January 2, 2017

Shadow of the Cat (1961)

Ah, now here’s a curious one. When is a Hammer film not a Hammer film? When it’s directed by one of their great in-house directors, written by George Baxt, stars Barbara Shelley, Andre Morell and Andrew Crawford, and is made by practically the same crew, but for some obscure technical, contractual, political, oh-bugger-me-what’s-Jimmy-Carreras-done-with-the-dosh reason, has to be released under the auspices of “B.H.P” (presumably “British Hammer Productions”, although to be honest it could just as easily stand for “Bloody Horror Productions” or “Babs’ Humongous Paps”)

All quibbles over its origin aside, though, Shadow of the Cat is actually a pretty neat little film with some genuine suspense, beautiful cinematography (Gilling always excelled in this area, even with the duffest of scripts) witty Old-Dark-House dialogue and a few decent scares thrown in. Most people with the exception of real Brit horror buffs haven’t heard of it, or tend to confuse it with any one of the numerous versions of The Cat and the Canary, but that doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable romp through the eerie corridors of traditional horror. The story is easy enough to pick up: in the pre-credit sequence we see an old dear (Morell’s wife) get bumped off by an unknown assailant; a crime to which the only witness is – surprise surprise – her beloved mog. A while later her scheming relatives (who all conspired to bump her off) turn up to fight over the will, followed by her favourite niece (Shelley) and her police doctor boyfriend, the only good apples in the barrel. Sure enough they all start to get picked off one by one, with a divine angel of retribution always seemingly close at hand in the form of the wily feline assassin. Eventually there’s no-one left except luscious, tweedy Babs, who it turns out halfway through the proceedings is named in the old lady’s real will (as opposed to the false one forged by her corrupt cousins) as the sole heir of the house and the cash, and her eminently suitable chap (or should that be chappish suitor?) End of.

Definitely an unusual film for the time, especially as there appear to be very few characters in it one can identify with, and we spend most of our time watching various ne’er-do-wells get their comeuppance and yet simultaneously feeling we should sympathise with them. Every time a death is seen (Lamont’s being particularly effective and unpleasant) it appears through the cat’s eyes in a kind of widescreen magnified wibble, something else that makes for memorable and ever-so-slightly unique cinema. Need we say also that the surroundings (yes, Black bloody Park again) are as lush, atmospheric and effective as any such locations in any such film have ever been, and the acting is faultless. There’s some particularly effective lines of the “I’ll wring its blasted neck if I get hold of it” variety, and Shelley, who had not long suffered pussy-related trouble of her own (oh do pack it in you lot up the back, who do you think I am, Mollie Sugden or something?) in Cat Girl, is nowhere near the sex-bomb that she would become in Dracula Prince Of Darkness, The Gorgon and Rasputin The Mad Monk yet still manages to smoulder her way through practically every frame.

As for Morell, well he’s every bit as oily and sinister as he ever was (except when playing the likeable and sympathetic Quatermass of course) albeit from a slightly more vulnerable (ie bedridden) viewpoint. If you’re an Andre fan, then there’s plenty here to both commend and recommend, maybe not quite on the level of 1984 or Cash On Demand but then again those are not easy standards to attain. Unfortunately, despite commendable performances all round, the film is let down by one major factor – the same factor that ultimately did for Night of a Thousand Cats and The Uncanny – (but not Because of the Cats, genre anoraks) which is that, let’s face it, even in wideview squashy anamorphic close-up, the domestic cat, or flibble as I prefer to call it, just isn’t that scary. If all enterprising horror and suspense directors of the 50s and 60s seemingly learned nothing else from Jacques Tourneur (when they should have) it’s that what we don’t see is much scarier than what we do (see what Hal Chester did to his otherwise-a-masterpiece Night of the Demon for proof), particularly in relation to feline-related horror, which is why both Cat People and The Leopard Man worked so well. Not that Shadow doesn’t, it’s just that the cat appears in shot so often right from the very get-go (apart from the ten minutes in the middle when it’s believed drowned until the sound of ghostly meowing is heard echoing across the grounds- now THAT’s effective) that by the end you can’t wait for it to hurry up and kill all its’ mistresses’ fiendish murderers quickly enough just so it can bugger off. Maybe if it had actually appeared only in shadow it would have been a lot scarier.

But these are minor quibbles (over minor flibbles?) and at the end of the day, the film is ultimately very enjoyable for the period piece that it is. It may have several idiosyncrasies that stick out a mile, but I’m of the opinion that by this point, producers and directors, especially at Hammer, were getting wise to the fact that the audience actually to an extent thrived on such things, and thus by definition was another tradition of The Great British Horror Film born. The more audiences commented on a film’s shortcomings, the more they seemed to want to throw ‘em in, and, by jove, old cove, that’s exactly what they did.

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About Drewe Shimon

Drewe Shimon has written 61 post in this blog.