Cat Girl (1957) – A Retrospective Review
The little, low-budget opus belatedly attempts to cash in on CAT PEOPLE, but it has little of the subtlety and none of the style of the 1942 Val Lewton production. In a strange way, CAT GIRL seems more old-fashioned than its model: the limited production values, melodramatic tone, and outdated attempts at spooky atmosphere suggest a cheap British rip-off of Universal’s 1930s horror classics. (Ernest Milton, as the demented Uncle Edmund, comes across like a poor man’s version of Ernest Thesiger – the actor who camped up James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.) Released a few months after CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN – Hammer’s bold color reinvention of the horror genre – CAT GIRL must have seemed like a dated relic in its own time. Decades later, it earns some points for effort, but its most significant claim to importance lies in the casting of Barbara Shelley – a fine actress who would give strong performances in several Hammer horror films (such as THE GORGON).
The plot begins with the recently married Leonora (Shelley) answering a summons to the old ancestral mansion. Against instructions, she brings her husband Richard (Jack May) and two friends, Cathy and Allan (Patricia Webster and John Lee). Almost immediately we learn that Leonora and Richard are not in love; in fact, Richard barely bothers to conceal his interest in Cathy (apparently, Allan was brought along to be the beard, but he fails miserably in this role). Leonora’s traveling companions seems to think they are on a fun weekend outing, but Leonora views the family reunion with dread – a view that is entirely justified when we see that her Uncle Edmund is a complete nutter.
First, Edmund insists on putting Leonora in a separate bedroom (why she tolerates this is never explained); then he has the maid awaken her in the middle of the night. The plot point is that he wants to speak to Leonora alone, but the real purpose is to reveal that Leonora sleeps in the nude (which is a bit of a surprise, considering how stuffy and conservative she acts). The most interesting thing about the scene is the lingering shot of Leonora’s naked back as she sits up in bed. The least interesting thing is that the camera demurely pans away to her shadow on the wall as she gets out of bed and dresses, leaving the maid to comment on what a beautiful woman she has become since moving out of the house years ago. (There is something almost perverse about the way the male audience’s frustration over not seeing Shelley nude is sublimated by having a wrinkled old woman comment on her physical beauty.)
Edmund reveals the reason he requested her presence: The good news is that she is about to receive the family inheritance; the bad news is that the bequest consists of a family curse. In each generation, one member of the Brandt family becomes somehow fused with the soul of the pet leopard; at night, the craving for blood drives the unfortunate heir to mentally direct the wild cat to kill innocent victims. Apparently, there is some kind of time limit on how many years you get to eat the leopard’s leftovers, and Edmund’s time is up. Leonara is understandably skeptical of the story, but the sudden change in her make-up (her eyebrows become straight arrows aiming like a “V” toward the top of her nose) tells us there is indeed a little of the wild cat inside her. Edmund gives himself up to the leopard, which kills him, allowing Leonora to come into her inheritance.
This is not enough to stop the party, however. Alan, Cathy, and Richard continue their quest for booze and good times the next day. The closest the film ever gets to explaining why Richard married Leonora (whose only glint of passion arises when she runs into an old flame from her younger days) comes when Richard looks at the paintings on the wall and wonders whether they are expensive. Of course, there was no way he could have known that his uncle-in-law would commit suicide-by-leopard so soon; we have to assume Richard was taking the long view when he said, “I do.”
In any case, Richard never gets to cash in on his wife’s family fortune. Leonora spies him and Cathy doing some heavy petting in the woods; although Leonora has never shown any interest in her husband up to this point, she goes into a jealous rage, and the leopard kills Richard. Amusingly, Cathy is able to escape the cat by the simple expedient of getting up and running away – something that, apparently, Richard fails to consider.
Kathy confesses to murdering her husband. The police, understandably put out over having to return to the same house only one day after Edmund’s death, are too bored to listen, so they turn her over to psychiatrist Dr. Brian Marlowe – the old flame that ignited Leonora’s interest earlier in the film. With a clear-headed disregard for medical ethics, Dr. Marlowe ignores the personal emotional entanglements and treats Leonora. Showing that his lack of ethics is matched by his lack of medical skills, his treatment consists basically of repeatedly telling Leonora that she is delusional. In between, he reminds her that he is married, so she should stop being in love with him. This theraputic technique turns out to be as effective as Freud’s famous “handing out menues in a famine.”
In her cell at night, Leonora hears the leopard outside. She also discovers an element of the curse that her late uncle neglected to mention: she develops an unexpected hair-growth problem that turns her into what is probably supposed to be a cat-girl but looks more like an outtake from a werewolf movie (the camera literally blurs the distinction). The ever skeptical Dr. Marlowe scoffs at Leonora’s tale the next day; indeed, Leonora is unable to do a repeat performance under the doctor’s observation.
Then Marlowe has a brainstorm: he will release Leonora – into the care of his wife! What could be better than putting a delusional psychotic – who claims to be a blood-thirsty murderess – within killing distance of the romantic rival for his affections? Mrs. Marlowe and Leonora spend a surprisingly uneventful day together, but as night rolls in, Leonora’s feline proclivities evince themselves. She gobbles up a pet bird (off-screen) and lies about a phone call from the doctor, directing Mrs. Marlowe to meet her husband on a darkened street in a shady part of town. Not relying on the dangerous denizens of this crime-ridden neighborhood to kill off Mrs. Marlowe, Leonora follows her. The leopard shows up, too. Mrs. Marlowe runs away, frightened, but Dr. Marlowe drives up in time to run the cat over. A short distance away, Leonora is found dead, as if struck by a car.
For such a short film, CAT GIRL is surprisingly slow and more than a little dull. Lou Rusoff’s screenplay is both talky and underwritten; major points are ignored or granted the merest lip service. Leonora says she married Richard, whom she obviously does not love, because she was “lonely,” but she never seeks much companionship from him, and she barely objects when her uncle insists that she and her new husband sleep in a separate room. Why she invited Cathy and Allan along is never clear, and we wonder how Leonora could be so blind about the relationship between her husband and Cathy (who dance cheek to cheek a few feet away from her in a pub).
Alfred Shaughnessy’s direction is stagy. Characters make entrances, deliver dialogue, and then exit, as if walking through a stage play. For the most part, little is done to tell the story visually or to take advantage of the screenplay’s few interesting bits. (The death or Richard is handled in a particularly awkward, unconvincing manner.) Occasional effective moments do stand out: The camera shows glimpses of first Edmund and later Leonora taking souvenirs from the leopard’s kill (presumably to eat raw). And Leonora’s devouring of the pet bird is nicely handled, with the camera movement timed to miss the actual event while leaving no doubt about what happened; when the camera pans back, revealing Leonora’s cat-that-ate-the canary pose, it inspires just the right note of revulsion in the viewer. The stalking of Mrs. Marlowe comes off best, because the scene is more or less ripped off intact from CAT PEOPLE. (The wild cat is even killed by a car in both films.) However, the scene hardly delivers a powerful climax; it feels like the end of Act Two. The biggest shock Shaughnessy delivers is when we realize that there will be no Act Three.
The strongest element of CAT GIRL’s story is having Leonora control a wild cat instead of turning into one. This is an interesting variation on the theme (which predates both Lucio Fulci’s THE BLACK CAT and George Romero’s MONKEY SHINES), and it creates a perfectly ambiguous situation in which there is little doubt about what actually happened but every doubt about why it happened. The leopard definitely killed Richard, but there is no way to prove that it was under Leonora’s command; nevertheless, her intent is entirely clear. (One of the many gaps in the film’s logic is that Dr. Marlowe dismisses not only Leonora’s belief in the Brandt family curse but also her openly avowed murderous intentions. It never occurs to him that Leonora could be both delusional and homicidal – as if the two were mutually exclusive.)
Unfortunately, the movie gets a bit confused when Leonora briefly imagines herself turning into a cat-girl. This serves little purpose except to paint Leonora as delusional. The leopard does seem to target the victims she chooses, leaving it up to the audience to decide whether this is coincidence or curse, but Leonora’s transformation clearly takes place only in her mind, and Shelley plays the part like a mental patient making lame excuses for why her “powers” fail to manifest under scientific observation, implying that she is suffering more from psychosis than the supernatural.
Whatever the explanation, CAT GIRL equates female passion with feline aggression: the leopard embodies – symbolically even if not literally – Leonora’s formerly repressed emotions, and the British film derives its horror from the typically British fear of these emotions being unleashed. This reactionary stance is the exact opposite of CAT PEOPLE, in which violence resulted not from the expression of passion but from its repression due to superstitious fear. (Also, CAT GIRL’S leopard, though a sleek predator, lacks the awesome presence of CAT PEOPLE’s black panther.)
As dubious as CAT GIRL’s fear of women is, it is conveyed with a certain force, thanks to Shelley. The actress is the film’s saving grace. She almost makes Leonora believable despite the character’s inconsistencies. In the beginning, she expresses a repressed wariness that Leonora’s friends interpret as paranoia, while we in the audience guess that it is a well-founded fear – not only of her uncle but also of herself. (We never find out why she left home, but we can guess that she fears succumbing to it when she returns – as indeed she does.) The use of makeup to suggest a sudden cat-like look to her eyebrows (indicating the emergence of her predatory, feline nature) is almost campy – and really unnecessary. Shelley conveys the the transition from demure to dangerous through her acting alone; best of all, when her new persona manifests, it is a recognizable part of herself, something we have seen lurking behind her eyes in earlier scenes. (Her role here prefigures a similar transformation in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, wherein she goes from repressed Victorian sourpuss to salacious lesbian vampire. Shelley telegraphs the transformation early on; she’s the only one who fears Dracula’s castle – because she senses something in herself that is responding to the latent evil in the vampire’s lair.)
In the end, CAT GIRL is a mediocre time-waster. Fans of British horror, bored with multiple viewings of the standard classics, may want to seek it out for curiosity’s sake. Those who enjoyed Shelley’s co-starring roles (which also include SHADOW OF THE CAT and RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK) will certainly appreciate the opportunity to see her play the undisputed lead here. But don’t expect a lost classic, just a stray cat wandering in from the shadows of well-deserved obscurity.
HOME VIDEO DETAILS
CAT GIRL has apparently never been released on DVD. There was a VHS tape release (pictured at right), but it is out of print and hard to find. You can look for a used copy in Cinefantastique’s online store here.
CAT GIRL (1957). Directed by Alfred Shaughnessy. Written by Lou Rusoff. B&W. Cast: Barbara Shelley, Robert ayres, Kay Callard, Ernest Milton, lily Kann, Jack May, Patricia Webster, John Lee.
Note: Some sources (and the film’s poster artwork, seen at the top of this review) give the title as THE CAT GIRL; however, the on-screen title is only CAT GIRL.