Being produced by Val Lewton, who is responsible for the original, as well as the wonderful I Walked With a Zombie, and directed by Robert Wise, who would later go on to direct The Haunting [the original, not the shit remake], this movie comes with a purebred pedigree, which it lives up to in every way imaginable.
In the first movie, Simone Simon plays Irena, a woman who believes that she will turn into a cat if she kisses a man. Her husband Ollie marries her anyway, but is soon attracted to smarmy goody-goody Alice. By the end of the first movie, Irena kills herself. Ollie and Alice get married and have a daughter, Amy, who is the subject of this movie. Amy is a child consumed by dreams-the first shot finds her leaving her friends to chase a butterfly that she claims is talking to her. This first scene also contains the ONLY reference to the 'cat' aspect of the first movie, and also establishes that Amy doesn't have a lot of young friends because on her strange behavior.
The first half of the script is made up of various allusions to wishing; what it means to make one, and whether or not they come true. If you listen, you will notice that the family is always psychologically jerking little Amy around by first telling her that wishes don't come true, and she needs to stop all that silly nonsense, then inviting her to make a wish, saying that if she really sincerely wants it, it'll come true. They also just don't listen to her or engage with what's going on in her mind. The new wife wants Ollie to get rid of any pictures of his former wife, ostensibly so they won't upset or confuse Amy. The movie is elliptical and avoids easy interpretation, but one could easily guess that the ghost that Amy eventually bonds with is brought on by her unconscious perception of the secrets in her household.
While this is happening, there is a parallel story happening in the big dark house that I THINK may have been the setting from the first film [I have to watch the first one again, especially after watching this]. In that house is an old woman who immediately takes a liking to Amy, and her sneering, resentful daughter. But, you'd be resentful too, if your mother claimed that her real daughter died when she was six, and that you are an impostor! There is a thrilling creepiness in seeing a woman pleading with her mother: "But I'M your daughter!"
The old woman gives Amy a ring, and Amy wishes on it for a friend. Then follows a beautifully mysterious sequence in which a cloud seems to pass over, a shadow lifts, and leaves start to fall. Then Irena appears to be Amy's secret friend. Amy's parents are freaked out when they learn what's going on, but still never engage with her and why she might have these thoughts.
Now that this is finally on DVD. I am happy to provide you with some screen shots from this film, because there are a number of doozies in terms of how gorgeous and atmospheric it is. The shot where the carolers first appear is gorgeous; all of their bodies making one jagged black mass, topped by their eerily white faces. Another memorable shot is of the daughter at the large dark house slowly descending the stairs, her face appearing between the sharply-lit spokes of the banister. But there are any number of stunning shots in this film.
There are a few mysterious moments of technique, such as the thistle that the screen fades to during a key scene, and the slight shift in perspective on Amy as she stands at the window, to show that the ghost of Irena has left her. Overall, even from the start, the film is riveting, almost purely as a result from the tight technique and photography.
Anyway, just when you think the story's over, there is another sequence yet to go, and it is TERRIFYING! There is some serious tension happening in this movie, with the strange happenings, brilliant photography, and careful camera angles to support it. The story ends in a way that doesn't make literal sense [at least after only one viewing], but makes psychological sense, and is immensely satisfying. Now what we need is a DVD with both Cat People movies on it [which we now have, by the way]. WHAT a little gem.
YES! It's a totally involving story of a haunted childhood with wonderful filmic technique.
CAT PEOPLE [original] is directed by the amazing Jacques Tourneur, and is moody, atmospheric, and frought with sexual tension.