Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Shadow of the Cat (1961)

With the help of the two servants of the house, Walter Venable (Andre Morell) murders his wife Ella (Catherine Lacey) after thirty years of trying to get at her money in vain. It seems marriage impostors in the olden times were much more patient than today. The killers dig a (quite shallow) grave for their victim in the nearby woods, and report her as missing in the conviction that Ella's reputation as being a bit of an eccentric will be enough to not make the police look into her disappearance too closely.

Walter and his cronies haven't counted on various complicating factors, though. First and foremost, Ella's death has not gone without a witness. Her cat Tabitha has seen everything and his highly displeased by losing her favourite food-bearing monkey. The harmless looking cat begins a reign of terror by doing lots of spring-loaded catting and throwing evil glances at the trio. It's also not too good for anyone's peace of mind that Walter might have been able to press his wife into writing a new testament that makes him the sole heir of her fortune, but her original will that gives everything to her favourite niece Beth (Barbara Shelley) is still hidden away somewhere in the house. For some reason, Walter invites Beth into the house as soon as Ella has "disappeared". Despite stealing her inheritance, the old bastard seems to be rather fond of her.

Neither the local police, nor Michael Latimer (Conrad Phillips), the young owner of the local newspaper who was quite friendly with Ella, are convinced by the supposed circumstances of the old lady's disappearance either. Latimer can't prove anything, but that surely isn't going to stop him from snooping around, especially after he and Beth begin to look at each other with the proper romantic lead expressions on their faces.

Soon the cat terror is getting to Walter so much that he's suffering a minor heart attack and decides to send for some of his low-life, untrustworthy relatives to help him find the will and - most importantly - kill the cat. Alas, this is going to escalate the cat terror into outright murder, and also brings further people without scruples but with a desperate need for money into the house.

Shadow of the Cat was produced by "B.H.P. Productions", which was a label Hammer Films used for co-productions in which they provided other firms with studio room and (as in this case) creative talent. In fact, some of the film's sets were earlier seen in one of the Frankenstein films, if in colour and not in black and white; director John Gilling was of course part of Hammer's talent bullpen, as were actors Shelley and Morell.

Mostly, Shadow does play out like a lower budget version of a mainstream Hammer film, with sensibilities a bit more old-fashioned than those shown by productions made under the mother label at the time, but still feeling very Hammer nonetheless.

The old-fashionedness is probably the Shadow's most problematic aspect. The film's script might just as well have been written in 1936 as in 1961, with not much of it hinting at a film with gothic inclinations made after Corman's House of Usher.

However, that doesn't necessarily make Shadow of the Cat a bad film. What it does is make it a film trading in any sort of daring for competence and professionalism and the decided refusal to actually be of its own time. Fortunately for the film and its viewers, the professionalism of everyone involved is large enough to provide for a slightly creaky, yet very entertaining little movie if one is not going in expecting anything original.

Gilling's direction is at least decent; from time to time, his use of shadows hints at the influence of Universal Horror, and it is in these moments the film's balancing act between thriller and outright horror film does pay off.

George Baxt's script does have its problems, obviously. I found it a little difficult to actually buy into the cute little tabby cat at a ruthless mastermind provoking people into their deaths. It's also not necessarily easy to buy into all of the film's villains going into hysterics about the animal. Sure, a guilty conscience could play its part in a case like this, but accepting half a dozen people in mortal fear of a tabby seems a bit more work than my suspension of disbelief should be doing.

On the more positive side, Baxt provides most of the villains (except for the servants, whose exemption from being actual persons is - I suspect - based on the mortal sin of being members of the working class) with at least a second dimension. I quite appreciated the script giving most everyone a motive for their being so greedy as to go to murder (although I would have loved an explanation why Walter waited thirty years to go through with his murder plans). It's also quite nice to see a semi-Gothic movie heroine with a bit of backbone like Shelley's Beth. I wouldn't exactly say she has agency, but at least she's not the fainting kind who is only there to be menaced and kidnapped.

Some of my objections might make the film sound worse than it actually is, I'm afraid. When you're able to pretend it was made in 1936 and not 1961, you'll probably find Shadow of the Cat to be an entertaining little film. At least it was to me.

No comments: