Collins’ Crypt: CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE And Other Risky Sequels

The 1944 followup to Cat People is the original "elevated" horror movie.

Over the weekend, $150m worth of people in North America bought a ticket for the newest Jurassic Park movie, and were once again treated to the same old shit: the island has dinosaurs, humans have to go there even if they know it's a bad idea, bad scientists and capitalists use the technology for nefarious means, and the dinosaurs kill humans on both sides. It mixes things up a little with an extended sequence inside a large mansion, and there is more time spent with the human villains than in any previous entry, but it's very much a "safe" sequel to the franchise, hitting all the checkmarks the least creative producer in Hollywood could probably list to come up a movie that will satisfy the people that somehow manage to be avowed fans of this series (as for me: I really love the original, barely tolerate the others). 

But then again, the Jurassic franchise belongs to the world of summer blockbusters, and thus there's only so many risks they can take (with Jurassic Park III being the least successful in the series by far, we can rule out ever hearing a raptor say "Alan" again). These films exist only to satisfy as many people as possible and pad the studio's coffers so that they can afford a few risky films during the less competitive months of the year, and people lose jobs when a budget breaker like this turns out to be a flop. The more a movie costs, the less likely it is to get weird, and if you follow that logic down the line you'd arrive at the idea that the horror genre has the most wiggle room to be a little different, as horror films are usually the lowest budgeted entries on a studio's calendar for any given year. Sure we get the occasional pricy entry like The Wolfman or I Am Legend, but for every one of those there are a dozen that are closer to the Blumhouse model ($5-10m budgets, standard marketing), and on that level one can occasionally take a chance with something that may not end up with an A Cinemascore.

Unfortunately, it's a risk that's not taken as often as it seemingly should be. Despite the low budgets, studio horror franchises tend to play it just as safe and stick to status quo, not wanting to taint a proven brand. And sadly, they have a good reason to stick by that rule, as the few franchise sequels that went outside the box tended to flop. On Blu-ray this week from Scream Factory is 1944's The Curse of the Cat People, which was marketed as a sequel to the 1942 film but is closer to spinoff, featuring no Cat People and instead depicting a new chapter in the life of the first film's protagonists: Ollie and Alice Reed (once again played by Kent Smith and Jane Randolph, respectively). In fact it's not even a suspense/horror film; save for one brief sequence near the film's end, no one's ever in danger, and there's no menace - it's just a sweet, melancholy tale of a little girl named Amy (daughter to the Reeds) whose overactive imagination causes her to have no friends and get looked at as a weirdo by the other kids. 

Oh, and her imaginary friend is Irena, again played by Cat People's Simone Simon, but the character is very different - she's more like a fairy godmother type than the jealous soon to be ex-wife we knew. It's unclear if it's supposed to be a ghost or Amy's imagination (pretty sure it's the latter), but either way "Irena" doesn't seem to have much interest in Ollie or Alice - she just wants to hang out in the garden and play with Amy whenever the girl needs company. Amy's only other friend is an old lady who lives nearby, one with an adult daughter that resents their companionship. The old woman believes her daughter is dead and that this woman is an impostor, and since the daughter is played by Elizabeth Russell, who had a strange cameo in the first film as (I think?) Irena's estranged sister, it seems that she's right and that perhaps the woman is out for revenge on the Reeds. But no, if she is indeed anyone but the old lady's daughter, we're never informed about it - I'm pretty sure she's just the rightfully upset daughter of a woman who can't remember her. 

In fact, it's kind of odd that Russell is NOT a Cat Person, as the studio was unhappy that the film had no overt horror or suspense and only limited ties to the original hit. This led to them putting their foot down on a few things, including the addition a scene with a cat (a regular cat, not a cat person or even a panther, as they appeared in the first film), and refusing to let Val Lewton call the film "Amy & Her Friend" as he wished, insisting on the more traditional title. So it would have been easy enough for them to demand rewrites/reshoots that clarified Russell was the same character she played in the original, in order to give it more continuity (and make it more understandable that this woman would want to kill a little girl), but if they asked for it Lewton apparently didn't budge. Per the film's Wiki page the added scenes came at the expense of others, though I was unable to find any detail about those missing moments (assuming the Wiki wasn't misinformed in the first place, which is of course very possible), and at a mere 69 minutes the film can hardly be accused of being too long, so I'd love to see that footage someday if it exists.

Alas, the film was not a big success, and since it ran over budget as well they had no reason to try a more traditional Cat People 3 - but perhaps if the series had been produced by Moustapha Akkad, things would have been different. The most (in)famous "outside the box" sequel in the horror genre has to be Halloween III: Season of the Witch, in which Michael Myers, Sam Loomis, and Laurie Strode were written out in favor of an entirely new story set in a different universe (one where the original Halloween was a movie they could watch on TV). Over the years, people have come around to it, with many saying it's actually the best sequel in the series (it comes close in my book, but goddamn I love Halloween 4), but it took a long time to get it to that place of appreciation. It was unfortunately released in 1982, which seems to be the banner year for horror/sci-fi films that flopped and/or were hated at the time but are considered landmark classics now, so along with The Thing, Blade Runner, and (heh) the remake of Cat People, Halloween III had to wait a while for people to realize how good it was.

Luckily for fans of Myers, the film's failure didn't kill the series for good. Akkad resurrected the character (and Sam Loomis for good measure) six years later for the 10th anniversary of the original, and it was a box office success*, paving the way for four more sequels, a pair of remakes, and the upcoming reboot that writes off all but the original. Since the series has been dormant for nearly a decade, it would be difficult to pick up from any ongoing storyline (pretty sure they couldn't get Paul Rudd back if they ever wanted to finish the Thorn plot), so their only real options were to get Jamie Lee back and do, essentially, H40 (forgetting H20 will be the trickiest thing for fans, I suspect) or trying another Halloween III-style anthology entry, and they went with the former, of course. But I'm kind of sad they didn't seemingly even consider the latter - now that H3 has been more or less accepted by the fans and anthology series like American Horror Story and Channel Zero are winning genre fans over, I think they could have convinced producers to do a new standalone entry centered on the namesake holiday, keeping Myers' (and Laurie's) big return in their back pocket in case the offshoot didn't work out. Not that I'm not excited for what David Gordon Green and his crew have cooked up (I've watched that trailer like a dozen times), but I'd be even more giddy at the idea of someone finally fulfilling John Carpenter's original dream for the series now that we realize maybe he had the right idea.

The Blair Witch franchise wasn't lucky enough to get another extended lease on life. No film could ever replicate the out of nowhere success of the 1999 original, but any horror hit demands a sequel, and so Blair Witch 2 was set for the following year. But they hired Joe Berlinger, who had no interest in making another movie about people running around in the woods with video cameras, instead giving them the meta (and traditionally shot) "sequel" Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which focused on a group of crazed fans of the original film. Studio meddling (adding gore, changing the timeline of the film) ruined Berlinger's unusual but intriguing approach to making a sequel, and the film died a quick death at the box office. It took sixteen years for Lionsgate to attempt what Akkad pulled off with Halloween 4, creating a direct sequel to the first film in which Heather's brother goes into the same woods looking for her (I guess they don't read Collins' Crypt? Look at the date and check out the fourth paragraph), but after a well received unveiling at Comic Con (where the film's connection to BWP was revealed; it was previously simply titled The Woods in a bit of subterfuge) the film couldn't revive interest in the brand, ultimately selling only half as many tickets as Book of Shadows did, proving maybe taking a chance on something unique was actually the better route for this particular series. 

The other franchises occasionally took risks of their own, albeit in a safer way: New Nightmare dared to go the meta route rather than a direct followup to Freddy's Dead, but still retained Freddy Krueger (and Robert Englund in turn) and even had Heather Langenkamp start playing "Nancy" again in the third act, and the Friday the 13th series dared to put a different guy in the hockey mask for one glorious and sleazy entry. Both were met with mixed response and below par grosses, though as always they found their appreciators down the line. Other franchises, such as Evil Dead or Riddick, let the main character be our guide through different sub-genres, albeit not to the extent that Lewton and his team did for Curse of the Cat People. But you have to go deep into the world of DTV to find anyone taking a risk like Halloween III or Book of Shadows; the Silent Night Deadly Night series eventually dropped the "Killer Santa" idea and went the anthology route for a couple of entries, and the Prom Night series has had no connection beyond proms, with the fourth film going so far as to toast Jamie Lee Curtis (the actual person, not the character she played in what one would assume would be the same world), suggesting it too took place in a different universe entirely.

Alas, filmmaking, and especially franchise filmmaking, is a business first and foremost, and all of these offshoots either barely broke even or flat out lost money. Time and time again it's been proven that the majority of fans do not want their boats rocked, only coming around after a number of generic sequels had ruined what they loved about the series in the first place (it's interesting that Halloween III really started finding fans around the time of Resurrection and Rob Zombie's remakes), so while I tend to like these oddities I can't really complain that there are so few of them. The silver lining is that they all find their appreciation down the road (well, jury's still out for Book of Shadows), with Scream Factory and their ilk giving them loving presentations on Blu-ray, affording them their best bet to find even more fans along with the ones they've made over the years. Curse of the Cat People and these others might not be what someone expected when they sat down for a sequel - but that doesn't mean they're not worthy films on their own accord, and deserve credit for trying to get around the common complaint that sequels are just remakes in disguise. 

*Hilariously, it actually sold fewer tickets than Halloween III, but back then, success also meant the movie was liked! Now we have movies in the (non-inflated) top 20 of all time that I have trouble finding anyone claiming to truly love.