Cat Girl (1957)
“To caress me is to tempt death!”
Director: Alfred Shaughnessy
Cast: Barbara Shelley, Robert Ayres, Kay Callard
Synopsis: A young woman inherits a family curse that turns her into a murderous feline when she is angered.
The title of this obscure British B-movie from Insignia Films will clue horror aficionados into its influence and aspiration, but Cat Girl bears no comparison with Val Lewton’s atmospheric 1940s psycho-sexual horror flick Cat People. It was written by Lou Rusoff, a hack writer whose previous credits included such low-market titles as The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (1955) and Girls in Prison (1956). Apparently the script he delivered was so shoddy that director Alfred Shaughnessy felt compelled to extensively rewrite it. We can only imagine, with a shudder, how bad Cat Girl might have been had he not because, even after the benefit of Shaughnessy’s doctoring, it stinks as bad as, well, cat poo.
Barbara Shelley, who is the only person to emerge from Cat Girl with dignity and reputation intact, plays Leonora (geddit?) Johnson, the feline female of the title. She’s in a bit of a state when we first meet her, and who can blame her? Creepy Uncle Edmund (Ernest Milton), her only surviving relative, has summoned her to his creepy Gothic mansion. He stipulated that she must visit alone, but Leonora has brought along her wastrel husband, Richard (Jack May) and their friends Allan (John Lee), a vague-minded alcoholic, and his wife Cathy (Patricia Webster), with whom Richard is having an affair.
Stopping off at a pub on the way to Uncle Eddie’s, they run into Dr Brian Marlowe (Robert Ayres), an old flame for whom it’s clear she’s still carrying a torch. Marlowe is still married, though, and makes it clear that he’s not interested. Later that night, having finally turned up at her Uncle’s gloomy mansion, the old boy informs her that she is about to inherit the 700-year-old family curse. It turns out that the last surviving member of the Brandt family is doomed to have this kind of dual existence as both a human being and an ever so slightly out-of-shape leopard. Later that night, Edmund dies and the curse is passed on to Leonora.
Rusoff and Shaughnessy’s script can best be described as functional. It does little to flesh out its characters other than with the broadest of strokes (philanderer, slut, drunk, etc) and provides lines that drive forward the story without providing much depth. While there was a good deal of mileage to be extracted from Leonora’s gradual transformation from a frightened and disbelieving victim to a scheming, manipulative she-cat, the film pretty much botches it. The signs it gives us of her slow transformation are provided by the way she holds her hands like claws, starts wearing polka dots, and savages Dr Marlowe’s budgie. Not exactly subtle stuff…
And Marlow has to be one of the most irritatingly stupid characters ever to have leading man status thrust upon them. Supposedly a Harley Street psychiatrist, he makes some incredibly stupid decisions. Believing Leonora to be psychologically ill, he has her committed to an asylum — or sanitarium, as he prefers to call it — only to then have her released for the sketchiest of reasons. Despite knowing that this woman whom he previously believed to be a little bit bonkers is excessively jealous of his wife, Dorothy (Kay Callard), he somehow decides it would be a good idea if the pair of them spent some time together alone. The guy’s lucky it was only his budgie that he lost. And as for that ’conquest of mind over matter’ ending, well the comical absurdity of it all almost — but not quite — makes this dull mess worth watching.
(Reviewed 31st August 2013)