John Gilling, 1961
Starring: André Morell, Barbara Shelley, William Lucas
“You seriously mean to tell me that an ordinary domestic cat is terrorizing three grown-ups?”
A wealthy old lady is murdered by her husband — with help from the rest of the immediate family — who then conspires to cover it up and steal her fortune, declaring that she had become introverted and unreasonable in recent months. She is reported missing to the police, though her beloved cat, Tabitha, was a witness to the murder and begins terrorizing the remaining members of the household. Meanwhile, the lady’s favorite niece, Beth, is called to the estate and cares for her Uncle Water, who has collapsed thanks to an attack from the cat. In the ensuing squabbles over the old lady’s fortune, Tabitha begins to have her revenge.
At first glance, The Shadow of the Cat doesn’t seem like a Hammer production, as it was released under one of their labels, BHP Productions. And though it remains one of their most obscure titles, this is a surprisingly solid entry in Hammer’s early ‘60s suspense output, largely black and white affairs concerned with murder, mayhem, and corrupt families. John Gilling — director of The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies, and screenwriter for The Gorgon — did his first work for Hammer here, a project he handled competently if without a lot of flourish. There are a number of familiar names associated with the film, such as Hammer’s cinematographer Arthur Grant, composer Bernard Robinson, and screenwriter George Baxt (The Revenge of Frankenstein, Circus of Horrors, The City of the Dead).
Distinguished-looking Hammer regular André Morell — from films like Barry Lyndon and The Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as The Mummy’s Shroud and Plague of the Zombies — is delightful as the murderous husband, though of course it would have been great to see Cushing in the role. This is probably Hammer’s wildest foray into scenery chewing from the entire cast and some serious temper tantrums are thrown in an effort to kill the pesky cat — making almost everyone look completely ridiculous. And of course the family is a bunch of unlikable scoundrels, with the exception of the sweet-as-pie Barbara Shelley, one of Hammer’s most accomplished stock actresses.
My favorite plot device involves Uncle Walter’s plan to summon some distant relatives and offer them a lot of his late wife’s money to capture and kill the cat. The central question is, of course, is Tabitha preternaturally powerful, or is it guilt that’s driving the family mad? With a central plot as absurd as “the cat saw you do it,” the film is fast paced and is more fun than it has any right to be. The whole thing reminds me of a recent story about a 20+ lb cat that attacked a family of three and trapped them in their bedroom and they felt they had to call 911. In far more exaggerated terms, Tabitha is responsible for — among other things — a minor heart attack, drowning someone in a bog, and lots of innocent cuddling up to Beth, who thinks everyone is losing their goddamn minds. Fucking Tabitha even gets “cat cam,” in which the camera becomes wide-angled and distorted, indicating that we’re looking at things through her sociopathic eyes. This aspect actually reminds me a little of the even more fun giallo film from Antonio Margheriti, Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973), where a naive Jane Birkin narrowly avoids being murdered in her family estate.
What the film lacks in a serious plot, it makes up for in atmosphere, for instance, it opens with the old lady reading Poe’s “The Raven” to her cat. Sadly the Poe references end there. Though it doesn’t really look like Hammer’s trademark, colorful Gothic horror films, a lot of their early suspense output didn’t pull a lot of weight in the style department. Regardless, this was shot at Bray Studios and has a set that isn’t quite contemporary but also isn’t an outright Victorian period piece. It feels a bit like The Devil Rides Out, which is set in the ‘20s, and there are plenty of elaborate smoking jackets and other aristocratic accoutrement.
The Shadow of the Cat perhaps predictably looks back at mystery-horror films like The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Old Dark House (1932), and its “murder for inheritance in a spooky family estate” plot is probably going to have some of you rolling your eyes, but it’s a surprisingly fun, if obscure entry in Hammer’s horror canon. Though it was impossible to find for years, The Shadow of the Cat is available on region 2 DVD. For anyone who enjoys spooky, atmospheric entertainment — as this is clearly not outright horror — there’s a lot about it to love, even coming from an avowed cat hater like me.