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The Shadow of the Cat (1961)

Very rarely is there a movie that is just “bad”. I mean, sure, there are “bad-bad movies”; however, just as often, there are “good-bad movies”. Heck, I’ve even seen “bad-good movies”. We know this is a thing. So, sitting down to watch The Shadow of the Cat, I wondered what I was getting into. Well, read on. You might be surprised at what you find.

The Shadow of the Cat begins with the murder of an elderly woman (Catherine Lacey). This is Aunt Ella. However, there’s one problem the murderer didn’t factor in, Ella’s cat Tabitha saw everything, and she’s not pleased.

The family comes together in the wake of their aunt’s mysterious “disappearance” and the complicated dynamics in the toxic group bubbles to the surface. There’s inheritance issues, faked wills and a pleasant niece (Barbara Shelley) set to inherit everything. Despite all this though, Tabitha has other ideas. André Morell, William Lucas, Freda Jackson and Conrad Phillips co-star in the movie. John Gilling directs the film from a script by George Baxt.

A review like this is a hard one to craft. I do have to override the film critic part of my brain in some way. However, I’m just going to start with this: The Shadow of the Cat is a heck of a lot of fun, particularly once the it gets deeper into the second act.

The early acts are a bit of a slog as the movie attempts to lay the correct structural groundwork. There are a lot of characters here and alot of conflicting motivations, all of which have to be established. While the actors are all doing their darndest, particularly Morell and Shelley, there’s just not enough to solidify any real feelings towards these people. There’s just not enough of anything here for the two legged humans to sell much beyond the basics.

The film does lay the groundwork for some interesting character drama, particularly an examination of the murder and resulting effect on the human conscious. In truth, there are tantalizing hints of this heavy psychological subject matter throughout the first two acts, but the narrative is largely dropped as the story reaches the height of act two.

Ultimately, where this film finds its footing is in the final act and a half, which is, in a word, bananas. I mean, it’s a bit of a challenge to determine just what the story is going for. The Shadow of the Cat is tremendously enjoyable and brings some absolutely delightful moments; however, it’s hard to assume this is the what the filmmakers intended. After all, it is billed as a horror movie. As I watched the conclusion, I legitimately struggled with how to think about this picture. Is the cat Tabitha supposed to be seen as a monster? I’m not really a cat person and even I was rooting for this plucky and crafty little feline. She’s the hero of this story and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

That being said, it’s difficult to pass any real judgment on The Shadow of the Cat thanks to Gilling and his creative team nailing the production, both stylistically and tonally. Gilling enjoyed a fascinating career directing in the United Kingdom with a list of credits which I’m officially questing for now, namely: Vampire Over London (1952), Double Exposure (1954) and Fury at Smugglers Bay (1961). The director worked steadily throughout the 1950s and 1960s, specializing in genre work of the most delightful nature.

Visually, The Shadow of the Cat oozes “Hammer Horror” from each and every pore– no pun intended, I promise. And it is this, I suppose which is the most surprising element of the film. It very closely resembles the style of some of the greatest horror movies to come out of the legendary studio. It’s a spooky, moody and atmospheric, ‘Old Dark House’ narrative. As you watch, it feels very plausible these people could be battling against ghosts or the darkness of mankind (or something of an equally intense nature), so the shift in the action as the second act comes to a close is a bit jarring if you aren’t expecting it. All I can say is, embrace it.

Ultimately, a film like The Shadow of the Cat largely depends on your perspective going into it. A movie might look “bad”, but it isn’t always that simple. Sure, I can’t tell you if what I picked up from The Shadow of the Cat is what director John Gilling would have wanted, but I had an absolute blast watching this movie and you should too.

MeTv is airing The Shadow of the Cat as part of Svengoolie on March 20th.

4 thoughts on “The Shadow of the Cat (1961) Leave a comment

  1. Shadow Of The Cat – Is it the Eyes or the Shadow…? I liked Kimberly’s approach to this odd vintage picture.

    This is such a curious work. Its producer Jon Pennington seemed to be attracted to unusual themes, the year before he made “Faces in the Dark” another story with a haunting ironic final outcome. He also seems to have been fond of working with the much exiled political activist and great Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis ~ an unusual choice for both movies. In fact, if you took the exciting Theodorakis score for ‘Cat’…with its eerie grinding base and shrill stings (perfectly bringing to mind the quick movements of a panicked cat) this film would lose much of its considerable atmosphere. The pounding (near symphonic) main title, played over the image of an old dark country manor at the turn of the century sounds reminiscent of a ghostly steam locomotive, this makes the setting appear doubly creepy and hammers home the seriousness of the nasty crime that’s just been committed.

    People rave about the directorial touches but director John Gilling, while he does a most capable job, had such superb assistance from several important professionals…Veteran director of photography: Arthur Grant (‘Quartermas and the Pit ’67) works wonders with stark, super sharp B/W images in various difficult indoor situations as well as wide-open spaces. The remarkable look of the indoor settings were stylishly created by two hard-working gents, Art Director: Don Mingaye (‘Phantom of the Opera’ 61) and Production Designer: Bernard Robinson who, also in ’61, is known for the super atmospheric ‘Scream of Fear’. The editor: John Pomeroy (who has also been known to direct) cuts tricky scenes together with much flourish. Then there’s veteran sound recordist: Ken Cameron capturing all the verbal dramatics and atmos. Writer, American born George Baxt weaves individual nuances into each of his greed-driven characters – that just seem to keep coming out of the rotting woodwork. This is an A1 team at work behind the camera.

    In retrospect, it might perhaps be a pity that director Gilling decided to change Baxt’s original script, where the cat was intended to be seen only in ‘shadow’ (a form of psychological metaphor). Then again, others will argue there are some fine shots of this impressive feline used to good advantage, so maybe it’s not easy to decide what may have been better (although I like Baxt’s thoughts) Some Cat lovers will be delighted, others won’t be overly impressed. Some won’t buy the idea of a cat causing such panic, but this bunch of characters are murderers under close investigation, living on their guilt-ridden nerves in an era where superstition was rife. They are also struggling with a haunted ‘collective’ bad conscience.

    The entire cast are rather amazing at what they have to convey, such a gathering of stalwart British ensemble players. Any lesser performers may not have been convincing within some of the more difficult to grasp situations. It seems this was originally intended as a Hammer Studios film but I’ve found some of the smaller Hammer productions can at times look a little cheap. The quality production values of this film suggest that Independent producer Jon Pennington may have invested his own larger budget for this odd little work. A few years ago my sister purchased a DVD of ‘S.O.T.Cat’ from a seller in the UK who claimed his was the only DVD available. It had annoying permanently ‘burnt into the image’ subtitles! At last, we can now get this new Final Cut release DVD, which features one of the best ‘Stills Gallery’ extras I’ve ever seen –sections of the full original music score are synchronized to wonderfully edited images from the feature–

    Congratulations Final Cut for this rare quality product. Look for it while you can! It may not please everyone but those who view it as a product of its day, and within the limits of its very well used budget, could be pleasantly surprised … Anyone seen Tabitha? Purrrr….

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