The Curse of the Cat People, my favorite Christmas movie, is a Christmas ghost story where the ghost is the least frightening character of the film. Instead of horror, the aim of the film is enchantment, though it’s loaded with suspense as well.
I must have been ten or eleven, it was Christmas eve and I got to stay up with my two sisters to watch Scrooge on TV – the good one, with Alastair Sim. It would scare the crap out of me, thanks to the ghost of Christmas yet to come. And if you want to get technical, I’d rank that film as the best Christmas movie of all time.
Just not my favorite. Scrooge came on at midnight, and after my parents went to bed, The Curse of the Cat People came on. This is in the day when you didn’t get to choose when to start a movie. You had to be sitting down in front of the TV when it came on.
I’d never heard of The Curse of the Cat People, nor it’s predecessor, Cat People. But I remember that it kindled a sense of wonder in me, in a way I’d never felt before. Being a kid, I quickly forgot the film. And being a rather unpopular film, it didn’t pop up very often to remind me.
The next time I saw it I was eighteen, it was Christmas Day. I had a terrifying headache, and had to go lay down in a bedroom. People were making too much noise and so I turned on the TV to drown them out. There was The Curse of the Cat People. It was just as enchanting as I remembered. So much so I fell asleep, and didn’t catch the name.
The movie crawled into my psyche. I watched it in my dreams, but as time went on, and I forgot more and more details of the film, my mind filled in the blanks. It was always a treat to be dreaming a normal dream, turn on the TV in my dream world and find the film playing. I might have forgotten the details of the original movie, but in the dream it was amazingly consistent. Just that each time I dreamt it, new elements would appear.
Every Christmas I scoured the TV guide for Christmas films, but none of the listings sounded familiar. I went to libraries and scoured film guides, with no luck. But in the process, I learned about and saw some amazing Christmas films.
And then came the internet, and suddenly all this information was at my disposal. I disposed of everything available pretty quickly. Not knowing any of the stars, not even sure what the plot was, I gave up hope. Then I found myself in a discussion group on films, and took a chance and asked the question. A few minutes later I had the answer, and a few minutes after that I had the VHS tape on order.
The Curse of the Cat People came out in 1944, during the height of World War II. It was the follow up to Cat People, a psychological horror film which had appeared two years earlier. It shares some of the same characters, but it’s a few years later. And it’s a whole different story.
It’s the story of a young girl, Amy, whose parents met and fell in love in Cat People. Her father was married to another woman in that film, a marriage which was doomed and as a result, he fell in love with Amy’s mother. Amy is a shy child, lives in a fantasy world. Her dad believe she has an invisible friend. In truth, it’s the ghost of his first wife, but only she can see it.
On one level it’s an enchanting ghost story. On another level, it’s a perceptive look at children and their invisible playmates. And there’s the suspense. An old woman, a former actress takes a liking to Amy. The old woman is cracked, and believes her daughter is actually an imposter. This doesn’t set well with the daughter, and she takes a dislike to Amy.
The Curse of the Cat People was likely one of my first exposures to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The film is set in Tarrytown, New York. Walking distance to Sleepy Hollow. The old actress gives a dramatic performance of the story in the film, which is one of its creepier moments.
I didn’t remember that until I saw the film again. But I had developed a life long fascination with Sleepy Hollow, both the story and the place in the interim years.
One thing I had misremembered, and that was the film isn’t just set at Christmas. It starts in the fall and goes beyond the holidays, into deep winter.
But I had actually remembered more of the film than I thought, and when I dreamt it, much of it was intact. There’s a scene for instance, only a second or two long of an arm and hand appearing from an upstairs window of an old house and dropping a ring. That was always part of my dream.
The part I had remembered most vividly was the ghost, played by Simone Simon, a French actress who never really caught on in the U.S. She had been in the states once before, didn’t find it to her liking and returned to France. She fled back to America at the onset of World War II, and found her greatest Hollywood success then with Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People.
For me, she was the original snow queen, and the scenes with her are some of the most enchanting I’ve ever watched.
Much of the film is dated. The family’s Caribbean man servant is played by the famed Calypso singer, Sir Lancelot, who was responsible to a large degree for that music’s popularity during that era. Those who are against spanking children will find some scenes to be particularly uncomfortable as well.
But it’s a clear look into the mindset of the era, and adds other layers of complexity to the film.
Val Lewton produced The Curse of the Cat People, and many of actors come from a pool which he would draw from for horror/suspense films. Gunther von Fritsch, who had never directed a full length film, fell behind in shooting and was replaced by another first timer, Robert Wise. Wise went on to win Oscars for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and was nominated for Citizen Kane and others. In addition, he went on to direct my favorite horror film, The Haunting.
I had long known my favorite Christmas film wasn’t my favorite because of the merits, but because of a personal history. I was at an age where ghosts were part of my life, and it gave me a new way of thinking about them, which while it didn’t take away the fear, it did take the edge off.
So it was with great pleasure that I learned that my favorite Christmas film is also a great film, even without the personal connection.
The perfect Christmas eve for me, is still staying up late with The Curse of the Cat People and Scrooge. Though I seldom make it to the end of Scrooge in the marathon now, for a little while, the ghosts in this house are quiet and watching along with me.