of ominous shadows and dark spaces.

Both the audience and the film’s inhabitants struggle to make sense of the unknown, to clarify those ambiguities that plague the human psyche and the corporeal realm.

Joel Siegel describes this aspect of Lewton’s films as “‘Symbolic Displacement of ‘drives and desires’ presumably too dreadful to be shown directly.”-from Tourneur Remembers- Cinefantastique 2 no.4 (1973) 24-25

However such drives and desires especially Irena’s fear of possession by an evil spirit (The Bagheeta) and her growing sense as in Rilke’s poem about The Panther, create an environment where she is trapped in a world with bars between her and reality.

Much of the dialogue in Cat People is concerned with whether Irena is lying, or if her anxieties are a form of hysterics or mental illness. She confides in her husband Oliver yet he betrays Irena and turns her out into the world that will demonize her, analyze and question the legitimacy of her fears and folk stories. Amy is also deemed a liar, who fantasizes too much, again evoking worry in Oliver that he must admonish and subdue her, as he did with Irena.

To tame the child, and cage or forestall the coming of age of The Female Monster.

We try to destroy what we don’t understand, thus causes us fear and anxiety. Oliver has no empathy for either his ex wife or his young female child.

This stems from the basis that we can’t make sense of those ‘peculiar’ impulses. The ‘dark places’ which intrude on the everyday world and forewarn us that something might be absent or missing, deep in the core of our being, and that is what we ultimately project onto the world we inhabit. Oliver’s lack of awareness is just as problematic as Irena’s consuming fixation on her ancient familial folk beliefs in Cat People.

Oliver has limited experience, he also denies not only the female desire that Irena possesses but also her cultural background that he just doesn’t understand, or ever tries to embrace.

Again, what is foreign is equated with the unknown, with a shadow world of mysticism and unorthodoxy. Oliver is All-American, who will only embrace what is acceptable, what is known and verifiable, like blueprints to a ship, he can calculate the measurements. So aside from Oliver’s fear of Irena’s dynamic sexual life force, Oliver is guilty of being ethnocentric.

The shadows that intrude are symbolic of female power, the presence as unknown, the presence as unable to control -and thus, must put bars around it, again, like Rilke’s Panther.

Amy’s symbolic displacement , her desires and drives emerge as she pushes away the playing children in a collective group and runs to embrace the butterfly. The butterfly = transformation, change, puberty, eventual sexual awakening, an openness to the preternatural world. Freedom of movement in the world.

The experiences and emotions of childhood and their proclivities for fantasizing plays a role in a child’s developing in the understanding of her world and herself.

Curse of The Cat People (1944)  also emphasizes motifs of Initiation, Parent/Child relationships. disparate points of view and conformity. Oliver’s disturbing prosecution of what is supposed normal in his little world is in drastic conflict with Amy’s world.

Inside the Reed home on Christmas Eve, the carolers sing traditional songs, although the Christmas tree has it’s origins in Paganism!

Outside the Reed home simultaneously, Irena serenades Amy with a beautiful French lullaby.

From Hillman- Re-Visioning Psychology, p.23-

Experience the fantasy in all realities and the basic reality of fantasy

Hillman notes the image of the child evoking an ambiguity and even a secret anxiety in the adult realm. The figure of the child reflects many of the fears and insecurities humans have managed to dispel or block out with the concrete concerns of their daily existence.

as Henry James demonstrated one could provoke the fantastic imagination into a sense of horror or uneasiness by playing upon a perception of innocence, what he termed ‘The Exposure’ The helpless plasticity of childhood that isn’t dear or sacred to somebody”

Quoted form James’ letter to Dr. Waldenstein in The Letters of Henry James ed. Percy Lubbock (New York Scribner’s 1920).1:297

Lewton’s – threats from either Cats, Zombies, Satanists  or Leopard men, what he shows us is that it’s man himself that is the true thing to be feared.

Men and women grasp at their faith under the guise of normalcy, especially in the daily goings on of day to day life. Children represent a certain naivete which Lewton illustrates as a metaphor. Through the symbolic use of a child, a very common human emotion can be evoked, but they really hint at an adult world that is at times, fragile, lacks a clear sense of order and limited in self awareness.

The metaphoric use of the child raises another bit of dis-ease. The presence of the need for self satisfaction and safety, which make the adult characters in these films REALLY uncomfortable. The Complex symbol of the child plays upon our own deep seated often denied feelings of security and doubt of the ability to cope with what is unknown.

Mother Alice and Mrs. Callahan see Amy’s ‘active imagination’ as an attribute! Oliver fears the effects and says “Amy has too many fantasies and too few friends and it worries me.”

So Oliver tries to force Amy into the mold of ‘normalcy’ at the risk of alienating her and worse, crushing her beautiful spirit. Like the little boy who crushes the butterfly, the symbolism and foretelling is not lost as the story unfolds.

Amy hasn’t undergone her limitations being set forth in stone yet, but through her adult guardians, the process of socialization begin to shift the real and imagined realms to coincide for her.

Freud notes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle

“Fantasizing impulse is one of the child’s basic methods of ordering {his} environment and constructing a meaningful world for.

Freud is pointing out the marked difference between the archetypal approach of Jung and Hillman and what Freud’s primary concern is what is termed the ‘Dayworld.’

Freud believed that it was essential for children to play using a repetition of real experiences whereby-

“They abreact (release an emotion) the strength of the impression and as one might put it, make themselves master of their situation.” (page 11)


Female fetishism is clearly represented within many horror texts-as instances of patriarchal signifying practices, but only in relation to male fears and anxieties about women and the question of “WHAT DO WOMEN WANT?

In the 40s women did not speak their own fetishistic desires within popular cinema. Irena feared her own sexual desires, and the Cat was the fetish symbol. The feline prowling, hunting, devouring, clawing, flesh eating. Oliver was afraid of Irena’s sexual desires, he might have struggled with the fear of not being able to satisfy those desires. Instead he demoralized her and allowed her own fears to consume her an ultimately allowed her to self destruct.

In Cat People (1942) Alice played by Jane Randolph finds her robe torn to shreds, by the claws of a large cat. The destructive force behind it, divulges a crime of passion.

Alice is being stalked by an unseen predator in Cat People 1942
Alice in the pool, an iconic moment in Cat People 1942

What is shows is the forceful expression of the female threat to the male, or

“The Female Monster” as defying the usual filmic avenues of disavowal and expressing a threat beyond narrative control” (pg.303)

In contrast, with Paul Schrader’s 1982 Cat People remake, his film clearly demonstrates that the female monster can be controlled by a strong even brutal evocation of phallic power. Schrader’s film is assertively obvious , while Tourneur’s version was subtle, visually and thematically suggestive, eschewing the visual narrative on purpose.

Another interesting thing to consider is the fact that Alice offers Oliver a safe sexual relationship. , while she undermined Irena at every turn in Cat People. Alice exudes a very asexual persona. She acts more like a friend than a sexual mate to Oliver.

In order to deal with Irena’s sexual dynamism, the only way to deal with Irena’s sexual threat, for the film to conclude, it was necessary for the story to annihilate Irena, thereby destroying her sexual desires that were never brought under control by Dr. Judd. She is left to destroy herself. This she does, again symbolically by opening up the panther cage , and allowing herself to be torn to pieces. She is devouring herself and the core of her identity that frightens and alienates her and Oliver. Exposing herself directly to that DESIRE/PANTHER, by embracing the very thing she has longed for, the thing she wants most, she ultimately has to die.

Irena from Cat People 1942- The Monstrous Female

Acting in accord with the patriarchal standards that she has tried to assimilate, internalize, in this way she is punishing herself for her sexual nature. A nature that she comes to believe is evil.

Barbara is forever lurking, a walking shadow of a woman, always standing in doorways, neither in nor out of this world.

Amy gives Julia a ring for Christmas, almost acting as the ritual of passing along the gift of inner vision, imagination and innocence preserved.

“Don Manuel Osorio” by Goya.

Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga (1784–1792), possibly 1790s
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746–1828)
Oil on canvas50 x 40 in. (127 x 101.6 cm)
The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 (49.7.41)This portrait represents the son of the conde de Altamira. Outfitted in a splendid red costume, Manuel is shown playing with a pet magpie (which holds the painter’s calling card in its beak), a cage full of finches, and three wide-eyed cats. In Christian art, birds frequently symbolize the soul, and in Baroque art caged birds are symbolic of innocence. 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. The picture is one of several portraits commissioned by the Altamiras after Goya was appointed painter to the king (1786). It may have been executed after the child’s death in 1792, since the imagery and sinister undertone seem more characteristic.

12 thoughts on “Val Lewton’s Curse of The Cat People (1944) “God should use a Rose Amber Spot!” Seeing the darkness thru the ‘Fearing Child’ and ‘The Monstrous Feminine’ Part II

  1. Joey, I’m glad I finally got a chance to read Part 2 of your brilliant, thoughtful review of CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE! So many elements of the film are way ahead of their time. If you ask me, Oliver is a well-meaning chucklehead whose character flaws came perilously close to getting Amy scarred for life. Hey, Oliver, stick with your blueprints and leave the emotions and kind understanding to people who DON’T have emotional blinders on! Sheesh, it was a miracle he finally got himself together before it was too late for his little girl! Can you tell you really kicked up my emotions in this stunning blogpost? (Let’s just say I’ve know folks like that, in case I haven’t mentioned it already! :-)) BRAVA to you on a sterling post, Pal Joey – give yourself a pat on the back!

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