Bill’s Bizarre Bijou
By William D. Carl
This Week’s Feature Presentation:
SHADOW OF THE CAT (1961)
Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable – then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open. Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes!
Since the beginning of motion pictures, films have attempted to cast average household pets as evil villains, waiting for their owners to forget them for just one moment before they pounce on them and perform various unspeakable acts upon their persons. From Holmes and Watson facing off against the eerily howling THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939) to the rabid St. Bernard of CUJO (1983) to the human-flesh-addicted felines in THE CORPSE GRINDERS (1971) to the hundreds of starving cats in STRAYS (1991), Hollywood has tried to make man’s best friends into horror movie fodder, with mixed results. For every CUJO, there is a DEVIL DOG, HOUND OF HELL (1978), in which scary music plays over the cutest puppy you’ve ever seen. For every scary cat from PET SEMATARY (1989), we get a killer kitty like the pussycat in THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (1961), which just happens to be on our drive-in screen tonight!
Amidst a furious lightning storm, an old lady, Ella Venable (Catherine Lacey), reads The Raven aloud to her pussycat, Tabitha, who doesn’t seem very interested in the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. When she glances up, she sees one of her servants, Andrew the butler, with a cudgel, and he promptly bashes her head in while Tabitha watches, unperturbed. The servant drags the old lady outside while the female cook/maid, Clara, watches and the old woman’s husband, Walter (played by Andre’ Morrell of THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, 1959, BEN HUR, 1959, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, 1965, and BARRY LYNDON, 1975) helps with the corpse. Once in the woods, they quickly bury her in a pre-dug grave. All the while, the cat watches, freaking out the hubbie and the servants to no end. Two days later, Walter calls the police and reports his wife as missing, while the servants try to catch the cat. It seems the animal just keeps staring at them. Clara, the cook, played by the great Freda Jackson (who starred in such fabulous movies as GREAT EXPECTATIONS, 1946, TOM JONES, 1963, and THE VALLEY OF GWANGI, 1969) is especially disturbed by the cat, and she falls into hilarious shrieking fits every time she sees the pussycat. Walter claims the cat “saw everything. It’s a witness, and it needs to be killed.” Walter and Andrew decide it’s time to send for Ella’s niece, Elizabeth, played by the Queen of British Horror herself, lovely Barbara Shelley (VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, 1960, DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, 1966, FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH, 1967, and the titular monster of THE GORGON, 1964). Walter wants to “deal with” Elizabeth so that the will isn’t disputed.
Meanwhile, Tabitha lures the two evil servants and Walter into the cellar, where Walter admits, “I’d like to brain it. I hate it! Here kitty-kitty!” Of course, the scene ends with Walter braining Andrew while the cat/witness escapes. Once again, everyone is terrified of this adorable little pussycat. Walter even sees a dead rat on the floor, neatly arranged by Tabitha, and he has a heart attack. Unfortunately, Walter lives, but the family’s friend and Ella’s protégé, Michael Latimer (played by Conrad Phillips of CIRCUS OF HORRORS, 1960 and SONS AND LOVERS, 1960) becomes concerned with the missing woman and the unnatural fear of the kitty in the household. When he drives Elizabeth to the spooky mansion, he mentions it, and she asks, “You mean to tell me an ordinary domestic cat is terrorizing three grown-ups?”
Andrew, watching over the sick Walter, is clawed in the face by the cat, but the little beast purrs and loves on Elizabeth. Clara tries to poison the feline eyewitness and Arnold chases it to the swamp. The cat waits till he’s on an unsteady log over quicksand before shaking the log and sending the butler to his doom. Soon after, the cat trips the cook/maid, and Clara tumbles down the stairs, breaking her neck.
Uncle Walter, still obsessing over Tabitha, sends for three cousins. He promises them a cut of his inheritance if they find and kill the cat as well as tracking down a hidden will made by Ella, which gives everything to Elizabeth. This sets them off trying to trap the murderous kitty as well as hunting for the will. The wife of one of the cousins takes to suddenly popping into the disabled old man’s bedroom and shouting “UNCLE!” at the top of her lungs, hoping to instigate another heart attack. Her husband, supposedly watching over the recovering uncle, decides to cut him out of the will entirely, and he leaves the window open, a perfect entryway for Tabitha. Our vengeance-fueled feline promptly enters the room, climbs up on the bed, and scares the old man so much he succumbs to a fit, dying in bed.
Will the missing documents be found? Will the cousins “take care” of Elizabeth? Will the kitty slaughter off the rest of the cast? Will justice be served?
THE SHADOW OF THE CAT is purported to be a BHP Production. Upon further inspection, it appears this is a subsidiary of the beloved Hammer Films, which only makes sense when you peruse the production credits. Almost all of the actors had starred in or soon would appear in Hammer productions. The film was stylishly directed by John Gilling, who also helmed THE MUMMY’S SHROUD, 1967, THE REPTILE, 1966, and THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, 1966. The effective, shadowy black and white cinematography is by Arthur Grant, who also shot FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH, 1967, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, 1968, and TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, 1970. The gothic drama reeks of fog and atmosphere, aided immensely by the creepy old Bray House (often utilized for exteriors by Hammer) and that creepy old bog of a swamp. It’s a complete Hammer film without the Hammer moniker. The moody music is by Mikis Theodorakis, who would memorably compose the themes for ZORBA THE GREEK (1964) and SERPICO (1973). It’s a quality production all around, and that’s what makes it so confounding.
Is Tabitha really the villain here? I hope not, because there is literally NOTHING scary about the kitty-cat killing machine. Every time they show its sweet face, scary music plays, and the audience is supposed to be held in suspense. Instead of terror, this inspires fits of giggles, completely defeating the rest of the production. Everything in the flick is great, with the exception of the cat not being scary. It’s just so cute you want to put its picture on a meme and add funny sayings at the bottom. So you have this well-made movie with an ineffective monster.
Or is the monster supposed to be reflected in the servants and the family. They see their guilt and complicity in Tabitha, and they bump themselves off through their self-doubt and the knowledge of their culpability in Ella’s murder. They are being stalked and murdered by their own subconscious guilt. It’s much more interesting than the killer pussycat movie.
I give THE SHADOW OF THE CAT two and a half dead butlers in the bog.
© Copyright 2012 by William D. Carl