Friday, August 11, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Cat Girl (1957)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

After nine years of absence, Leonora Johnson (Barbara Shelley) returns to her ancestral home on insistence of her uncle Edmund Brandt (Ernest Milton). Leonora has bad memories of the place and her uncle's habit of making her life a decidedly cheerless one. Why, he even managed to torpedo her love to student of medicine Brian Marlowe (Robert "Bland" Ayres). Somehow, the end of her first big love had set Leonora on a path to a horrible taste in men (not that Brian's exactly like winning the lottery, as we will see), and now she's freshly married to Richard (Jack May), a semi-professional gold digger who is such a prick he even takes his not-so-secret lover Cathy (Paddy Webster) with them on the visit to Uncle.

As luck will have it, Leonora meets Brian again right before she arrives at her uncle's. Brian is now a full-grown psychiatrist (though, as it will later turn out, a crap one) and happily married to Dorothy (Kay Callard), which comes as a bit of a shock to Leonora who is quite obviously not at all over her love for the guy.

Once the travellers arrive at his place, Uncle Edmund shows himself not at all happy with Leonora bringing someone with her - not for the natural reason of Richard's personality, but because he has a secret to tell her. Edmund makes do anyway during a nightly meeting in which he discloses to Leonora that their family has been cursed for generations into a strange mind/body share affair with a leopard where the leopard kills whom- or whatever his partner pleases and the human partner takes on some of the leopard's more unpleasant psychological characteristics. Now is the time for Edmund to die and for Leonora to take on the curse's burden.

At first, Leonora doesn't believe her obviously quite mad relative, but soon enough Edmund is killed by his leopard, and she begins to feel changes inside of her that start to convince the young woman her uncle was telling the truth. She confides her troubles to Brian, but his mixture of bad rationalism and book burning is of no help to anyone.

Leonora's feelings about the family curse turn into certainty when Leonora and the leopard witness Richard having sex with Cathy in the woods close to the house, and the animal gives Richard his just deserts.

Leonora isn't happy with her familiar's deed, though, and confesses all to the police, who of course don't believe a single word the woman says and call in Brian in his capacity as a psychiatrist. Him being - as I said - a crap member of his profession, he takes on the case concerning an ex-lover who is still quite fixated on him after nine years of being apart and hates his wife's guts - a decision that would be idiotic even if the curse weren't real. Quite obviously, things won't go too well.

The British-based AIP production (and how's that for an ironic combination?) Cat Girl is not as close of a reworking of Jacques Tourneur's Cat People as I had expected after hearing its title and reading what the Internet in its wisdom tells about it. Sure, they are both films featuring a curse, murderous kitties and a woman's troubles to cope with her subconscious desires, but Cat Girl is so unambiguous in its treatment of the supernatural and so blunt in its psychology that both films are never seeing eye to eye about anything, and feel completely different from each other even though the British film should by all rights be an inferior copy of the US one.

That different feel is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. After all, Cat People does already exist, and I'm certainly not going to blame Cat Girl for being less of a rip-off than I had expected it to be.

If you can cope with its complete lack of subtlety, the film at hand is even a pretty good example of an attempt to combine outward appearances of the Gothic in horror - on show in the often pleasantly expressionist black and white photography of Peter Hennessy and the moody if conservative direction of Alfred Shaughnessy - with more modern ideas like the film's Freudian subtext about repressed female sexuality and desires expressed through acts of violence committed by a large cat.

Apart from its often sledgehammer-like treatment of its themes, the film's script (by AIP mainstay - and brother of Samuel Arkoff - Lou Rusoff) also suffers from some highly melodramatic dialogue not all of the actors are coping too well with. Fortunately, designated Cat Girl and future Hammer actress Barbara Shelley has to carry the main load of that part of the dialogue, and she doesn't have the slightest problem in selling it or her character to the audience. She even manages to smuggle some nuances into her performance I'm pretty sure weren't called for by Rusoff's script, making her character a bit more rounded, and believable as an actual person who once had hopes and dreams that all didn't work out one way or the other. It's difficult not to root for her even once she's gone over the deep end - though this might also have something to do with the fact that neither Robert Ayres nor Kay Callard who is playing his wife are even half as present or charismatic as Shelley is here. I didn't exactly want Callard to suffer, but the film sure as hell didn't do anything to make her enough of a person to care too much about her.

Shelley's performance plus the decent look of Cat Girl are more than enough for me to give the film a minor recommendation. I don't think this will make anyone re-think the importance of Cat People, but there is always room for perfectly fine melodramatic horror movies next to the more subtle classics of the genre with me.

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