It’s easy to summon a demon

A poem for Halloween, one of a very occasional series.

It’s easy to summon a demon…

imp by mje

It’s easy to summon a demon
You’ll need paper, a pencil, and something to lean on
A wide, flat space and a chunk of chalk
A parrot or raven you’ve taught to talk
A brace of candles in candlestick-holders
Two contracts in two foolscap folders
A sound-proofed room with a double-locked door
A key that’s never been used before
A cloth, a towel, a bottle of water
A looking-glass and a vicar’s daughter
An hour of your time, a year off your life
A conscience that’s clear and a tongue like a knife
An iron-strong will and a singular aim
A clean length of twine and a secret name
And then, only then, you’ll be ready to start
Oh — I hope you’ve thoroughly practised your Art?
If you haven’t, God help you, and all of your kin
You’ve no idea of the mess that you’re in!

I Walked with a Zombie

I Walked with a Zombie posterAfter Cat People, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur worked together again on I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Despite its even more lurid title, Zombie is less of a horror film than Cat People, though it occupies a very similar territory of dark psychology and the supernatural.

The film starts with young Betsy Connell being taken on as a nurse to Mrs Jessica Holland on the island of St Sebastian in the Caribbean. Apart from bouts of sleepwalking, Jessica is almost catatonic, and it’s later revealed that her illness began just as she was about to run away from the island with her lover, her husband’s half-brother, Wesley Rand. Having fallen for Mrs Holland’s strong, silent type of a husband, nurse Betsy tries everything she can to cure Jessica, and when the latest medical methods fail, takes her ghostly charge to the local voodoo cult, who of course recognise her as one of their own. As someone says of her: “She makes a very beautiful zombie.”

Walked Zombie, journey to the home fort

Where Cat People’s Irena was a foreigner bringing her wild, foreign darkness to the shores of civilised modern America, I Walked with a Zombie’s Betsy is a Canadian, who journeys into the wild, foreign darkness of St Sebastian’s highly-charged atmosphere of repression, betrayal, jealousy, bitterness, resentment, beauty and death, love and mental illness, and willingly becomes caught in its emotional tangles: while Paul Holland, “strong, silent and very sad”, whose first words are to inform Betsy that the supposedly beautiful phosphorescent lights in the sea are caused by things dying (“There’s no beauty here, only death and decay. Everything good dies here, even the stars.”) — and the fact that he chooses to hang a copy of Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead in his sick wife’s bedroom probably says a lot about his state of mind — bears the burden of his wife’s malady like a family curse, his half-brother Wesley teeters on the verge of alcoholism, and his otherwise level-headed mother keeps the extent of her dabblings in the local voodoo cult secret. In both films, troubled souls are failed by the latest advances in Western medicine (psychiatry in Cat People, insulin shock therapy in Zombie), but only because the cause of the malady is supernatural: Irena really does turn into a panther, Jessica really is a zombie.

I Walked with a Zombie, a zombie

But the main difference, what makes Cat People a tragedy and this a Gothic romance (as Kim Newman and Stephen Jones point out in the DVD commentary, it’s basically Jane Eyre with voodoo) is perhaps its attitude to the supernatural. Here, far from the civilised streets of Cat People’s New York, the lines between what should be believed and what shouldn’t are blurred, and it is the practical-minded Betsy’s willingness to take a walk into the twilight realm of the voodoo “home fort” (a nightmare journey fraught with spookiness, and the film’s high point) that separates her from the ultimately censorious and condescending attitudes of Cat People’s Alice, Ollie and Dr Judd.

I Walked with a Zombie, nightmare journey

I Walked with a Zombie is not so much a horror film as one dripping with a very shadowy Gothic. And it takes a surprisingly un-sensationalist approach to voodoo, neither presenting it as an excuse to wallow in lurid shock imagery, nor as a Hollywood cliché of “native superstitions”. A good, ghostly-tinged film, then, probably better in terms of characterisation and drama than Cat People, though I have to say I still prefer Cat People for being so intense, weird, dark and tragic.

Curse of the Cat People

Curse of the Cat People (poster)If you come to Curse of the Cat People (1944) expecting a sequel to Cat People in the usual sense of a horror sequel, you’ll be disappointed (as I was, the first time I saw it). Usually, in a horror sequel, the monster from the first film returns to wreak havoc on a new set of victims; here, the victims from the first film return to wreak havoc on a new monster — only, in this case, the “monster” isn’t a troubled young woman, but an over-imaginative young girl.

In Curse of the Cat People, all-American lukewarms Alice and Ollie (the couple from Cat People) are now married and have a daughter. Amy is an imaginative child, shunned by other children because she’s apt to forget the game they’re playing and wander off in her own little world. Her father Ollie is worried. His experience with Irena in Cat People has led to him being mistrustful of everything that smacks of his former wife’s mental problems. He thinks there’s “something moody, something sickly” about young Amy’s tendency to go “moping and dreaming” on her own. “She could almost be Irena’s child,” he muses to this wife, who gently reminds him that she’s the one to know this can’t be the case. But when, having been shown a photograph of Irena, Amy identifies this dead woman as her new playmate, Ollie first tries to get her to admit she’s lying, then gives Amy her first smacking. He tells Amy’s teacher that his first wife “told lies to herself and believed them”, and that she then went mad, killed a man, then killed herself. (And so he seems to have forgotten his own last words at the end of the previous film: “She never lied to us.”)

The Curse of Cat People: Irena

What makes it worse is that Amy’s imaginative friend, played by Simone Simon of the first film, is entirely benevolent. The “curse” of the sequel’s title isn’t the fact that Amy is haunted by her father’s first wife, but that Amy’s father is haunted by a fear of people who show any signs of being different. And although his new-found distrust of imagination does, finally, add a new dimension to his character, at two dimensions he’s still far short of the norm, and really not the best person to be deciding how to bring up a sensitive, imaginative child.

The Curse of Cat People: Irena and Amy

There are none of the shocks or spookiness of the first film, apart from a few moodily-lit Gothic moments thanks to a subplot involving a senile old actress who insists the woman sharing her house is not her daughter but an impostor. Instead, the film goes for gentle family melodrama and moments of lightly enchanting childhood fantasy. It’s a sequel to Cat People more in the thematic sense, as it deals with how those “normal, happy” people (or one of them at least, as Alice has much less of her husband’s phobia) of the first film can deal so badly with those who are a little bit different from them. Thankfully, this time there’s no lecherous Dr Judd to push things too far. Instead, Ollie gets advice from his daughter’s teacher, who points out that, as he builds ships, he’s not trained to deal with children but she is, and that it’s only natural for a lonely, imaginative child to invent a friend.

Curse of Cat People: Ollie, and Amy's teacher

I think you have to approach Curse of the Cat People prepared for something very different from what you’d expect of a film billed as a sequel to Cat People. It’s not a horror film, and, more importantly, it has none of the first film’s psychological intensity. Ollie’s very slow — and, at the end, not very convincing — coming to terms with the fact that his daughter isn’t as imaginatively shallow as he is (at the end, he refuses to look at where young Amy tells him Irena is standing, but lies all the same, saying he sees her too) isn’t even a truly satisfying resolution, but, as sequels go, at least the film attempts something interesting.

Cat People

Cat People posterLike other fantasy films of the era (King Kong springs to mind, with its “And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty…”), 1942’s Cat People opens with a made-up quote, this time from a fictional psychiatrist instead of a made-up prophet: “Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to the low places, the depressions in the world consciousness.” Almost immediately, this is followed by another, and far more appropriate, quote, this time a sign above a zoo litter bin: “Let no one say, and it to your shame, That all was beauty here, until you came.” Because, in a way, this is Irena’s fate: that she, with her dark, Serbian-witch-village ways of difficult passions and were-cattery, comes to this placid, modern, American paradise and ruins the lives of Ollie and Alice, a rather lukewarm not-yet couple wholly unprepared to deal with the psychological complexities of foreigners with hereditary supernatural curses. Kitten-faced Irena’s first action in the film is to mar the “beauty” of the zoo’s fake-tree-stump bin (like the rest of the zoo, a highly sanitised version of the true wilds of nature) by tossing a torn-up sketch at it and missing; her last act is to die in pretty much the same spot, littering the place with her mangled pantherine corpse.

Cat People, bin message

Cat People is generally known nowadays as a horror film that worked through restraint rather than excess, a triumph of spookiness and moody lighting over the lurid horrors of the era’s Universal creature features. But I like it as much for its subtleties of character — it’s far more about a troubled human soul than it is simply about a woman who turns into a panther. But, all the same, it is about a woman who turns into a panther, so, you know, you get two films in one.

Cat People, Irena

The basic story is that Irena (Simone Simon), working as a sketch artist for the fashion industry, attracts the attention of ship designer Ollie (Kent Smith), who very soon asks her to marry him. And they do marry, but Irena, it turns out, has a pathological fear of intimacy. She asks him to be patient. Ollie complies, but soon starts to worry it’s Irena’s odd upbringing that’s at fault — she comes from a village in Serbia where certain women, her mother included, had a reputation for turning into panthers when their passions were roused. Conspiring with his healthy-minded pal and co-worker Alice, Ollie gets Irena to see a psychiatrist, the rather too suave Dr Judd (Tom Conway). But Irena knows he can’t help her — Dr Judd thinks it’s all in her pretty little mind, but actually it’s a sickness of the soul. And when Ollie starts spending more and more time with pally Alice, Irena gives in to her atavistic side. She may not know how to fully love her new American husband, but she can scare off a rival like nobody else…

Cat People, Irena's dream

But the most affecting aspect of Cat People is Irena’s struggles to, first of all, be normal — which she initially achieves only by living and working in New York while making no friends, and avoiding anything like romantic entanglements — then her battles with her deep, inner wildness.

Set against this is the utter incomprehension of her frankly shallow, if well-meaning, husband. Ollie’s is a world of “normal, happy lives”, where to say to someone, “Oh, you crazy kid,” is to make a light joke, not get dangerously close to the mark. “I’ve never been unhappy before,” he tells his girl-pal Alice, whose own definition of love includes “no self-torture, no doubt” and, oddly, “no change”. Irena, though, is all self-torture and doubt. And quite literal change. America, civilisation and modernity are too much for her. When she finally lets the cat loose she first of all seems to feel shame (wiping her mouth with a handkerchief after mauling some local sheep, half-turned away from the camera), then triumph (having menaced Alice in an ill-lit swimming pool). It’s only at this point that Dr Judd proves to be a blessing. A smugly self-satisfied character who finds everything so “charming” — Irena’s story, Alice’s dawning belief in it, but most of all the love triangle he sees as providing him with a rather unprofessional in with the troubled Irena — yet he carries a sword-cane around with him (as a psychiatrist, he must be aware of the Freudian implications of that), and when he forces himself on Irena (perhaps this is just his attempt to “break the will of the patient”, as he says must sometimes be done, but his manner is rather too oily for that to be true), she at last has a legitimate outlet, someone to turn into a panther for and kill without ruining the “beauty” of Ollie and Alice’s “normal, happy lives”.

Cat People, Ollie and Alice

And “She never lied to us” is about the most those two can say, as though, in the face of the revelation that a woman really can turn into a panther, they still have to find a platitude to say about her now she’s dead.

As much as it’s a horror film, Cat People is a tragedy. Irena battles bravely against the darkness within — her breakthroughs and lapses are awful to see — but she’s stuck in a land, RKO film-set New York, where everyone else seems entirely prepared to live life as if it were a light comedy-romance. Yet here is she, a three-dimensional character amidst the two dimensional (the lecherous Dr Judd) and the one (poor old Ollie, who’s “never been unhappy before”, and doesn’t seem to have learned much by the end of the picture).

Cat People, Irena's claws

Cat People is the sort of horror film I like — one that is less about horror than it is about darkness, particularly the darkness of the human soul. Its producer, Val Lewton, went on to make a few more good films of a similar type, and I’ll be reviewing two more over the next couple of Mewsings: Curse of the Cat People (a rather unusual sequel to Cat People), and I Walked with a Zombie (made with Cat People‘s director, Jacques Tourneur).