Halloween season means spooky movie revivals! AFI showed a whole mess of films by the great Val Lewton, of which I revisited Cat People, The Seventh Victim, and Curse of the Cat People. And the Regal at Gallery Place showed the director’s cut of Little Shop of Horrors–the cut with the unhappy ending. I was in hog heaven. Some notes:
Cat People: AFI showed Cat People as a standalone, and then did a double feature of The Seventh Victim and Curse of the Cat People. You might think this was a weird choice. Why not do Victim by itself and then show the two cat movies? But this way worked much better tonally. Cat People (1942) is the story of a Serbian woman in the United States, who believes she is doomed to turn into a wildcat and rend limb from limb anybody she falls in love with.
The scares are relatively modest and mostly done through shadows. (The swimming-pool stalking in this film is a classic of swimming-pool stalking. Those rippling lights and swiftly-hunting darks!) The overwhelming emotional impression is not fear but sadness. This is just such a sad movie! It’s heavy. Irena and her beau have a zoo meet-cute and a whirlwind romance, and the whole story of the movie is their gradually losing hope in one another and in Irena’s capacity for love. Other viewers have been especially struck by the plot element of “religious tradition teaches woman her desires are deadly” but this is not a preachy film in any direction. I was more struck by the “woman in despair seeks psychiatric help but she’s only delaying the inevitable” element. That midcentury psychiatric vocabulary is in full effect here, psychiatrist as priest or even sorcerer. But really you’ll just walk away from this movie feeling that the world is a cold and sorry place.
The Seventh Victim (1943): Do we think Val Lewton had maybe a despair problem? This is his Satanists movie, in which the Satanists are vanquished (…sort of) by a ’40s guy in a ’40s suit making a ’40s speech about hope and the Lord’s Prayer. That sounds nice! But The Seventh Victim is exactly the movie to put you in mind of this amazing anecdote:
As Lewton and Robson headed for the door, Holt spoke up. “Remember!” he said, pointing at Lewton. “No messages!”
Lewton turned and left without a word, but by the time he got to his office he was furious. He had his secretary get Holt on the line. “I’m sorry, but we do have a message, Mr. Holt,” he bellowed into the phone. “And our message is that death is good!”
There are all kinds of startling elements in this film: The script tells you how extraordinary and striking the central woman is, and we don’t see her for maybe half of the movie’s run time, and then when we do see her she lives up to expectations–mostly due to her exotic haircut and air of utter estranged weariness. The scene where the Satanists won’t kill someone, but will try to exhaust and browbeat and argue her into killing herself, is a destruction-of-conscience scene more comparable to Police, Adjective or Life and Fate than to e.g. Rosemary’s Baby. Definitely worth watching, but know going in that the Lord’s Prayer is not this movie’s final word.
Curse of the Cat People: And now we reach both the best of these three movies and the only one which ends on a note of sweetness and reconciliation. This is a lovely movie which is not in any way about cats or cat people or, frankly, curses. There’s like a cat in a tree at the beginning? That’s all the cats you get. It’s a ghost tale about childhood, about parents’ fears for their children and the way those fears can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Irena returns as a lonely little girl’s imaginary friend. She has another friend too, maybe, an isolated dowager actress in a spooky mansion. Will the aged actress prove to be the real friend, and Irena the false one? Will Irena make amends for her violent actions in Cat People? Will the curse of the cat people fall upon this sensitive child via Irena’s unwilling influence?
This is just a sensitive, lovely movie, with some of the best Christmas ghost scenes in horror. Ghost movies are often only arguably horror anyway, and this one especially has such a gentleness that its genre label seems completely wrong. It’s a twisty movie and the adults are untrustworthy, but it’s also a beautiful and forgiving film.Little Shop of Horrors (Director’s Cut): This is the version where the plants take over the world, and then the last shot has a plant coming through the screen right at you!!!!! The downer ending played horribly with test audiences so it wasn’t ever finished… until the 21st century, when the surviving film was revisited and completed. So what was it like, seeing this extremely 1980s horror/comedy musical about a people-eating alien plant in a Skid Row florist, here in 2017?
Little Shop is a terrifically-crafted movie. It’s effective even when I don’t want it to be. I’ve had the songs stuck in my head on and off ever since I saw it. It’s got almost everything the ’80s wanted: Steve Martin, Rick Moranis, a 1950s setting, chop-licking rapacity, and sexual perversity.
Yeah, let’s start there. I saw this movie as a kid and: why?! Leaving aside the iconic sadist-dentist song, there is just so much disturbingly sexual stuff in this film. Like… it’s not just the domestic violence with Audrey and Dr. Orin Scrivello, DDS. Although that is presented in heavily kinky terms: “‘I’m sorry’ what?” “I’m sorry, Doctor!” It’s not just the scene with Bill Murray as a masochistic dental patient, although: that happens. The plant Audrey II is itself a sadist, sexualized from the moment its Venus-flytrap lips start smacking and slavering for Seymour’s blood.
This ain’t no Gremlins, is what I’m saying.
I mostly enjoyed the heck out of this unwholesome film. It’s funny and creepy (“It’s your professionalism that I respect most”), and poignant when it wants to be. The apocalypse ending goes on a bit too long for my taste, though the final through-the-screen punch is fabulous. There’s only one element where I definitely wanted something different; and it’s the one way in which the movie sits oddly in its decade.
People think of ’80s movies as being all about rapacity and glitz: “Greed is good!” etc etc. But the fascinating thing to me about so many of these films (and Wall Street isn’t itself a bad example) is that they simultaneously glamorized wealth and expressed real pride in working-class community. Coming to America and Tuff Turf both do this, from very different genre perspectives. Whereas Little Shop has exactly zero love of Skid Row and its people. Skid Row is solely a site of shame and a place to escape. We’re supposed to root for Seymour and Audrey to leave all their neighbors behind. It’s weird because every Skid Row neighbor we actually meet is decent at worst. I don’t think we can be intended to believe that the dentist lives in Audrey’s neighborhood, so why does she think Skid Row is “where the guys are drips”? The film overall, and especially its catchiest song, dehumanizes the people who live in poor neighborhoods. They’re either victims (Seymour and Audrey; the lady who starts the song) or sources of shame for the victims. Was this necessary?
Well, maybe it was. Because of course Little Shop is a temptation story. Audrey’s tempted, in a heartbreaking way, by the dentist; her belief that the guys around her aren’t worth as much as Dr. Scrivello is the source of a lot of pain and humiliation for her. The plant, Audrey II, tempts Seymour with promises of wealth and escape. He crosses moral lines in pursuit of that life “somewhere that’s green,” away from Skid Row. And in the film’s most haunting moment, when he’s carrying Audrey up to her namesake to be eaten, what’s that playing softly in the background? “Skid Row.” His shame and desperation have prepared him for the loss of his soul–and he gets nothing in return, because that’s how the Devil prefers to do business.