After a few decades in which the film fell into the public domain as a recobbled, poorly transferred, discolored, nigh-unwatchable piece of garbage, a restoration and Blu-ray release from Severin Films means a whole new generation can see Cathy’s Curse (aka Cauchemars, literally “nightmares,” the film’s original/French title) in all of its… glory?
The 1970s were banner years for the burgeoning Canuxploitation film industry, as our neighbor to the north saw a boom in production due to an increase in the Capital Cost Allowance (CCA) due to new tax shelter laws instituted to encourage Canadian filmmakers. Theretofore, most of these funds had gone toward producing documentaries, an influence which is evident in the observational, cinéma vérité nature of many of the films that followed regardless of genre; beginning in 1971, the Canadian Film Development Corporation pushed filmmakers to focus on those films that were more commercially viable in an attempt to recoup some of this funding. From this push we got the early films of our dearly beloved David Cronenberg, as well as great work from Bob Clark, who was recruited from Florida to lend his experience to the Canadian industry.
Of course, the exploitation of tax shelters is nothing new, and the availability of public funding has doubtlessly led to the implementation of various Producers-style bombs quickly slap-dashed together to take advantage of available funding. Cathy’s Curse is notably a tax shelter baby, although it’s much better than many other films that were created for similarly inartistic reasons.
The film opens on Mr. Gimble in 1947, who returns to his home to learn that his elementary-aged daughter Laura has been left alone by her mother, who absconded with Laura’s younger brother George. Mr. Gimble tells the little girl that her mother is a bitch, and that she will pay for what she did to Laura; I’m noting this here because, even in the remastered director’s cut, we never learn exactly what Mrs. Gimble did or why Mr. Gimble is so bitter about it. The two race away, and when the car swerves to avoid a rabbit in the road, both Mr. Gimble and young Laura are burned alive in the resultant crash.
Some thirty years later, George (Alan Scarfe, who played not one but two Romulans in Star Trek: The Next Generation) returns to the still-pristine house with his wife Vivian (Beverly Murray) and daughter Cathy (Randi Allen). Vivian has recently lost the couple’s second child and suffered a nervous breakdown as a result, lending her character a kind of otherworldly removal from the events at hand and planting the seeds for George to shrug off her concerns as the result of an inscrutable mental illness later in the film. Upon arrival, the family is greeted by housekeeper Mary (Dorothy Davis) and repairman Paul (Roy Witham), and Cathy befriends some neighboring children.
On the day of a pre-arranged play date, Cathy goes upstairs to get some rest beforehand, but is drawn to the home’s spacious attic, where she discovers a portrait of her dead aunt as well as a rag doll with sewn-shut eyes. The portrait’s eyes glow an eerie green, and so begins Cathy’s possession. While playing with the other children, she uses them to re-enact the night of Laura’s death, including urging one of the boys to say “All women are bitches!” The mother of these children, meanwhile, has tea with Vivian and another friend (Mary Morter), who identifies herself as a medium and has a full on psychic freakout after holding a picture of Laura and George’s father, complete with deep-voiced recitations and lots of Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place-style rapid cuts. This is interrupted when one of the children cries out after Cathy cuts her.
The connection between Cathy and the doll deepens, as she sees Laura reflected in her mirror instead of herself, and poor Mary is killed, as is Paul’s dog. Vivian is sent to a sanitarium for a while and Paul is tasked with watching Cathy during the day while George attends to unspecified business at a construction site. Paul himself is subjected to hallucinations and suddenly-manifesting lesions, but Cathy keeps him around (and drunk) apparently for her own amusement and perhaps in recognition that she needs to keep at least one person alive to take care of her while George is away. The medium returns more than once to the house and is continuously rebuffed by Cathy and a drunken Paul when she asks for Vivian, before a nightmare hallucination sends her out of the house and out of the film for good (she’s set up as almost like a Father Merrin type, but her appearances end up contributing nothing to the film).
Vivian returns home, and her protestations that something is deeply wrong with Cathy are dismissed by George with increasing irritation and accusations that her mental illness is tearing the family apart. Not helping is the fact that Cathy is a perfect angel when in her father’s presence, and her truly innocent nature seems to be, at times, attempting to exert itself. After a final confrontation, George ultimately sees the truth and Vivian saves her daughter’s soul by removing the stitches from the doll’s eyes, forcing the evil presence out of the house and their daughter.
For a low-budget attempt to cash in on the success of The Exorcist with some overtones from The Omen (complete with a nanny dying from a fall from an upper floor, although even a woman Mary’s age would probably survive a fall from the second story), Cathy’s Curse is decent, but nothing exciting or terribly special. There are plenty of laughs to be had, but it’s unclear which, if any, are intentional; my favorite is in the scene where the newly-possessed Cathy throws her cereal bowl across the room and Mary, thinking this was an accident, picks up approximately four pieces of broken china from a pile of dozens of shards and cheerfully declares “There, all better!” There’s also some humor gleaned from the possessed Cathy’s dirty mouth, where attempts to mimic the truly revolting and soul-crushing diatribes voiced by Regan in The Exorcist come across as distinctly Canadian in the script’s unwillingness to go too far.
Still, the film isn’t lacking in mid-budget charm. The restoration of the film may not be worth spending time to track down and watch, but if it happens to fall into your lap, there’s a moderately good time to be had.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond