Cat Girl (1957) Cat Girl/The Cat-Woman (1957) **

     This English-made, A.I.P.-distributed film is sort of a clunky, low-rent reworking of Jacques Tourneurís Cat People, shorn of the earlier filmís all-important sexual dynamic, and with a few amazingly bad special effects thrown in in an attempt to distract us from the fact that the story basically doesnít work without it. What remains is a fairly dismal werewolf movie that is saved from actual awfulness only by some surprisingly good acting, particularly on the part of Barbara Shelley (whom you may remember as Peter Cushingís assistant in The Gorgon) in the title role.

     The movie begins with a woman named Leonora (Leonora, huh? I wonder where this could be going...), traveling to her uncleís country estate in the company of her husband Richard (Jack May, who went on to appear in Trog), and their friends, Allan (Spaceflight IC-1ís John Lee) and Cathy (Patricia Webster). It comes out in conversation that this is not exactly a friendly, casual visit. Leonora hates and fears her uncle, as a matter of fact (with good reason, as we shall soon see), and had he not called her to his estate to discuss her inheritance, she would surely not be going anywhere near the old man. As it is, sheís disobeying part of his instructions to her, in that he specifically told her to come alone. So refreshing to finally see somebody in a horror movie who knows a Really Bad Idea when she sees one, isnít it? Anyway, their journey is interrupted by the inevitable ferocious thunderstorm, so they stop in at a local pub to wait out the rain. The main purpose of this scene is to provide an excuse for some character development. In addition to hearing about Leonoraís fear of her uncle, we learn that Allan is a drunk, that Richard is a cheating, amoral scumbag (a Dick, perhaps?), and that his letch for Cathy is a totally reciprocal one. We also learn that one of Leonoraís ex-boyfriends, a man named Brian Marlowe (Robert Ayres, the captain from First Man into Space) who is now a psychiatrist, happens to be passing through the old town at the same time as she is, and somehow, we know that this fact is going to become very important later.

     The next half-hour sees every single one or our suspicions confirmed. To begin with, Leonoraís uncle (Ernest Milton) is very bad news. The inheritance that he wants to pass on to his niece includes the Brandt family curse, which has something to do with the soul of the senior member of the clan simultaneously inhabiting both his or her body and that of a rather flabby-looking leopard. No explanation is ever offered for the curse, but apparently it has been in the family for some 700 years, and it isnít really the kind of thing that Leonora has the option of refusing. Upon hearing her uncleís spiel, Leonora flees into the woods, and thus misses the show when the old man releases the leopard from its cage to kill him, transferring the curse to Leonora.

     Next, Richard sinks quite abjectly to the level that we expect of him, using every opportunity that presents itself to make out with Cathy. Unfortunately for Richard, one of those opportunities coincides with Leonoraís taking up of the family curse, and I donít think you need me to tell you what happens when the leopardís wanderings through the forest bring it to the clearing that the two adulterers have chosen as their trysting spot. Cathy survives largely because she presents a smaller target and has an easier time slipping through the underbrush than Richard. The fact that Leonora seems to hate her husband just a little bit more probably gives her a leg up, too.

     And finally, our expectations of Brianís importance to the story are fulfilled. Leonora rather surprisingly begins blabbing immediately that she is to blame for Richardís death, that she was controlling the leopard-- or, more accurately, inhabiting its mind-- when it killed him, and that she would have had it kill Cathy, too, if she had had the chance. The police, being the police, have no particular interest in such a crazy story, and they send for Dr. Marlowe, who comes right away to take Leonora under his care, committing her to the hospital in London where he works.

     One more piece of information, and youíll probably be able to write the rest of the movieís script line for line by yourself. Marlowe is married, and he foolishly decides to involve his wife, Dorothy (Kay Callard), in Leonoraís treatment, on the theory that it would do the latter woman some good to get out of the hospital on occasion to do normal things. Remember, Leonora and Brian were lovers once, and the movie makes it quite clear that Leonoraís feelings for him came rushing back to her more or less instantly upon their chance meeting at the pub. Letís just say that the signs do not augur well for Dorothy (or her pet canary, for that matter).

     Honestly, Cat Girl isnít all that bad a movie-- it just isnít trying anywhere near hard enough. Its main problem (apart from the ill-advised abandonment of Cat Peopleís psychosexual angle-- if youíre going to rip another movie off, at least do it right!) is that it attempts to ape its predecessorís much-vaunted ambiguity, but without taking that ambiguity at all seriously. Despite any number of scenes whose main function seems to be to steer the audience toward the rationalist interpretation of events that Dr. Marlowe espouses, at no point does it seem possible that anything other than a literal lycanthropic curse is at work. Even the very last line of dialogue in the movie (spoken by Marlowe) comes across as nothing more than a desperate, last-minute gambit to create ambiguity where none really exists. The final result is a film that doesnít work as well as either the original Cat People or its unabashedly literal 1982 remake. But it certainly could have been worse-- far, far worse.

 

 

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