The Curse of the Cat People (Gunther von Fritsch & Robert Wise / U.S., 1944):

The children’s excursion into Sleepy Hollow delicately sets up the Lacanian jest, the Symbolic (tree trunk as mailbox) versus the Imaginary (satin-wrapped movie star in playground). The girl (Ann Carter) is lonely, serious and curious, hence "a little different." Her parents (Kent Smith and Jane Randolph) worry about her daydreaming, possibly because the enchanted princess who turns up as her imaginary friend is daddy’s dead first wife (Simone Simon). Given a "magic" ring, Carter wishes for friendship -- the leaf-carpeted backyard darkens and then glows, the child’s face bubbles with joy as Simon’s beatific cat-woman materializes "from great darkness and deep peace." Goya’s paintings and Stevenson’s poetry are among the objets d’art in her household, "a home connected." (The vessel from I Walked with a Zombie has become a miniature model, Sir Lancelot the spiritual go-between is now a domestic servant.) By contrast, the "haunted" mansion down the road is a welter of shadows and staircases presided over by an addled grand dame (Julia Dean); Elizabeth Russell, the other feline star from the Tourneur original, plays Dean’s daughter, hardened by the distress of a senile mother’s rejection. Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise share directorial credit, but authorship belongs wholly to Val Lewton, who’s the tiny figure crouching in terror by the woods as well as the old storyteller regaling the audience in jack-o’-lantern close-ups. The adults are lost, bitter, trying to forget the past, phantoms. Carter’s virginal gaze, meanwhile, instinctively gravitates from the stolid carolers in her living room to the mysterious apparition singing "Il est né, le divin enfant" outside. A remarkably elusive picture, a producer-auteur’s personal summarization, a gold mine for later fabulists (Erice, Saura, etc.). Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca. With Eve March. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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