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.