Friday, 26 June 2015

Shadow of the Cat (1961)

Shadow of the Cat is a 1961 British gothic horror movie that is almost a Hammer film. It was shot at Bray Studios, it was directed by John Gilling who went on to make some of Hammer’s best 60s horror films, it stars Barbara Shelley, it was photographed by Arthur Grant and the production design was by Bernard Robinson. Officially, and for complex legal and financial reasons, it was credited to BHP Productions but it was in fact a Hammer film in all but name.

On the other hand it’s also very different to the usual run of Hammer gothic horror movies. More on that later.

Ella Venable has mysteriously disappeared. Actually there’s nothing mysterious about it - the audience knows right from the word go that Ella has been the victim of foul play. There was only one witness to the crime - Ella’s cat Tabitha. Now you might think that a killer has nothing to worry about when the only witness is a cat. You might think that, but you’d be wrong. 

Tabitha is not exactly a helpless little kitty. Ordinarily she’s the friendliest of felines but she doesn’t take kindly to having her mistress murdered. She wants revenge. And for a small tabby cat she’s rather determined.

Ella’s husband Walter (André Morell) has called Ella’s niece to the house, partly to give her the bad news that Ella wrote her out of her will shortly before her disappearance. Walter has also assembled other family members - the three most disreputable members of the family. He needs help in order to deal with a formidable menace - one small tabby cat. Walter has his faithful butler Andrew but although Andrew is a strong healthy young man he’s no match for an enraged and vengeful feline.

One interesting, and clever, feature of this film is that the cat’s actions are somewhat ambiguous. The murderers certainly believe the cat is actively plotting to get them. But does the cat actually have supernatural (or at least preternatural) powers? Or has Tabitha simply seen something horrific and is she is now merely behaving the way any animal might behave, striking out instinctively at people who have frightened her? We do get some intriguing cat point-of-view shots that imply that the cat has a more-than-animal understanding of the situation but even here she could be just fixating on something that has disturbed her animal mind. There’s a memorable scene where Walter is stalking the cat in the basement but we have the distinct impression that it’s really the cat who is stalking him. This ambiguity works quite effectively - is it the cat seeking revenge or the killers’ own consciences haunting them?

Hammer made movies in black-and-white but their gothic horror movies were invariably in colour. This was what gave them their distinctive flavour - gothic atmosphere achieved with bold lush colour rather than moody black-and-white. Shadow of the Cat is however in black-and-white. This, among other things, makes it seem old-fashioned compared to the typical Hammer gothics. One thing is immediately apparent - director Gilling and cinematographer Arthur Grant can make a black-and-white horror movie look every bit as good as a colour film. They can use shadows just as effectively as they used bold colour in other Hammer productions. If you’re a fan of the classic Universal style of black-and-white gothic horror you will be well satisfied with the job they’ve done here.

The movie opens with a shot of the decaying gothic mansion of the Venables. It is your typical gothic dark and stormy night, and an old lady is reading Poe aloud. This again emphasises the movie’s affinity with the classic American horror cinema of the 1930s. 

Another point of departure from the regular Hammer style is the setting. It’s Edwardian England rather than 19th century central Europe, with cars as well as carriages.

Barbara Shelley was one of the great scream queens and she gives her usual fine performance. André Morell, a splendid actor, is wonderful as the irascible but very frightened Walter. The other cast members are excellent but it’s Shelley and Morell who dominate the movie.

This movie is at times reminiscent of the Old Dark House movies that were so popular in the 1930s. The atmosphere and the setup are both similar and it has a lot of the same ingredients - a group of people who don’t trust one another thrown together in a crumbling gothic pile, a plot driven by scheming relatives after an inheritance, suggestions of the supernatural that may turn out to be no more than suspicions.

Apart from its gothic trappings Shadow of the Cat has a lot more in common with Hammer’s black-and-white contemporary psychological thrillers of the early 60s than with their gothic horror movies.

One criticism that has been leveled at this movie is that a small domestic cat is not a very scary monster. That criticism misses the point. In fact the key to the movie is that it’s a psychological horror movie not a monster movie. The cat is not the monster. The monsters are human. The cat is merely the catalyst (if you’ll excuse my awful pun) that triggers the killers’ own feelings of guilt and anxiety.

On the subject of the cat special mention must be made of the cat’s trainer, John Holmes. This is not the kind of movie in which the cat just has to sit on a cushion looking cute. She’s not a bit player, she’s one of the leads and she has to do some serious acting! Getting the cat to do what was needed on cue must have been quite a challenge but however they did it it worked.

Network have done their customary very creditable job with the DVD. Picture quality is superb. Unusually for Network there are some worthwhile extras including an excellent documentary on the film.

Shadow of the Cat is not at all a typical Hammer production but it’s a well-crafted and generally very nifty little horror flick. It is a throwback to an earlier era of horror, which may be one of the reasons it’s been so often overlooked. The old-fashioned feel is however quite deliberate and today it makes this film seem quite refreshing. Highly recommended.

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