Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Spy Smasher (1942)

Spy Smasher is a 1942 Republic serial and it’s one of the very best of its breed.

Spy Smasher is a typical masked crime-fighter except that his target is not crime but espionage. His particular target is Nazi fifth-columnists and spies within the United States. The mastermind behind the German espionage operations in the US is a mysterious figure  known only as The Mask. The character originated with Fawcett Comics.

Spy Smasher’s real name is Alan Armstrong. He fights espionage in the US but he holds no official US government position. This was necessary because the original comic dated from a time when the US had not yet entered the war and was still technically a neutral country. The serial added the character of Alan’s twin brother Jack (both brothers being played by Kane Richmond). Jack helps Spy Smasher in his campaign against The Mask.

Spy Smasher receives unofficial support from Admiral Corby, a senior figure in US naval intelligence.

The serial opens in Nazi-occupied France, with Spy Smasher apparently about to be executed. Needless to say he pulls off an amazing escape and is soon on his way back to the United States. He has discovered the existence of a vast and sinister network of Nazi espionage and sabotage, under the direction of a sinister masked figure known (appropriately enough) as The Mask. The Mask directs operations from a U-boat.

The Mask’s activities are wide-ranging, including sabotage of American bombers by the use of a death ray, an attempt to destroy the US economy with counterfeit dollars and the theft of gold. 

The Mask’s operatives in the US include reporters for a television network. Television was an extremely popular device in the movie serials of this era. Every self-respecting diabolical criminal mastermind had access to television technology.

William Witney is regarded today as one of the best directors of serials and he does a superb job. Pacing is always a potential problem when you have a story-line spread over 12 episodes but Spy Smasher has no problems at all in that area. Witney is also quite masterful in his staging of the obligatory cliff-hanger episode endings - they’re among the very best and most exciting to be found in any serial.

The action is frenetic and non-stop. There are countless fist fights, gun duels and explosions and Witney always manages to make them more imaginative than is usual in the serial genre.

There is action in the air and on the ground, in trains and automobiles, at sea and under the sea. Every action scene seems to take place in a different setting. It’s difficult not to repeat yourself at some stage in a twelve-episode serial but Witney pulls out all the stops to ensure that it happens as little as possible.

Spy Smasher neatly avoids the worst serial cliché of all, the heroine who is constantly getting herself kidnapped by the bad guys.

The miniatures work in this serial is extremely impressive. One of the coolest gadgets is the sinister Bat Plane used by the German spies. It’s a strange futuristic design and ironically it bears some resemblance to some of the advanced experimental aircraft built by the Germans in the later stages of the war. The submarine sequences are very well done and quite convincing. Although it was done on a modest budget compared to Universal’s Flash Gordon serials the special effects and miniatures work in Spy Smasher actually look better than in Universal’s serials.

The ATI DVD release includes all twelve episodes on a single disc. The transfers are pretty decent. There are no extras. This is such a visually impressive serial that it really would benefit from a deluxe fully restored DVD or Blu-Ray release. 

Spy Smasher manages to combine all of the virtues of the serial format without any of its vices. This is one of the very best Hollywood serials, wonderfully energetic, expertly crafted with an extraordinary flair. It has the perfect mix of gadgets, action, suspense and sheer unadulterated fun. An absolute must-see if you’re a serial fan. Very highly recommended.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Tower of London (1939)

Universal’s Tower of London, released in 1939, is an historical drama rather than a horror movie. However the presence in the cast of Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, as well as Basil Rathbone, makes it of considerable interest to horror fans. Roger Corman directed an inferior remake in 1962.

The story of the rise and fall of Richard III is so dramatic that it would be almost impossible to make a dull movie on the subject. And this movie is certainly far from dull.

Basil Rathbone has the starring role as Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later to become King Richard III). His brother King Edward IV (Ian Hunter) reigns. The previous king, the mad Henry VI, is a prisoner in the Tower of London. Henry VI’s son tries to wrest the throne from King Edward but is defeated and killed by Gloucester at the decisive Battle of Tewkesbury.

Edward IV has two young sons so the succession seems assured and clear-cut. The King however is suspicious of his brother the Duke of Clarence (Vincent Price). He is not suspicious at all of the Duke of Gloucester, although he should be. Gloucester is a skillful and subtle plotter and he is determined to gain the throne for himself. In a rather nice touch the movie has Gloucester manipulating puppets in a puppet theatre, each puppet representing one of the people who stands between him and the throne.

There are numerous fairly complex sub-plots. I’m not really sure it would be possible to keep track of the complex inter-relationships and the byzantine machinations of the leading figures without having a reasonably good knowledge of the history of the period. The motivations of many of the leading characters are exceptionally complicated. This is especially true of the Duke of Clarence.

Despite the complexities of the plot the movie moves along at a brisk pace and there is plenty of drama.

Basil Rathbone was always a splendid villain, and in this movie Richard is most certainly a villain. He is cold-blooded and calculating, and a patient and remorseless schemer. This is one of the more subtle screen portrayals of Richard III and one of the most believable - Rathbone’s performance makes it possible to understand how Richard could have got away with his plotting for so long, hiding it under a veneer of charm. 

Vincent Price plays Clarence as something of a fop, a man whose ambitions would be dangerous if he had the strength of character to back them up. The scene in which Clarence’s love of Malmsey wine catches up to him is rather well played.

The movie’s claims to being a horror movie rest mainly on Boris Karloff’s performance as Mord, the Duke of Gloucester’s chief executioner and general-purpose evil henchman. Mord is partly crippled by a misshapen foot, a clever echo of Gloucester’s own deformity (although Gloucester’s hunchback is downplayed in this movie). Mord is a classic Karloff villain.

The weakness of the movie is that we’re not really left with any sympathetic characters to identify with. Rathbone’s performance is good but it’s perhaps makes him an overly two-dimensional villain with the result that the audience might find itself not caring too much who comes out on top in the movie’s endless power struggles. The closest thing we have to a hero is John Wyatt (John Sutton), but he’s rather bland and too much of a peripheral character to count as a real hero.

Rowland V. Lee directed the production from a screenplay by his brother Robert N. Lee. Rowland V. Lee’s career included a number of horror and adventure movies, including the superb Son of Frankenstein, so he must have seemed a sound choice to helm this one. He does a competent if uninspired job. The battle scenes benefit from being dark and chaotic but suffer from being markedly unexciting. Universal were trying to keep the budget within reasonable bounds but they were also to a large degree aiming the movie at their traditional horror market which may also explain why it was shot in black-and-white. The production ran well over schedule and over budget although it managed to turn a profit.

Towards the end Tower of London suddenly becomes more of an adventure movie, in fact a bit of a medieval heist movie. And Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone deliver some genuine horror moments.

This movie features in Universal’s five-movie Boris Karloff Collection DVD boxed set. The transfer is quite superb. The boxed set itself is a worthwhile buy for horror fans.

Tower of London is a fairly entertaining historical melodrama with enough gruesome touches to keep horror fans happy. Rathbone and Karloff are the main reasons for seeing this film although Vincent Price has his moments as well. Had it been released on its own I wouldn’t recommend this as a purchase but since it’s included in a boxed set that is worth buying for other reasons there’s no reason not to give this one a watch.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Dragonwyck (1946)

Dragonwyck is one of the great gothic romance movies. It’s one of three classic Hollywood gothic romances of the 1940s, the others being Jane Eyre and Rebecca. A gothic romance is not necessarily a horror movie. Rebecca is not a horror movie. Dragonwyck on the other hand is both gothic romance and horror. It is also one of the few great ghost movies made by Hollywood during the heyday of the studio system.

Ernst Lubitsch was to have directed the movie but withdrew due to illness thus giving Joseph L. Mankiewicz the chance to direct his first feature. Mankiewicz also wrote the screenplay. Dragonwyck was released by 20th Century-Fox in 1946.

The studio saw the movie as very much a vehicle for Gene Tierney who was one of their brightest stars at the time. Gregory Peck was to be her co-star but before filming began he was replaced by Vincent Price. With all due respect to Gregory Peck the decision to go for Price as the male lead was a very fortunate one. 

The movie is set in 1844. Tierney plays Miranda Wells, a farm girl from Connecticut. Her parents are respectable buy by no means wealthy. Her father Ephraim (Walter Huston) is a god-fearing man but underneath a slightly forbidding exterior he has a good heart and his concern for his daughter’s welfare is genuine. The arrival of a very unexpected letter throws the family into some turmoil. The letter is from Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price), a very wealthy man and a distant cousin. Van Ryn’s letter contains an offer to take one of the two Wells daughters into his home for an extended period. She will act as a governess/companion to Van Ryn’s child. Living with Van Ryn and his wife will offer the daughter enormous social advantages.

Miranda has never been entirely satisfied by life as a farmer’s daughter and she is desperately keen to take advantage of this opportunity. Ephraim is not impressed by the idea at all but Miranda is a girl who knows how to get her own way.

Miranda’s arrival at Dragonwyck, the forbidding gothic mansion that is the Van Ryn family seat, is quite a culture shock for her. Miranda’s lack of education and even more particularly her lack of the social graces will make things somewhat uncomfortable for her. 

And there are definite tensions at Dragonwyck. Nicholas Van Ryn and his wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne) seem very ill-matched. Their daughter Katrine (Connie Marshall) is a very strange child, disturbingly melancholy and emotionally distant. 

There is also considerable unrest on the part of Nicholas Van Ryn’s tenant farmers. In this part of the United States a form of feudal landholding remains in existence. The system dates back to the early Dutch settlement in the 1630s. There is widespread political agitation to change this system and Van Ryn’s tenants are openly rebellious. Dr Jeff Turner (Glenn Langan) is one of the chief agitators and there is a great deal of hostility between Dr Turner and Nicholas Van Ryn. This will cause complications when the doctor gets drawn into the increasingly tense situation at Dragonwyck.

Dr Turner is clearly taking a romantic interest in Miranda Wells, but Nicholas Van Ryn is just as obviously also interested in her. And Van Ryn clearly has little interest in his wife.

Gene Tierney copes well with a difficult role. She has to make Miranda convincingly naïve without making her seem overly foolish and she also has to make Miranda 

Unlike the heroine of Rebecca, Miranda is not a passive victim. She is somewhat naïve but in the early scenes with her family we have already seen that she can be very persuasive when it comes to getting something she wants. Persuasive almost to the point of being manipulative. She is rather more complex than she seems at first to be, and her part in the tragic events that unfold at Dragonwyck is not entirely passive. The challenge for Gene Tierney was to make Miranda naïve without being foolish and mildly manipulative without being sinister, and all the while retaining the audience’s sympathies. It’s a deceptively  difficult rôle and Tierney handles it confidently.

While Gene Tierney got top billing Vincent Price has the most crucial part. It’s a kind of dress rehearsal for so many of his later horror movie rôles and he already has the tragic but sinister and decadent aristocratic vibe working to perfection. Nicholas Van Ryn is a monster but he’s a complicated monster. 

Glenn Langan is both irritating and bland as the rabble-rousing Dr Turner.

The political sub-plot involving the rebellious tenant farmers asserting what they see as their democratic rights was apparently in Anya Seton’s source novel but it feels rather clumsy. Its main purpose seems to be to show us that Nicholas Van Ryn is a wicked aristocrat, and also to suggest that he is a relic of the past. And indeed he is, as are most classic gothic heroes. Personally I found it had the opposite affect to that which was intended - it made me more sympathetic to him, it made him seem more a victim of his past than a mere monster. Or perhaps that was part of Mankiewicz’s intention, to make Nicholas a more complex monster.

Arthur C. Miller’s black-and-white cinematography is superb. The sets, the costumes, the art direction in general, are all magnificent. This is a gloriously and extravagantly gothic movie.

Dragonwyck was released on DVD as part of the three-movie Fox Horror Classics Volume 2 set (which also includes Chandu the Magician and Dr. Renault's Secret). The transfers are excellent. The Dragonwyck DVD includes a host of extras including a commentary track by Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr. Habermann displays a genuine and pleasing knowledge of the gothic literary heritage.

Dragonwyck is outrageous gothic melodrama, enlivened by great performances by Gene Tierney and Vincent Price. Highly recommended, more perhaps for its style than its content.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Escape to Athena (1979)

Escape to Athena is an action adventure comedy. Some viewers might feel it leans too heavily in the direction of comedy but to compensate for this it has enough good ideas to carry off the action adventure elements.

Producers David Niven Jr and Jack Wiener assembled a notable cast for this production and they had plenty of money to play with. Director George P. Cosmatos came up with the original idea which was licked into shape by screenwriter Edward Anhalt.

The setting is a German prisoner-of-war camp on one of the Greek islands in 1944. This is a prisoner-of-war camp with a difference. Its purpose is to loot the island of its archaeological treasures. The loot is supposed to be sent to Berlin but the camp’s commandant, Major Otto Hecht (Roger Moore), makes sure that the choice items find their way to his sister in Switzerland. Before the war Hecht had been a crooked dealer in antiquities and he is fleecing his political masters in Berlin the same way he fleeced his pre-war customers.

Hecht is a thief but in other respects he’s a decent enough fellow. He has no interest in ideology and since he’s using the prisoners to dig up the archaeological treasures he treats them quite well. Hecht is patriotic enough as long as it doesn’t interfere with his plans to enrich himself. His lack of nazi fervour puts him at odds with the island’s SS commander, Major Volkmann (Anthony Valentine). Volkmann is efficient but brutal and he indulges his taste for cruelty rather freely.

Hecht has assembled the sorts of prisoners best suited for his purposes including archaeologist Professor Blake (David Niven).

The latest batch of prisoners comprises two American entertainers shot down on their way to a USO concert. Dottie del Mar (Stefanie Powers) happens to be a champion swimmer as well as a singer and dancer and her swimming abilities are likely to be useful to Hecht in obtaining sunken treasures. Charlie Dane (Elliott Gould) is a standup comic who is unlikely to be of any use but Hecht is oddly fond of him, partly because they share a passion for American jazz.

The Greek Resistance is active on the island. Their leader is a defrocked monk named Zeno (Telly Savalas). Zeno’s girlfriend Eleana (Claudia Cardinale) runs the local brothel which is in reality the centre of the Resistance’s intelligence-gathering on the island. With an allied invasion in the offing Zeno has orders to take control of the island in order to destroy its U-boat refuelling depot and certain other much more top-secret installations. The island is also a missile base and its V2 missiles pose a major threat to an allied invasion fleet. Which is complete nonsense militarily, but this is only a movie after all and the missile base does add a very cool touch.

To take over the island Zeno will need the assistance of the prisoners. He gains their co-operation by promising to allow them to loot the island’s cliff-top monastery of its Byzantine treasures. This aspect of the operation appeals particularly strongly to Charlie Dane, and also to the camp’s Italian cook Bruno Rotelli (Sonny Bono) and to Nat Judson (Richard Rowntree), an ex-circus performer whose acrobatic talents promise to be useful. The potential difficulty is that the plans of the Resistance will also require the assistance of Major Otto Hecht. Hecht dislikes the idea of treason but he’s amenable to persuasion.

There are some impressive action scenes and some very impressive sets including the monastery which was built specifically for the film. There are enough explosions and gun battles to keep action fans happy. There’s also an exciting motorcycle chase through the narrow streets of the nearby village. 

The aspect of the movie that is most problematical is the comedy which threatens to take over completely. Elliott Gould and Stefanie Powers often seem to be involved in an entirely separate movie from the one that Telly Savalas, Roger Moore, Anthony Valentine and David Niven are making. Whether this is a problem for you depends on how much tolerance you have for Powers and Gould’s very over-the-top comic mugging.

Casting Roger Moore as the commandant was certainly bold. He may have been somewhat miscast but Hecht is basically a sympathetic character and he carries it off reasonably well. Personally I’d have liked to see him given more to do, and I’d have liked to see Anthony Valentine given a lot more to do. Telly Savalas dominates the movie, as he usually tended to do. Savalas plays things fairly straight, albeit with a hint of tongue-in-cheek humour.

The movie was shot entirely on location on the island of Rhodes.

The Australian Blu-Ray release offers an excellent transfer and contemporary interviews with the cast and crew.

Escape to Athena could have been a fun adventure romp but the comedic elements are jarring and become irritating. It’s ultimately a misfire although it has its moments. Worth a rental.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Flash Gordon (1936)

Flash Gordon is perhaps the most famous of all movie serials. Universal pulled out all the stops for this production. The budget was $350,000 - very generous indeed for a serial. Universal were hoping for a major hit and Flash Gordon delivered the goods.

One of the problems with most movie serials is that there’s not quite enough plot to sustain  somewhere between twelve and fifteen weekly installments, which tends to lead to plots that repeat themselves somewhat. That’s not a problem with this production - Flash Gordon has plenty of plot to go around. Combine that with a host of exotic settings and a cast of bizarre and colourful characters and you have a serial that grabs the viewer’s attention right from the start and doesn’t let go. 

Flash Gordon was the first of the great space adventure serials. It starts with a bang - civilisation is about to be destroyed by a mysterious planet hurtling towards the Earth. College athlete Flash Gordon (Larry “Buster” Crabbe) bails out from an aircraft and together with a pretty fellow passenger, Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) he finds himself at the laboratory of the brilliant but eccentric Dr Zarkov (Frank Shannon). Dr Zarkov believes he can save the Earth. He has designed and built a spaceship which he intends to fly to the mysterious planet. Flash and Dale will accompany him on his flight.

They reach the mysterious planet, which they will learn is named Mongo. And once there the adventures come thick and fast. They will be imprisoned by the shark men from an underwater city, they will befriend the courageous Lion Men, they will visit the city in the clouds ruled by the bizarre bewinged King Vultan (Jack Lipson), they will be menaced by giant lizards and fire-breathing dragons, Flash will be condemned to the dreaded radium furnaces, in fact there will be more than enough dangers to ensure a suitably thrilling cliffhanger ending for each of the twelve episodes.

Flash’s main enemy will be the Emperor of Ming, known as Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton), who claims dominion over the whole of the planet Mongo. Almost as dangerous as Ming is his daughter, the Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson). Flash and Dale Arden are obviously in love but Aura is determined to win Flash for herself. Her father Ming has meanwhile set his sights on marrying Dale Arden.

Buster Crabbe was not exactly a great actor but he had the square-jawed good looks and the physique (he was an Olympic swimming gold-medallist) to be an action star. It has to be admitted that none of the performers in this serial were likely to be Oscar contenders but the performances suit the material perfectly. Charles Middleton is delightfully wicked as the aptly named Ming the Merciless. King Vultan is a bizarre larger-than-life character and Jack Lipson gives a bizarre larger-than-life performance. Frank Shannon is convincingly eccentric as Dr Zarkov. Jean Rogers has little to do other than look vulnerable and appealing, which she does quite successfully. 

The special effects are extremely variable. Some are excellent; others are laughably poor. It doesn’t matter - even the bad special effects are great fun. 

The sets are superb. They’re one of the serial’s major strengths, adding both variety and exoticism. Ming’s laboratory is a highlight. Best of all is the radium furnace room where captives are forced to shovel radium into the atom furnaces.

The monsters are also variable in quality. Using ordinary lizards as giant monster reptiles works as badly as that technique always worked although that wouldn’t stop countless future film-makers from trying the same trick. The fire dragon is quite cool though, as is the  fearsome Orangapoid (in my book a guy in an ape suit is a welcome addition to any movie). 

The spaceships are wonderfully baroque but they’re excelled by the gyrocopter-ships of the Lion Men - surely the most delightfully ludicrous flying machines ever put on film.

Flash Gordon is excessive in every respect. So many sets representing so many strange places, so many monsters, so many fight scenes, so many dangers from which our heroes escape by a hair’s breadth - this serial succeeds by throwing everything at us. There’s as much action in a single episode as there is in many feature films of the period. And there’s romance as well.

Flash Gordon effortlessly lives up to its legendary reputation as the greatest of all the movie serials. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Baron Blood (1972)

Baron Blood is generally regarded as one of Mario Bava’s lesser efforts. It’s not a movie the director particularly wanted to make. For one thing producer Alfredo Leone was insisting that the film be shot on location in Austria. Bava hated to travel and was horrified by the idea of making a movie outside Italy. Leone eventually prevailed and when he found  the extraordinary castle that was to be the setting for the movie Bava was won over - he could see that he was going to have a lot of fun with such a perfect setting for a gothic horror movie.

Of course by 1972 gothic horror was considered by many film industry people to be a genre that was past its use-by date. As a result Baron Blood adopts a similar strategy to Hammer’s almost exactly contemporary Dracula AD 1972 - both are gothic horror movies transplanted somewhat uneasily into the modern world.

Baron Blood, again like Dracula AD 1972, deals with an ancient horror accidentally brought into the world of the 1970s. Peter Kleist is a young man who is taking a break from his studies and is spending some time with his uncle Dr Karl Hummel (Massimo Girotti). His uncle lives not far from the castle that was once the home of Peter Kleist’s notorious ancestor, Baron Otto von Kleist, known popularly as Baron Blood. The castle is in the process of being converted into a hotel. A young architecture student, Eva Arnold (Elke Sommer), is employed on the project although she strongly disapproves of some of the proposed alterations.

Peter Kleist has obtained an old parchment that supposedly embodies a curse directed at the evil baron by a witch he had had burned at the stake. The parchment allegedly contains an invocation that can restore the infamous Baron Blood to life. Rather unwisely Peter and Eva decide it would be good clean spooky fun to go to the castle at dead of night and perform the invocation. At the last moment they hurriedly reverse the invocation, but then even more rashly they return the next day to repeat the invocation. This time, unfortunately, the parchment is accidentally destroyed meaning that the invocation cannot be reversed. This is particularly unfortunate since, as they will soon discover, they have been all too successful in restoring the baron to life.

While all this is going on the castle has passed into the hands of a new owner, a mysterious but wealthy man named Alfred Becker (Joseph Cotten). Becker has no intention of allowing the castle to be converted into an hotel - he is going to restore it to its original condition and he is going to live there. No-one seems to know very much about Herr Becker but Peter and Eva soon have cause to suspect that he is not what he seems to be.

The big problem now facing Peter and Eva, and Peter’s uncle, is that the revived Baron Blood seems to be indulging his old taste for murder and torture and there seems to be no way of stopping him. The one slim hope lies in a psychic named Christina Hoffmann (Rada Rassimov). She has the power to call up the spirit of the witch who placed the original curse on the baron but even assuming she can be persuaded to help the chances of defeating the baron seem unpromising.

This movie was for Mario Bava a return to his roots, a return to the gothic horror genre in which he first achieved success as a director. It is a very nostalgic kind of movie, filled with references to earlier Bava movies. Bava in fact is gleefully plundering his own back catalogue. Baron Blood is therefore in some ways a backward-looking movie although Bava fans will get a great deal of enjoyment from spotting the homages to both Bava’s own earlier films and to some of the great classics of the genre. 

Baron Blood might seem like a bit of an indulgent exercise in nostalgia but audiences did not seem unduly concerned by this and it did extremely well at the box office, proving that well-made gothic horror always has audience appeal. And while Baron Blood might not be one of Bava’s more original efforts it is unquestionably a very well-crafted movie.

Joseph Cotten gives an outrageously over-ripe but delightfully entertaining performance. Elke Sommer proves herself to be a very capable scream queen.

The British Arrow Video Blu-Ray/DVD release is a rather sumptuous affair, offering three different cuts of the movie - the Italian release (with English subtitles), the original International release in English and the shortened AIP version. The original English-language International release was in fact always regarded by both Bava and producer Alfredo Leone as the original version of the film. The three different cuts are offered on both Blu-Ray and DVD. The extras include the invaluable Tim Lucas commentary track originally recorded for an earlier DVD release.

Baron Blood might not be one of Mario Bava’s major films but gothic horror fans will find it to be thoroughly enjoyable, and visually it’s classic Bava. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Cat Girl (1957)

Cat Girl is a 1957 British horror film clearly inspired by the 1942 Val Lewton classic Cat People. It will come as no surprise that Cat Girl fails to live up to its predecessor but having said that it’s still worth a look, mostly for the performance of star Barbara Shelley.

Leonora Johnson (Barbara Shelley) has been summoned to the lonely country house of her uncle Edmund Brandt. Leonora had been brought up by her uncle after her father’s death and she has unhappy memories of this house. She is however her uncle’s heiress and her scheming husband Richard (Jack May) is determined that Leonora should do nothing to endanger her inheritance.

That inheritance turns out to be her share in the family curse. As her uncle explains to her the Brandts have a dual nature, both human and animal. They are not quite werewolves but something similar. The animal part of their nature is physically separate from them and takes the form of a leopard, but they experience everything that the leopard experiences. And they share in its kills.

Things are already tense between Leonora and her husband. He no longer troubles to conceal the fact that he is having an affair. 

Leonora herself is in love with Dr Brian Marlowe (Robert Ayres), and has been since she was a girl. Dr Marlowe is now a successful psychiatrist and he believes he can help Leonora, who has been showing signs of increasing disturbance. She tries to explain the family curse to him, and that she is part woman and part leopard. He naturally dismisses this as a psychosis, presumably fueled by her jealousy of Dr Marlowe’s wife Dorothy and her anger towards her two-timing husband.

When Leonora’s husband is found torn to pieces, apparently by a wild animal, Leonora confesses that she was the killer. Of course no-one believes her, given that the injuries her husband suffered could only have been inflicted by an animal such as a leopard. 

Dr Marlowe persuades Leonora to admit herself to a sanitarium. After a few days he is convinced that she has overcome her unfortunate delusions and is now cured. To celebrate her cure he decides that Leonora should have a day out with Dorothy. He will meet them both later for dinner, late at night and in a lonely part of London down by the docks. You might wonder about the professional competence of a psychiatrist who thinks it’s a good idea to allow his wife to be roaming about in the middle of the night with a recently discharged mental patient who had been suffering from violent fantasies of jealous rage towards her. Dr Marlowe is however an expert and he feels no anxieties about this situation. Well not at first anyway.

This movie, like Cat People, adopts a deliberately ambiguous approach. Leonora could be a young woman who stalks and kills prey in the form of a leopard, or she could be a young woman suffering from delusions of being a leopard woman. In fact Cat Girl is marginally more effective in its efforts to avoid resolving those ambiguities. As in Cat People it is clear that sex and sexual anxiety and sexual jealousy play a very major part in explaining the human-animal dualism of the heroine.

Cat People had been filmed in a very definite film noir style and the director of Cat Girl, Alfred Shaughnessy, favours a similar approach. It goes without saying that he cannot match the moody intensity and the stylistic brilliance that Jacques Tourneur brought to Cat People, and Peter Hennessy’s cinematography is a pale shadow of Nicholas Musuraca’s stunning camerawork in the 1942 film.

Where Cat Girl does score heavily is in the casting of its leading lady. Barbara Shelley really is superb. She is extremely sexy in a very perverse and disturbing way and she conveys an extraordinary sense of menace. The audience will have no difficulty in believing that this woman is dangerous. Shelley is in fact far more effective than Simone Simon had been in Cat People. Shelley would go on to become Hammer’s leading scream queen.

Network DVD’s Region 2 release offers an exceptionally good transfer. There are no extras but the very low price makes this an attractive buy.

Cat Girl might be a poor man’s Cat People but it’s an entertaining enough horror B-movie and Barbara Shelley’s performance makes it very much worth seeing. Recommended.