Monday, August 7, 2017

"Cathy Hardly Doesn't Talk Anymore" - Cathy's Curse (1977)

Our next film is the French-Canadian Cathy's Curse (1977). This supernatural horror film has been rediscovered and heralded due to a recent blu ray from Severin Films, but it has many qualities that make it fit in with the other films here on Senseless Cinema, the primary quality being that it is clearly not from your universe.

Now, as you know, I come from another universe where customs are different from those in your universe, but the presentation of reality embodied in Cathy's Curse matches neither my Universe-Prime nor your Universe-X. I can only conclude it is from some third universe with which I am not yet familiar.

Appropriately for a movie with such provenance, the critics of your universe have not been kind, historically, to Cathy's Curse. Charles Tatum on IMDB writes, "This is a spiteful, mean little film in which the writers and director have just as much contempt for the viewer as they do for their own characters." Yetanotherharris writes, "This is not a movie for everyone. It is not well written nor well acted, and the special effects are weak, even for the 1970's." Preppy-3rd concludes that the film is a "Slow, dull 'Exorcist clone with a pointless story, terrible script, VERY bad acting, clumsy 'special' effects, laughable gore and it just isn't scary or even remotely interesting." (This person seems not to have enjoyed the film.)

Because of such flawed and illogical reactions to this wonderful, if unusually transdimensional, film, I must correct the record with a detailed analysis of the narrative.

Cathy's Curse begins with a bang. A man drives too fast along a Canadian street. He screeches to a halt in front of a castle and sprints inside, where he confronts a little girl.

"Mommy's gone. She's taken George with her," says the girl, Laura.

"Your mother's a bitch!" exclaims the man. "She'll pay for what she did to you."

He drags the girl to his car, and she drags her doll behind her.

We in the audience pause to ponder the existential dissonance between the opening text informing us the mother kidnapped the son George and the evidence before our own eyes, which show us the father kidnapping the daughter Laura. Which is correct, the text or the image? Or are both correct, and two kidnappings are occurring in parallel?

Suddenly, a rabbit darts across the road and the car slides across the street, which is now snowy where there was no snow previously.

Tragically, the car catches fire with Laura and her father trapped inside.

The film moves on to the future, 1979. The filmmakers continue their incisive investigation of the reliability of text and image with another intertitle, this one containing an ambiguous pronoun. The audience is left to ponder if "he" refers to the previously unseen George, or the mustachioed and presumed dead father, or someone else entirely.

Whoever "he" is, "he" drives up to the castle we recognize from the opening scene. "He" and his wife, and their daughter Cathy, are moving into the castle, which is staffed by the requisite pair of elderly caretakers.

Once inside, "he" gazes fondly at the living room. "Look, Vivian," "he" says. "The couch where Mother would curl up and read."

There is no couch in the room when he says this; again, the filmmakers are making us doubt our eyes and brains.

("He" is played by Alan Scarfe, an English actor who attempts to downplay his English accent throughout the film, in part by acting as if he is suppressing giggles with every line, and in part by energetically playing to the balcony.)

As they unpack their belongings, "his" wife Vivian confronts "him." "You know and I know that I've had a nervous breakdown," she says. She is worried, probably with good reason, that "he" believes her mental difficulties are genetic and Cathy must be shielded from them. "He" assures her she is incorrect.

Back to her less confrontational self, Vivian walks into Cathy's bedroom to see what she is doing. She is sitting in a chair. "What are you doing? Taking a nap?" her mother asks, in another example of the filmmakers' asking the audience to distrust its own eyes.

Occurrences, as they are wont to do, occur. A light turns on. A door closes by itself.

In a suspenseful sequence scored with no music at all, Cathy discovers the attic and begins touching everything, from a giant frog to a tennis racket. Are these objects what we perceive them to be? Will Cathy find a dusty piano and call it an automobile? No, she remains silent, but director Eddy Matalon has inspired such doubt in his audience that we feel nearly anything is possible.

The suspense builds as we await a jump scare that never occurs. Instead, Cathy finds a charming old doll. The fact that its eyes are sewn shut is only mildly off-putting, and this fact is never mentioned by anyone.

Outside, Cathy is playing with some new friends, two boys and a little girl who, based on her appearance, must idolize Ronald McDonald.. "Let's play another game," one of them suggests. "How about Accident?"

Conveniently, a small cardboard car is sitting on the lawn nearby. Accident is the perfect game to play!

Cathy orchestrates the game so as to reenact the accident from the opening of the film. She instructs one of the boys to say, "All women are bitches." (In fairness to the deceased man at the beginning of the film, his perception of women as bitches was limited to his wife, as far as we know.) Then, instead of reenacting a car accident, Cathy pokes Little Miss Ronald McDonald under the eye with a small length of wire. All this is intercut with Vivian and her elderly neighbor Agatha, who happens to be a medium and who happens to relive the long-past car accident at the same time as Cathy's reenactment.

Agatha smashes a framed photograph on the floor, but Vivian does not seem to mind, or even to notice.

In a highly disturbing scene, "he" and Vivian get romantic in a brightly lit room, in a manner that clearly indicates neither actor has ever interacted with a person of the opposite sex before. In the process of kissing, they step on the doll Cathy found in the attic. Through sympathetic magic, this has the effect of forcing Cathy to slam her head against her pillow and cry out for her doll, which also, mercifully, interrupts her parents' awkward lovemaking.

The next morning, Cathy throws a cereal bowl against the wall to irritate the elderly housekeeper, who resembles Mary Richards' Aunt Flo Meredith (Eileen Heckart), but the old woman simply bends over and cleans up the mess. "There, it's all done," the woman says as she stands up, though at least 80% of the broken bowl remains on the floor.

In fact, the housekeeper is the first victim of Cathy's apparent possession by the spirit of her burned-to-death aunt. The housekeeper finds the old doll. When Cathy discovers this, a deep voice comes from her mouth: "She's seen me. Kill her!" Cathy holds the doll up and telekinetically forces the housekeeper to back up toward the window. This results in the housekeeper's defenestration, witnessed from below by Cathy's mother.

Again, the filmmakers use this latest sequence to force us to question our own perceptions. In describing the incident to the police, Cathy's mother says she looked up to find the source of screaming, but we saw the entire scene and the only person who screamed was Cathy's mother. "I looked up at the win...dow, and I saw her fall. Dog...was...howling. The damn window! My baby!"

The filmmakers thus engender a great deal of sympathy for Vivian: If she is having a breakdown, perhaps the audience is as well.

The filmmakers unleash further strange occurrences. A tray of food rots in Cathy's hands. The doll turns its head all by itself. Vivian converses with Cathy, looking straight at her, and Cathy suddenly vanishes before our eyes, but Vivian reacts as if Cathy is merely playing hide and seek.

When Cathy causes an earthquake inside the castle, her mother is carted into an ambulance on a stretcher. The doctor tells Cathy's father, "Try not to worry. In two or three days, you'll have a better feel of the situation."

But Cathy's father is quite busy and needs to work late. The only solution is to let the elderly male caretaker--who was possibly married to the elderly female caretaker--watch Cathy while her father is gone.

The actor playing Paul the caretaker, Roy Witham, gives perhaps the film's best performance. In his standout scene, he drinks bottle after bottle of liquor supplied by Cathy, yells profanities at the visiting medium to get out of the house, then freezes at the kitchen table while a pair of heretofore unseen snakes wriggle out of a drawer to encircle him.


He is unharmed by the snakes, and by the tarantula and rats that suddenly appear. Finally, he is able to move, so he pours whiskey from a bottle and drinks.

"Don't you like it, Good Old Paul?" asks Cathy.

Mr. Witham's performance is so good that we believe snakes, rats, and spiders are crawling on him, and not only because we can clearly see that they are doing so.

Mr. Witham is given a chance to emote even further the next morning, when his precious dog, a ferocious Doberman named Sneakers, is found dead and bloody on the lawn.

But everything is not grim at the Canadian castle. Cathy plays with the old doll in the woods. "Would you like a bit more salad, madam?" Cathy asks while handing the doll a saltine with some Pace picante sauce on it. "The salad is delicious, isn't it?"

(Here, again, the filmmakers have cleverly assaulted the audience's intuitive understanding of the world, a world in which a cracker with salsa handed to a doll cannot possibly represent salad, though the plentiful vegetation in the surrounding area could.)

Paul's story reaches a climax when he obsesses over the old doll for no apparent reason, chasing Cathy through the snowy yard to take it from her. When he touches it, he collapses in a small pool of his own bloody vomit.

Meanwhile, Agatha the medium has walked all the way from the suburban castle to the center of Montreal to find a phone booth, which she uses to call Vivian in the hospital. She uses the call to tell Vivian that she is going to visit her, so Agatha gets a taxi and takes it back to the suburbs, to the castle and not Vivian's hospital. Agatha is lured upstairs, then surprised to see Cathy sitting in an armchair in the attic.

Agatha has a vision of a spirit who is presumably the grown-up Laura, the aunt who is possessing either Cathy or the doll or both. Or perhaps the house.

"Well, if it isn't the great medium herself," the ghost cackles. "Medium? I'd say extra-rare piece of shit!"

Both Cathy and a portrait of Laura with glowing green eyes call Agatha a "filthy female cow" (a redundant insult, to be sure), prompting the medium to run from the house.

Soon, Vivian is released from the hospital. After some more unexplained events, the family retires to bed. In the middle of the night, however, Vivian opens the bedroom closet door to find blood dripping on the clothes. Her husband confirms that it is blood, but then he discovers the source: six bottles of blood that were sitting on the closet shelf, one of which tipped over. "It was my father," he laughs, "He used it as a kind of tonic, a sort of fortifier, I think. He was always afraid. Afraid he'd run out." The couple shares a deep laugh.

Later, Vivian tries to communicate that something is wrong with the house. "Since we've been here, Cathy hardly doesn't talk anymore," she says. "How do you explain that? And me. Why am I constantly upset and nervous?"

He dismisses her, blaming everything on Vivian. Then he storms out to go to work.

Of course, Vivian does the only safe thing after he leaves: she starts a bath. "He thinks I'm crazy," she says to herself in the mirror.

In a classic sequence, the tub begins filling with blood, though presumably not the blood from Cathy's grandfather's stash in the closet. Furthermore, leeches appear on Vivian's body.

The trauma in the bathtub is never spoken of again.

At night, Paul the caretaker, who did not in fact die in his pool of bloody vomit, eats dinner with Cathy. Paul volunteers to check on Vivian, who is sleeping upstairs. Cathy responds, "I know. You want to go up because you're an old man."

"So what?" he asks.

"Old people like to see others die," Cathy answers profoundly, and quite correctly.

The climax begins when the delirious, bedridden Vivian tells Paul that Cathy's doll must be burned.

Paul is "all in" with this idea, but when he tries to appropriate the doll, Cathy confronts him with it. As we all know, nothing is more terrifying to an old man than a little girl with a doll.

Paul is forced outside and dies offscreen, leaving a curious, and still delirious, Vivian to discover his body out in the snow.

Vivian stumbles back into the house to find Cathy, who is in her bedroom, though now her face is horrifically burned. She reveals the truth about what is happening. She is being possessed by Laura, her dead aunt.

Vivian cares little for the mystery. She grabs the doll and runs with it, but she is easily overpowered by the little girl. Somehow, Vivian wrests the doll away and pulls off the threads closing one eye. This results, of course, is that all the glass in the house shatters.

With this simple act, everything goes back to normal. Cathy's curse is lifted.

The doll, too, reverts to normal, as a completely different doll, albeit one with bleeding eyes.

With sanity, such as it is, restored, the audience is left only to watch the credits.

The universe of Cathy's Curse--one in which salad may be handed from person to person, attics are filled with giant frog statues, little children play car accident, and men use human blood as a tonic--is one I would like to explore. French director Eddy Matalon has given filmgoers a gift with this film, a peek into a fascinating universe far removed from yours and mine. We should all be very grateful for this gift.

It should not go unmentioned that the film brings together different performance styles and, rather than melding them into a unified whole, combines them into something unique, an acting salad, if you will. Mr. Scarfe's performance is mannered and theatrical, while the actress playing Cathy's mother, Beverley Murray, is more direct and one might say hysterical. These performances are complemented by that of Mary Morter as the medium, who is by turns calm and frantic, often from line to line. Randi Allen, who plays Cathy, is quite naturalistic and controlled. Also naturalistic is Roy Witham as the groundskeeper Paul, though when he is confronted with a little girl and her doll he is appropriately a bug-eyed lunatic. Mr. Matalon's approach to his actors has resulted in a unique and entertaining combination of styles, truly the definition of a wide emotional range.

Finally, the film is also praiseworthy in that it wears its Canadianness--albeit its otherworldly Canadianness--on its sleeve. It is a film in which children call their mothers "mummy" and police officers are referred to as "leftenant." At a time when many filmmakers tried to pass off Canadian films as occurring in the United States, this honesty is refreshing.