Saturday, January 25, 2014

In short: The Cat Creature (1973)

A thief (Keye Luke) breaking into the sanctum sanctorum of a recently deceased collector of antiques and occult stuff steals a curious amulet carrying the head of Bast from the neck of a mummy. Little does he know that this awakens a rather grumpy priest with the ability to turn into a murderous little kitten who then proceeds to kill everyone who even comes near the amulet.

Curiously, the priest's activities concentrate around the occult shop of Hester Black (Gale Sondergaard), despite Hester not having bought the amulet off the thief when he offered it. At first the cat-shaped priest only kills Hester's shop assistant, but soon it - and various cat-shaped phenomena - seem to threaten Hester, her new shop assistant Rena Carter (Meredith Baxter), and everyone around them, too.

The police in form of Lt. Marco (Stuart Whitman) is on the ball, and even clever enough to call in Professor of archaeology Roger Edmonds (David Hedison) for academic help, but except for Rena and Roger falling for each other, there's really not much happening with these two until a lot more people have died.

The Cat Creature is one of the lesser movies Curtis Harrington directed during his creative TV movie making phase, with a script that is certainly one of Robert Bloch's weaker efforts too, even though Bloch returns to Egyptian pseudo-mythology of a type he used in some of his best pulp stories a few decades earlier (though, alas, there's no Cthulhu Mythos connection in this particular case).

The film's mythology and the nature of its supernatural threat are some of its strengths, actually, with some fun not-actually-Egyptian made up mythology and a pretty cool monster conception. The problem lies in the execution, particularly in the slowness of the film's middle part where Roger and Marco are "investigating", which is to say, do little beyond arriving too late when somebody has been killed off, and Roger and Rena have a romance that needs to be a core part of the film but never feels like it at all.

Harrington for his part rides some of his hobby horses, so there are the expected appearances of Old Hollywood actors (with Sondergaard's performance as the clear high point), and the children of Old Hollywood actors, as well as many an atmospheric scene that attempts (and often succeeds) to use techniques of Universal horror and Val Lewton productions in the context of 70s TV. The latter approach gives the film some quite effective scenes, but again mostly gets lost in the film's middle part where one can't help but get the impression nobody involved really knew what he actually wanted to do with the film.

Where the moody scenes of cat-shadows are sublime when they do happen, Harrington also delivers something ridiculous. The scenes of what science terms catnosis are incredibly ill-advised, pre-dating a particularly ridiculous scenes from Harrington's later Devil Dog in all the wrong ways. For most of the running time, it's also quite impossible to see the rather adorable black cat at the film's centre as threatening at all, all the loud yowling on the soundtrack notwithstanding. It's also an old truth that cat attack scenes aka cat wrestling never work, a rule that still holds true.

Given all these problems, The Cat Creature still provided me with enough fun for an unassuming TV movie, if not always the fun it was probably meant to provide me with.

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