This review contains spoilers.
Drawn back to the site of unhappy childhood memories by the lure of a mysterious legacy promised to her if she complies with recently received written instructions, newlywed Leonora Johnson (Barbara Shelley) reluctantly keeps her appointment (on the proverbial dark and stormy night) at the forbiddingly remote home of Edmund Brandt (Ernest Milton), the crepuscular cloak-clad uncle who raised her into adulthood and now keeps an untamed leopard in the house as a pet, which he likes to take on creeping walks in the forest by moonlight. Defying her weird uncle’s request to come alone, Nora also brings to this oddball family home an unsympathetic and inheritance-motivated new husband, Richard (Jack May); plus two unsuspecting friends, couple Cathy (Paddy Webster) and Allan (John Lee), who arrive naively expecting merely fun and diverting holiday larks in the countryside. The gloomy old pile is unwelcoming and grim, but calculated Richard still designs to seduce a more-than-willing Cathy even before they get there -- practically within eye shot of his peculiarly passive and increasingly despondent bride. Meanwhile, Cathy’s tweedy partner Allan seems quite happily oblivious to such blatant infidelities, as well as the cheerless austerity of the Brandt house, so long as he has a drink close to hand. However, before very long eccentric uncle Edmund and his faithful, elderly, doom-ridden serving maid Anna (Lily Kann) are rousing Nora from her bed in the dead of night to reveal that her so-called legacy is to be one of a disappointingly non-pecuniary sort: instead, what she has in fact ‘inherited’ is actually the seven-hundred-year-old family curse of Lycanthropy; more specifically, the ability to control and experience subjectively the animal consciousness of a wild leopard, which Edmund now willingly allows to claim his life in order that he should pass on his unwanted powers to Leonora, after which act the wild cat disappears into nearby forests to prowl freely until called upon by its horrified new mistress. At this point, her repressed anger at her husband’s callous betrayals and the re-reawakening of amorous feelings towards a former boyfriend -- local medic Dr Brian Marlowe (Robert Ayers), who still lives in the same area but is now happily married to another woman -- take on a peculiarly savage, feline quality; and after she tracks Richard and Cathy to a forest clearing during one of their clandestine assignations, Leonora experiences the thrill of her bloodthirsty cravings for the first time when her cat consciousness materialises, and the curse claims its first victim …
No sooner had Hammer Films struck box office gold in 1956 with the release of the company’s first full-colour Gothic picture “The Curse of Frankenstein”, re-invigorating the horror genre and discovering in it a new formula that was to have a major impact on the shape of the British film industry for years to come, than a fleet of even smaller production houses and distributors began rushing to exploit the public appetite for this newly popular brand of florid X certificate fare, even if establishment critics and censors alike looked on in rancorous disapproval of the phenomenon, which seemed to them to be getting increasingly out of control by the time the 1960s dawned. In the two- or three-year state of grace before the moral panic truly set in -- after which time the BBFC began making life especially difficult for James Carreras, Anthony Hinds and the rest of the team at Bray Studios -- Hammer’s rivals ramped up and mixed together more and more eroticism and horror content in their pictures, until productions such as “Horrors of the Black Museum” and “Circus of Horrors” far outdid in their Eastman Colour luridness anything that was still being made by Hammer during the same period, even if these offerings were nowhere near as sophisticated in their scripting or execution as the best Bray had to offer. Among the many distributors looking to quickly cash in on that initial rush of interest generated by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in their first screen paring for Jimmy Sangster’s take on the Mary Shelley classic, were the joint heads of a tiny British distribution company called Anglo-Amalgamated: Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy.
Not long after the release of “The Curse of Frankenstein” had highlighted Hammer’s knack for striking profitable distribution deals with the majors, Cohen and Levy drew up a mutually beneficial exchange deal of their own with James H Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff of American International Pictures, allowing the two companies to pair their respective productions in a series of transatlantic double-bills. This arrangement eventually led to a series of co-produced British-American horror films also getting off the ground in the late-fifties, after AIP discovered production costs were considerably lower in London than they were in California. This financial partnership resulted in producer Herman Cohen’s aforementioned and infamously sadistic “Horrors of the Black Museum” getting made and distributed in the UK, while Anglo-Amalgamated simultaneously oversaw production of the film that was to be primarily responsible for the big censorship crackdown on British horror that was to come in the early part of the sixties -- namely Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom”. Clearly a serious film by one of the British film industry’s leading artists, this was the picture that now made it impossible for the self-appointed guardians of morality to ignore the rising influence of the exploitation field. After the ensuing furore over "Peeping Tom", which led to the film’s eventual withdrawal from circulation by Anglo-Amalgamated, and Powell’s career in his home country being brought to an sudden end amid one of the most hostile critical receptions ever afforded a major work of cinema, a good deal of the lurid fun went out of the British horror scene for some time as the film censors began to wield their scissors with ever more alacrity …
“Cat Girl” comes right at the beginning of this story, sometime before the ‘excessive’ sadism of the Anglo-Amalgamated exploitation scene got fully underway, and long before the BBFC-engineered decline of the genre which came about in response -- although hints of excesses to come are already apparent even at this early stage of the game. This was the first non-Hammer horror film to go into production in the UK (as a result of the deal struck between Anglo- Amalgamated and AIP) in direct response to the success the previous year of “The Curse of Frankenstein”. Three weeks of filming, beginning at the end of May, 1957, took place at Beaconsfield Studios, with a script written by Sam Arkoff’s brother-in-law (who was also the film’s producer), Lou Rusoff: he was also the brains behind AIP’s formidable quota of ‘50s B-movie cheapies such as “The She-Creature”, “It Conquered the World” and “Beach Party”. In the event, Rusoff’s work was completely rewritten ‘from start to finish’ by the film’s Old Etonian, English-born director Alfred Shaughnessy (later to become best known as the TV writer responsible for co-creating “Upstairs, Downstairs”), who was apparently given a brief to combine in his screenplay rewrite the ingredients of ‘erotic sex and violent horror’ now necessary in order to attain that coveted X certificate from the BBFC -- indicating that Anglo-Amalgamated was already embarking down the road that was eventually to lead to the making of its infamous ‘Sadian Trilogy’ even at this stage.
The odd admixture of American and English contributory elements continued both behind and in front of the camera, with “Carry on Sergeant” producer Peter Rogers joining Rusoff as a credited executive producer on the project and with a cast made up of the usual assembly of American and British performers, bringing about predictably variable results in tone. According to Shaughnessy the film was not a production that was ever viewed with great enthusiasm or seriousness by anybody working at Beaconsfield at the time, and Shaughnessy himself only agreed to fill the vacant director’s post because no-one else wanted the job and he was keen to get another film under his belt, whatever the subject or genre.
Inspired by Hammer’s recent success though it may well have been, in most respects “Cat Girl” looks to be stuck firmly in the horror genre’s not so recent past, having failed to assimilate the colourful visual opulence that was at the root of the popularity of “The Curse of Frankenstein”. Its sleeve-worn influences -- in terms both of the subject matter and its aesthetic ingredients -- hark back to the 1930s Universal series as well as, of course, the expressionist flavoured black-and-white stylings of RKO producer Val Lewton’s 1940s classics. Until the final reel, when Shaughnessy stages a sequence that does at least manage to approximate the shadowy suspense of several classic scenes from the Lewton catalogue, referencing both “Cat People” and “The Seventh Victim” respectively, “Cat Girl” is conspicuously lacking the same level of flair so often demonstrated by Lewton’s roster of directorial talents, such as Jacques Tourneur … which is unfortunate seeing as how Tourneur had himself also just completed shooting a new horror picture in Britain which came out in the same year as “Cat Girl” – namely the classic MR James adaptation of Casting the Runes, “Night of the Demon”.
The first act of “Cat Girl” takes the traditional form of an Old Dark House-style Gothic suspense drama set in the present day, where the urbane and cynical fish-out-of-water main characters are bemused by the ridged old-fashioned eccentricities of the gloomy Edmund and his elderly housekeeper, as well as their unappealing surroundings at the Brandt household. But the one ingredient that makes the film stand out as something which might be considered perhaps an above average property, even during these hackneyed stages of the proceedings, is the striking presence and performance of the twenty-four-year-old Barbara Shelley, appearing in her first major role in a British film after five years spent working as a model and an actress in Italy.
As a former convent girl turned fashion model and actress, Shelley was well-placed to become one of the most compelling on-screen embodiments of a theme that would soon come to be indelibly associated with director Terrence Fisher and his work for Hammer Films – namely the struggle between the light and dark in the soul of mankind, which in Fisher’s cinema was often a battle played out in the contested arena of female sexuality. Shelley was most memorably cast in Fisher’s “Dracula Prince of Darkness” as the uptight Victorian prude who is later transformed into one of the most wanton cinematic images of snarling vampiric carnality ever produced, hidden behind her appealing veneer of Siren-like sexual allure. These sorts of dual personas began to crop up persistently in the many roles Shelley was employed to play in Hammer’s films, another memorable offering being her ‘possession’ by the memories of a dead Martian species in Roy Ward Baker’s “Quatermass and the Pit”.
With its ripe depiction of the repressed and martyr-like Leonora’s transformation from placid, unhappily married housewife -- initially cast in the quintessentially British Celia Johnson mould of womanhood-- into the aggressively vicious feline stalker who’s out to take revenge on those who have wronged her and will allow nothing and no-one to prevent her from following and fulfilling her desires, “Cat Girl” marks the emergence of Barbara Shelley’s association with the portrayal of a certain kind of fatally conflicted female character who has hidden sexual depths; one whom we are encouraged simultaneously to both sympathise with and fear. It’s a curious feature of the Barbara Shelley screen persona that the more the characters she plays are seen to give in to the free expression of their innermost carnal natures, the more appealing she becomes as a presence on the screen; and yet, of course, ultimately most of her female characters are doomed, and must be made to pay the price for allowing such base qualities off the leash, in accordance with the social mores of the age these films were made in.
Director Alfred Shaughnessy famously remarked that by using Shelley for “Cat Girl” he feared that he had ‘condemned’ a very beautiful and talented actress to a long career in horror films’. But it’s really her assured skill at bringing powerful and complex character dualities to what otherwise could be dismissed as some fairly absurd roles, which explains her enduring appeal and her repeated casting in such work. “Cat Girl” is actually one of the kinkiest of these psychodramas, despite coming at the beginning of the exploitation boom period; the actress makes it perfectly plain in her reactions that Leonora gains a thrilled sexual charge from witnessing her unfaithful husband’s bloody demise at the claws of the leopard she now believes herself to have a psychic link with. Nevertheless, she’s made to look considerably more alluring, and is lit far more sympathetically by cinematographer Peter Hennessy, when, believing that she is the last living inheritor of the feline-centred family curse, she starts swishing about the Brandt house in an erotic backless gown with exaggeratedly pointed ‘cat’s ears’ ‘upholstery’ beneath the décolleté area, designed to lend particular emphasis to her breasts by cupping them in an amusingly blatant manner! In the early part of the film she’s presented as harsh, dour and unappealing -- only because she’s bitterly sacrificing her true self in the suppression of her proclivities for the sake of the preservation of her loveless marriage (we are first made subliminally aware of this after she is woken in bed during the night by the housekeeper -- a scene which incidentally presents to us the fact that she sleeps in the nude with a risqué shot from behind, when she sits up to reveal her bare back to the camera); however, all these carnal qualities were already there buried deep in her character, a fact that Cathy suspects when she tells Richard how she feels that Leonora is: ‘wild sometimes; almost savage like an animal. She terrifies me.’ And yet when Leonora’s erotically charged true self is finally liberated by belief in the curse, she is presented as being both visually and erotically appealing but also as something that is freakish and fundamentally perverted, hysterical and murderous – a dangerous force of female sexuality that needs to be controlled lest it becomes too destructive. The essential hypocrisy and confusion of 1950s gender attitudes can be surmised from the torrid tag line used for the film’s theatrical trailer: ‘Is she a woman to be caressed -- or a cloying menace to be destroyed?’ As usual, the movie wants it both ways.
The second half of the film sees the now superfluous Cathy and Allan exit the narrative for good. The action switches from the sepulchral Brandt household -- its two abusive patriarchal figures having now been permanently removed -- to a private London sanatorium where Leonora (initially) willingly deposits herself at the bequest of Dr Brian Marlowe, the former boyfriend she has since become emotionally attached to once again. In accordance with the ambiguity often attributed to the films of Val Lewton, whether or not the ‘curse’ under which Leonora feels herself to have been placed is actually a real one denoting a supernatural phenomenon, or merely a clinically diagnosable state of psychosis requiring medical intervention and akin to the Lycanthropic hallucinations associated with some forms of schizophrenia, is left very much up to the viewer’s discretion for the vast majority of the run time. In fact, despite all the Gothic trappings of the first half of the picture, if anything, the narrative tends more towards an endorsement of a psychological interpretation of Leonora’s unbalanced state of mind -- at least at first. Certainly we see nothing that appears demonstrably supernatural in character during these stages: Leonora’s fear and loathing of her uncle lends itself to the interpretation that she has been subjected to some form of abuse while living under the Brandt roof as a child, and that this explains her current mental decline and the fact that she is developing the same pathology as her abuser now that she has entered adulthood. He, after all, claims to have lived with ‘a love of darkness … the craving for raw, warm flesh and blood,’ and that this same legacy now belongs to her -- an inheritance that also requires that she avoid having children at all costs to ensure that the curse is not passed on once again.
Leonora is also inclined to begin with to accept Dr Marlowe’s psychological interpretation of her sensual cravings and feline sensations, and also his advice that she must leave the secluded family estate, with its vault full of macabre taxidermied cat specimens, in order to stand any chance of escaping the influence of ‘the morbid hobby of an unhinged old man’. However, Marlowe’s idea of curing Leonora’s obsessions also involves his engineering the suppression of the very elements of carnality inherent to the curse which have also seemed to bring with them a newfound sense of freedom and the awakening of Leonora’s spirit of independence. A key moment in the picture comes when she first enters the asylum and is faced with giving up her own clothes and being required to wear instead the bland, shapeless smock worn by all the other inmates of this place she’s been tricked into admitting herself into because of her infatuation with Marlowe. That’s the point at which she changes her mind about staying there (no cat ear-shaped cleavages on the dresses will be allowed here!) only to find that at this stage she is no longer free to refuse. Locked inside her ward she becomes like a caged animal, the only small piece of individuality she is able secretly to cling to amid the colourless surroundings of her spartanly furnished room being the red nail varnish that’s prominently discernible on her fingernails while she grips her pillow in despair and frustration. The scene that follows, in which the trapped Leonora feels herself to be transformed by the roaming spirit of the still-on-the-loose leopard (that does now seem to have followed her to London, and is currently prowling the city streets) and begins clawing at her own clothes and imagining her painted fingers transforming into a leopard’s claws, is charged with far more raw anguish, passion and desperation than is commonly demonstrated by most other genre film from this era, even those of Hammer, and it constitutes one of the most powerfully truthful instances of performance in Shelley’s filmography.
Whether or not her experiences are delusions or of a paranormal nature becomes tied to issues of patriarchal control in the latter half of the movie, with Leonora trying to persuade the dull, unyielding Marlowe (stiffly played by an uncharismatic Robert Ayres) of the reality of the cat curse, while he attempts to assert control over her inner-being through his medical authority, insisting that she is mentally unbalanced and suffering hallucinations. Marlowe’s conventional agenda is made more than apparent to the modern viewer when his idea of therapy turns out to be let Leonora out of her cell to accompany his boringly provincial and timid wife Dorothy (Kay Callard) on shopping trips, and to attend cosy afternoon teas at home in the living room of the Marlowe house. He evidently believes that exposure to the domestic regimes and lifestyle of an ordinary middle-class wife will act as cognitive therapy and teach the mad wild cat Leonora how a woman is supposed to behave in 1950s Britain … And if she doesn’t comply, well, then it’s back to the sense dulling banality of the asylum.
This foolhardy scheme predictably goes badly wrong, especially seeing as how Leonora is by now utterly romantically obsessed with the doctor (although he hardly deserves the attention) and focuses her savage urges on getting rid of his pretty but unassuming wife during the film’s final Lewton inspired set piece, when Shelley at last gets to play full-on malevolent -- clad in a distinctive shiny black raincoat as she stalks Dorothy through the shadow haunted streets of the east end of London while looking like a young Myra Hindley. The final moments of the picture appear to confirm the reality of the supernatural origins of the curse when Marlowe saves his wife from an attacking leopard in the street by running his car into it at full speed, but finds a piece of Leonora’s raincoat on his fender afterwards; while her crumpled body is found farther on up the road with injuries consistent with those of having been mown down by a speeding vehicle.
Naturally, Marlowe is able to shrug off overwhelming evidence that appears to convict him of -- at the very least -- manslaughter and “Cat Girl” ends by reasserting the patriarchal order and authority of the status quo, but Shelley makes Leonora the one memorable thing about an otherwise minor genre piece – the tragic product of a triumvirate of male emotional abuse: a conspiracy of cheating men, hubristic men and controlling men. The newly restored transfer on this welcome DVD release from Network is absolutely superb -- pin sharp and without blemish. Extras consist of only a trailer, a gallery of posters and production stills, and a short PDF readable contemporary press pamphlet. But it is the presentation of the film that counts, and its looks stunning here. The cover features the artwork for the British poster, complete with its original X certificate rating, although the film is today rated a mere 12.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!