Cat Girl is a UK take on Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 US film, Cat People, a favourite of mine that I reviewed a little while back. Released in 1957 (the same year as Tourneur’s other well-known horror, Night of the Demon), it’s been put out on DVD as part of Network’s British Film series — coincidentally in the same month as Cat People finally gets a Region 2 release (from Odeon Entertainment). It’s not a film I’d heard of, and I was immediately intrigued.
Newly-married Leonora (Hammer Horror’s Barbara Shelley in her first starring role) is summoned back to the family home by mad old uncle Edmund. She goes reluctantly and, despite her uncle’s stipulations, not alone, bringing her new husband, Richard, as well as his (unknown to her) lover Cathy and Cathy’s hanger-on, Alan. Her uncle has doleful news, but waits till the dead of night before summoning her to his study. (In the meantime, he nips outside to take a bloody bite or two out of a raw rabbit, in the company of a leopard he keeps in a cage.) On the back of the DVD case, Network say Cat Girl is an “updating” of Jacques Tourneur’s earlier film, but already it seems to be taking a step backwards. Cat People was set firmly in the contemporary world, and certainly got some of its power from having the supernatural emerge into a modern reality at utter odds to the fantastic. But here we’re in full old-fashioned Gothic mode, complete with blustery thunderstorm, old dark house, mad uncle poring over piles of ancient books, foreign-accented retainer with a limp, flickering candles, billowing curtains, long, frilly nighties, and a 700-year-old family curse.
The curse is Uncle Edmund’s news. He is about to die (as predicted in one of his musty old books), and Leonora, as the only remaining member of the Brandt family, will take on the curse. It’s lycanthropy, but with a twist: instead of turning into a wolf (or, in this case, a leopard — though the film posters mostly feature a panther), at night Leonora’s soul will enter that of the leopard Uncle Edmund keeps in a cage in his study. It will be “the servant of your mind, the strength of your body”, and she’ll feel its “love of darkness, the craving for warm flesh and blood”. His message delivered, Uncle Edmund then goes out into the blustery dark to become the leopard’s next victim, and the curse is passed on. The following day, an already slightly unbalanced Leonora enacts her first lycanthropic revenge: finding her husband and Cathy canoodling in a copse, she sets the leopard on them. Cathy escapes, Richard doesn’t.
Cat Girl then leaves the gothic for something a bit more modern. It’s already been established that Leonora’s real love is for a former crush, now a Harley Street psychiatrist, Dr Brian Marlowe. He, however, is married (to Dorothy — the psychiatrist’s wife’s Dotty!), but, in the usual tradition of silver screen headshrinks (none of whom seem to have any sense of ethics), elects to treat the increasingly besotted/deranged Leonora himself. In what is, perhaps, the film’s most chilling sequence, Leonora books herself into Marlow’s institute, only to find herself being rendered increasingly powerless. Her belongings are taken off her, her room has bars on the window, and glimpses of her fellow inmates confirm that this is, despite Dr Marlow’s assurances, an asylum for the fully insane. Then night falls, and she goes properly bonkers — or, rather, goes into full mind-meld with her leopard, and is left convinced, the next day, that her hands have been turned into claws and her face is that of a hideous predator. Her descent into a cat-like frenzy, tearing at her bedsheets, her clothes, and her own skin, is a moment of genuine horror — though it’s not the sort Cat Girl is ultimately aiming for. Because, after this, Leonora shifts from the film’s heroine to its monster.
Not quite as useless as Cat People’s lecherous Dr Judd, Dr Marlowe still believes he has the situation under control. So under control, in fact, that after this one night of madness, he decides this obviously dangerous and self-harming woman will recover better in the company of normal people — of his wife, in fact, despite Leonora’s clear hostility to Dorothy. (Dorothy, meanwhile, produces a string of cat-related double entendres whenever talking of, or to, Leonora. My favourite: “Be a pet and zip me up.”) Dorothy at least has the sense to start feeling creeped out when, having left Leonora alone with her budgie for a moment, she comes back to find nothing in the cage but feathers.
Cat Girl has neither the brooding, pressure-cooker feel of Cat People, nor its sense of tragedy (Irena’s scrabbling for normality, then her resigned and finally gleeful backslide into lycanthropy, are so much more sustained than Leonora’s madness), but it does provide some new variants on the same situation. The most interesting aspect is Barbara Shelley’s passage from helpless gothic heroine, through to a more modern gothic victimhood (trapped in an asylum, teetering on the verge of madness), then to an increasingly torrid darkness, ending the film as a psycho-killer in a black mac, almost as if you can see horror cinema in the process of sloughing off the skin of its own Gothic past. Unlike Cat People (which has two distinctly tense horror scenes in a tightly orchestrated plot), Cat Girl has only one real build-up of tension, at the end, as Leonora stalks her love-rival through the night streets of London. The moment she slips out of her shoes to better pad after her prey you know the game is really on — though, by this time, the film is almost over.
An interesting add-on to Cat People, then — and a film that’s left me wondering, what other good British horror films were there in the 1950s?