For the past several months, I've been contributing a series of articles called 'Overlooked and Underrated' to FEARnet. The idea behind these is to spotlight genre films that are exceptional, yet seldom get the praise they deserve. I don't include feeble clunkers or famed classics - just outstanding genre films that, for one reason or another, withered from the mainstream's embrace. (For an example, check out the last 'Overlooked and Underrated' piece I turned in: 'Atmosphere of Dread'.)
This month, I'll be turning in an 'Overlooked and Underrated' about gritty exploitation films - but that wasn't my heart's desire. It's the holiday season. Everywhere I look there are family gatherings, decorated evergreen trees, and street after street of colorfully lit house-front displays, ranging from festively classy to way-beyond-Griswold-Family-obnoxious. This is all submerged in the sights, smells, and temperatures of winter. I'm not a big holiday / family gathering type of guy, but it seemed a holiday-themed 'Overlooked and Underrated' article would be more appropriate than a piece on exploitation films. I think my neighbors would agree. (See photo.)
…And that's where my plans went off the rails. Talking about the best-ever holiday fright films is pretty easy. The same titles tend to surface in the minds of horror fans - with Black Christmas (1974) and Gremlins (1984) usually appearing near the top of the list. We all know there are plenty of so-bad-they're-fun (or downright abysmal) holiday-themed horror films, too. After much research, many sleepless nights, and countless bottles o' booze, I came to a chilling conclusion: There are virtually no holiday-themed horror films that fall into my in-between 'Overlooked And Underrated' category.
Courageously, I charged forth down a new path. Instead of a holiday 'Overlooked and Underrated' piece, I would focus on winter-themed horror films. While not entirely in the spirit of the season, at least it would reflect what's going on outside many people's windows. Unfortunately, this plan also crashed and burned (and not just because my editor at FEARnet told me "No" when I pitched the idea to him). It seems awesome winter-themed horror movies that fall into the 'Overlooked and Underrated' class are also in short supply.
Both Wendigo (2001) and The Last Winter (2006) from director Larry Fessenden fit the bill. Winter is a primary character in both films, and both Wendigo and The Last Winter deserve much more praise than they generally receive. Of course, additional winter-themed horror films sprang to mind, but they just didn't seem exceptional enough to include on such a list.
After all of my agonizing over this particular 'Overlooked And Underrated' article, it was time to face the bitter truth: There would be no holiday-themed, or even winter-themed 'Overlooked And Underrated' for Christmas this year. I was more depressed than when that Grinch guy stole something or another.
However, I must mention one movie that I think takes the top spot for the most overlooked and underrated Christmas horror movie of all time: The Curse of the Cat People (1944). This awkwardly titled film is co-directed by Gunther von Fritsch (who usually directed documentaries and television shows) and Robert Wise (The Haunting). Though this was the feature film debut of both directors, there was no celebrating by Fritsch - he was fired from the film and replaced by Wise, a successful and respected film editor previous to receiving this big break.
The Curse of the Cat People, a sequel to Jacques Tourneur's The Cat People (1942), continues the story of Ollie Reed and his co-worker Alice, who are now married with a six-year-old daughter named Amy. Also returning from the first film is Irena, now a ghost, played again by the captivating Simone Simon. The specter Irena appears to little Amy and the two become friends. Family tensions ensue, followed by a potentially deadly situation for the young girl.
Winter weather plays a major part in The Curse of the Cat People, with the final act centered around Christmas. Not only is this holiday affixed to the narrative, the tone of the Christmas season saturates the celluloid in a wonderful way, thanks to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. This low-budget genre film contains gorgeous, expertly-crafted shots that look like picturesque and charming vintage Christmas cards. In terms of capturing imagery that sells the season, few films can top The Curse Of The Cat People.
So this year, after the usual lineup of A Christmas Story, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, It's a Wonderful Life, and The Muppet Christmas Carol (all great movies, of course) treat yourself to a lesser-known Christmas film, The Curse of the Cat People. It will be an excellent gift you give to yourself, plus it will be far more energy efficient than my neighbor's front yard.
Thanks for reading.