THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (1961) Reviews and overview

 

‘Stare into these eyes if you dare!’

The Shadow of the Cat is a 1961 British horror feature film about a cat that witnesses its owner murdered and becomes ferociously bent on revenge.

Directed by John Gilling (The Mummy’s Shroud; The ReptileThe Plague of the Zombies; The Night Caller; The Flesh and the Fiends) from a screenplay written by George Baxt (Tower of Evil; The City of the Dead; Circus of Horrors) the BHP Films production (ostensibly a Hammer film) stars André Morell, Barbara Shelley, William Lucas, Freda Jackson and Conrad Phillips.

The eccentric soundtrack score was composed by Mikis Theodorakis, his only venture into horror music.

Review:

Walter Venable (André Morell) is a terrible husband. In the opening moments of The Shadow of the Cat, Walter – in collaboration with his butler, Andrew (Andrew Crawford), and his maid, Clara (Freda Jackson) – murders his wife, Ella (Catherine Lacey), in order to steal her fortune.

Just before her untimely demise, Ella had been forced to alter her will leaving everything to Walter instead of her loving niece, Beth (Barbara Shelley). Walter and his cronies bury Ella corpse in forested grounds, but watching on is Ella’s beloved cat, Tabitha: the only witness to the murder of her mistress!

Morell is the definite standout, but he is surrounded by capable thespians. Barbara Shelley is lovely in what could have been a sickly sweet role. Vanda Godsell is a lot of fun as the frustrated wife of Walter’s scheming nephew. Alan Wheatley also deserves a special mention in his small but enjoyable role as the police inspector.

Tabitha makes the lives of the greedy murderers’ hell, attacking them at any given opportunity. The butler tries to capture the cat but to no avail. Tabitha is quick to hide in the swamps. The maid attempts to poison the cat, but Tabitha refuses her food. The only person Tabitha doesn’t run from is the innocent Beth. Beth appears at the estate to comfort Uncle Walter after the strange disappearance of Aunt Ella, which is being investigated by a suspicious Inspector Rowles (Alan Wheatley) and newspaperman, Michael Latimer (Conrad Phillips).

Driven to madness and desperation, Walter calls on his horrible brother (Richard Warner) and nephew (William Lucas), fresh out of prison for fraud, to capture and slaughter the vengeful feline.

The Shadow of the Cat is a tightly scripted tale of family greed, full of deliciously evil characters, and even a few complex ones. Walter, for instance, conveys a genuine sense of guilt over the death of his wife; this is perhaps more credit to the incredible acting abilities of André Morell rather than George Baxt’s script.

And then there’s Tabitha the cat. Tabitha is a truly excellent animal performer. Director John Gilling has his feline star feature in difficult scenes of action in what would appear to be troublesome shooting locations. Tabitha skips along with floating logs in swamps, walks along building rooftops, and swipes at everyone in sight.

It must be said that Gilling does not succeed in presenting Tabitha as a physical threat. To make a cat appear scary is an impossible task. (Take Strays for instance.) No matter how much hissing or face-scratching Tabitha does, she is still a nonthreatening house cat. An early scene where Morell is sent into a panic while being stalked in the basement by the cat is, quite frankly, hysterical.

Distorted image from Tabitha the cat’s point-of-view

Yet, in a way, Tabitha’s absence of intimidation works in the film’s favour. Tabitha is, after all, the heroine of the film. We want to see the cat take down Ella’s murderers one by one. And that she does. With style.

While the cat is not exactly frightening, it’s enjoying the way Tabitha’s presence looms over the estate. There are several shots of the furtive feline peeking in through curtained windows, often with glowing eyes, and her silhouette sometimes lurks in the background of the frame. Other times, we do not see her and only hear her grumbling vocals.

The Shadow of the Cat is a breezy seventy-nine minutes. While it’s not going to change your life, it’s competently made, well-acted, and very satisfying. It’s nothing more than a slice of entertaining nonsense, but that’s fine. Meow!

Dave Jackson, guest reviewer via Mondo Exploito

Other reviews:

” …the wickedest thing Tabitha does is leave muddy pawprints all over some clean sheets, something to which all cat-owners can relate – not that they’d ever go as far as screaming at the sight, as the maid does. But there’s so much feline footage that cat lovers will enjoy watching her getting the better of the ailurophobic villains…” Cats on Film

“It boasts some excellent performances, saturated gothic hues courtesy of production designer Bernard Robinson, a Lewton-esque atmosphere thanks to Arthur Grant’s monochrome cinematography, and some occasional inspiration from the director.” The Celluloid Highway

“Sadly, a solitary tabby cat is not the easiest creature to make frightening, nor can we swallow vague suggestions that “it’s become a sort of evil symbol.” The film works better as a playful and blackly humorous portrait of a conniving and mean-spirited Victorian family systematically destroying itself through greed.” Jonathan Rigby, English Gothic, Reynolds & Hearn, 2004

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“Mostly played by Hammer old hands, if the film is worth a watch then it’s the first-rate ensemble that will reward your attention […] and the film might have been a lot more fun if it had focussed on their vicious in-fighting than their relationship with the cat. Watch it for these great talents going through their paces and there’s plenty to enjoy here – but don’t expect it to be in any way scary.” The EOFFTV Review

” …the idea that people might be frightened at the thought of vengeance from a cat is a little silly, and even though there are moments here that play up the humor of the situation, there are other moments that are unintentionally funny. Nonetheless, there are enough interesting touches here that it makes for a decent watch…” Fantastic Musings and Ramblings

“Well worth your time, The Shadow of the Cat is an unjustly neglected slice of macabre fun that deserves to keep delighting fans who stumble across it.” For It Is Man’s Number

“Eccentric, absurd but never dull for a moment and full of that charm you don’t get to see very often these days, The Shadow of the Cat barely counts as a horror movie considering the total lack of chill it installs in the viewer […] Though perhaps best considered as an experiment, it’s a thoroughly pleasant diversion…” Horror Cult Films

“Screenwriter George Baxt (Circus of Horrors) wanted the cat to be nothing more than a shadow – a phantom that might just exist in the head of its victims, a la “The Black Cat.” Gilling, alas, insisted upon a real cat, which removes the story’s psychological subtlety and supernatural interest. The end result is a slightly silly and very odd little picture.” Midnight Only

“Among the inventive visual flourishes is a distorted “cat’s eye” trick (via an anamorphic lens) used to depict Tabitha’s POV throughout the film, and it’s a joy to see the cast of pros tackling the fun murder plot with Morrell, in particular, getting some fun moments skulking around the dark set saying “Here, kitty kitty.” Mondo Digital

“The best facet of this standard “punish-the-evildoers” tale […] is that Gilling keeps everything looking rather ordinary.  Not only is Tabitha a commonplace feline, but the mansion is, rather refreshingly, never treated as an “old dark house.”  Most of the scenes take place in well-lit areas, so there’s no visual or musical cues to warn the audience before the cat strikes.” Naturalistic! Uncanny! Marvelous!

” …the picture has its charms. It’s nicely shot in black and white with good sets and decent pacing. Morell definitely steals the show here, doing most of his acting from the comfort of a posh bed but still somehow managing to command our attention…” Rock! Shock! Pop!

“It works well as a glorious piece of low-budget, but entertaining, cinema. Gilling’s direction is spot on, making full use of the Bray location despite the obvious financial restraints and it’s very much a Hammer film despite the studio’s name not being present (which is discussed at length in the extra features).” Starburst

” …The Shadow of the Cat may not be a must-see type of film and it is not one that will have you thinking about it for days over the intricacies of its multi-layered plot, it is simply a well-crafted movie with a simple premise and it is well worth your time should you come across it.” The Telltale Mind

Choice dialogue:

“You mean to tell me that an ordinary domestic cat is terrorising three grown-ups?”

Main cast and characters:

André Morell … Walter Venable – The Mummy’s Shroud
Barbara Shelley … Beth Venable
William Lucas … Jacob Venable
Freda Jackson … Clara, the Maid
Conrad Phillips … Michael Latimer
Richard Warner … Edgar Venable
Vanda Godsell … Louise Venable
Alan Wheatley … Inspector Rowles
Andrew Crawford … Andrew, the Butler
Kynaston Reeves … The Grandfather
Catherine Lacey … Ella Venable – The Sorcerers; The Mummy’s Shroud

Filming locations:

Bray Studios, Down Place, Oakley Green, Berkshire, England

Technical details:

79 minutes
Black and white
Aspect ratio: 1.66: 1
Audio: Mono (RCA Sound Recording)

Fun facts:

The film’s production company is BHP, a company comprising writer George Baxt, producer Jon Pennington and theatrical agent Richard Hatton.

The film begins with a reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’.

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