November 06, 2005
Lewton Family Val-ues, part two
After cutting his teeth at RKO as an assistant editor (progressing on to being Orson Welles’ editor on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) Robert Wise was given a shot at directing a couple of low-budget creepers for Lewton: the astonishing Curse of the Cat People (where he’s billed as co-director with Gunther von Fritsch though von Fritsch was dumped from the production fairly early on – what you see is basically Wise and Lewton) and the somewhat more conventional (and only partially successful) The Body Snatcher. Open Curse of the Cat People with a kindergarten class wending their way through a path in Sleepy Hollow; an anxious children’s game; and a creepy little girl Amy (Ann Carter, more Martin Stephens than Dakota Fanning) strays from the path and befriends a butterfly that a well-meaning playmate promptly crushes. She slaps him, of course, and we’re pushed into the claustrophobic confines of the true progenitor of The Sixth Sense (a film that progressively falls apart the more Shyamalan’s childish direction and inexplicable skylarks are put under the microscope – worst is probably the bully comeuppance in a film that has essentially been a sanctuary for lost children)*: a piece about the secrecy of the cult of childhood and the terror of parents who no longer recognize their children in the wild, overgrown, out there. It’s one of the finest evocations of childhood as a hallucinatory maze through which kids wander alone. Amy is freaky, no question, hearing voices from the witches house (and receiving gifts) and wishing for a friend that manifests itself as the possibly psychotic ghost (Simone Simon, reprising her role) of her daddy’s first wife - but the real anxiety of the piece is in her parents wondering if madness is congenital - and if lines of communication allowed to founder can ever be repaired.
Smothering and nightmarish from start to finish, the film erects a dreamscape patched together all of fairy tales and suggestion – enough so that a late scene of carolers takes on the confused dread of exorcist Merrin showing up at a certain Georgetown brownstone. It’s a flat brilliant film – more sustained, certainly more sophisticated than its predecessor – with our Amy dressed throughout like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, staring out from the warmth of her family’s bosom into the cold and her dead friend who doesn’t seem to want to talk about where she’s from, or where she might be taking her. Fans of Wise’s The Haunting will find many of the director’s hallmark use of camera angles, triple-dissolves (a Lewton standard), sound design, deep focus, and explosion of mirrors, both here and in Wise’s next Lewton picture, The Body Snatcher.
Paired with Boris Karloff, Wise undertakes Robert Louis Stevenson’s grim little ditty about the acquisition of cadavers for medical use, inspired, perhaps, by notorious grave robbers (and Stevenson contemporaries) Burke and Hare. The highlight of the piece probably Karloff’s grim, maniacal Mr. Gray: a cat person, of course, in this Lewton production, a dog meets an untimely end in only one of a myriad shocking things, and suggestions of things, in the piece. But it doesn’t cohere in the same way as many of Lewton’s others – mainly, I think, because it never provides a baseline for its characters’ behavior and so it’s a collection of lunatics rubbing up against each other in a moral vacuum. Probably the point, the film falls into camp long about the time Bela Lugosi makes a useless cameo – it’s not a disaster, but it’s not a masterpiece either and the bar has been set high. A shame that a proposed collaboration between Wise and Lewton on Sheridan le Fanu’s “Camilla” never had a chance to come to fruition.
*Hitchcock’s Marnie also owes a debt to this picture in its horrible look at madness and jealousy between a doddering old woman (possibly a witch) and her daughter who, despite appearances, the lady maintains has died “long ago”. Should also mention a lot of the landscapes of Burton’s Corpse Bride as finding seed here.