IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CAT GIRL (1957)

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cat girl

Who’s that Cat Girl?

No, she’s not a villain on BATMAN. That’s Catwoman.

And no, she’s not Batman’s ally. That’s Batgirl.

She’s not even the lead in a classic horror movie directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton. That movie is CAT PEOPLE (1942).

CAT GIRL was made fifteen years later and is largely inferior to Val Lewton’s influential horror movie, but the good news is the lead role in CAT GIRL is played by one of my favorite British actresses, Barbara Shelley. Shelley has starred in such classic British horror movies as BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE (1958), Hammer’s THE GORGON (1964) with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), again with Lee, as well as the science fiction classics VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (aka FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH) (1967).

But before all these came CAT GIRL.

Shelley always adds class and distinction to her roles, and her performance here is no exception. She’s excellent in the lead role, even as the rest of the film ultimately lets her down.

The plot is quite simple. A young woman Leonora Johnson (Barbara Shelley)  returns to her family home with her new husband, where she learns from her crazy uncle that their family is cursed, that they have this bizarre attachment to cats, so much so, that once home, Leonora falls victim to this curse and becomes a murderous cat creature.

Yup.

That’s why it’s called CAT GIRL.

Things actually start very well. The beginning of the movie is steeped in creepy atmosphere. The black and white photography by director Alfred Shaughnessy is ripe with dark shadows and completely captures the classic haunted house feel. But unfortunately as the story develops the film loses its atmosphere somewhat, driven by the fact that there’s simply not that much suspense, especially since the cat girl sequences look cheap and aren’t very good. The killer cat sequences are laughable.

The screenplay by Lou Rusoff also gets off to an intriguing start. See, not only is Leonara in danger from her looney relatives, but her own husband Edmund (Ernest Milton) is a real creep! We learn early on that before marrying Leonora, he had a fling with her best friend, and worse yet, the fling continues still, and he makes it clear that his marriage to Leonara is not going to get in the way of this other relationship. Complicating matters is this friend and the man she is currently dating are  also accompanying Leonora and Edmund on this trip to Leonora’s ancestral home, and all four of them are supposed to be friends.  This has all the makings of a classic sitcom! Not.

So, even before the cat curse comes into play, things are rather interesting! But sadly, they don’t really stay that way, and that’s because Leonara once she learns the truth about her husband simply lets Cat Girl take over and seeks some friendly feline vengeance.

Lou Rusoff also wrote the screenplays to several other low budget horror movies from the 1950s, including DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1955), IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956), and THE SHE-CREATURE (1956).

CAT GIRL was originally released as part of a double bill with THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (1957), a film I like much better than CAT GIRL, which has some good things going for it but not enough to lift it to classic horror status.

So, in spite of a strong atmospheric opening, and the presence of a group of friends in some complicated relationships, and Barbara Shelley in the lead role, CAT GIRL is eventually done in by low production values and a lack of decent scares.

Poor Cat Girl.

While she tries her bloody best, at the end of the day, there’s still only one female feline leading the pack. Yup, Catwoman is still top cat.

Maybe Cat Girl could apply for the position of Catwoman’s enforcer? I have no doubt that she’d be purr-fect in that role!

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945)

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isle of the dead posterI love the Val Lewton-produced horror movies from the 1940s.

Lewton produced a bunch of low-budget horror pics that impressed with style and atmosphere and have become some of the classics of the genre, films like CAT PEOPLE (1942) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). He also produced three movies starring Boris Karloff, films that are among the best in Karloff’s career, THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), BEDLAM (1946), and the subject of today’s column, ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945).

Sadly, Val Lewton’s life and career were cut short when he died of a heart attack on March 14, 1951, at the age of 46.

ISLE OF THE DEAD features one of my favorite Boris Karloff roles. Karloff plays General Nikolas Pherides, a general in the Greek army who goes by the nickname “The Watchdog.” He’s cold, ruthless, and nothing gets by him.

The story takes place on a Greek island in 1912, during the Balkan War. There’s a lull in the fighting, and General Pherides takes American reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) to the Isle of the Dead to pay respects to the General’s deceased wife, who is interred there. They discover that the grave has been disturbed, and when they hear a woman singing in the distance, they follow the voice to investigate and come upon a house full of people, a guest house run by a retired archeologist named Dr. Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.).

Albrecht invites the General and Oliver to join them. When the General questions them about the desecrated grave, Albrecht explains that years ago the islanders plundered many of the graves in search of valuable Greek artifacts. But Albrecht’s superstitious housekeeper offers a different explanation. She tells the General that it’s the work of the vorvolaka, evil spirits, and that one of the guests, the young and pretty Thea (Ellen Drew) is in fact a vorvolaka. The housekeeper tells the General that people there will die because of Thea.

The General scoffs at this suggestion, but when the guests do indeed start dying, and the housekeeper continually accuses Thea, the General changes his tune. He enters his “Watchdog” mode and declares that he will get to the bottom of what’s going on and protect everyone there. When a doctor (Ernest Deutsch) explains that it is the plague and that they must be quarantined, the General makes it his mission to prevent anyone from trying to leave the island. As more people die and the housekeeper’s accusations against Thea continue, the General finds himself swayed to the point where he himself believes that the true culprit here isn’t the plague but the vorvolaka.

ISLE OF THE DEAD is blessed with the same strengths of all the Val Lewton movies, an intelligent script and an almost palpable eerie atmosphere.

The screenplay by Ardel Wray, who also wrote the screenplay to two other Val Lewton movies, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE— one of my favorite horror movies of all time— and THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), does a masterful job mixing the supernatural with reality.

The character the audience probably most relates to is reporter Oliver Davis, and he never suspects the vorvolaka. In fact, on the contrary, he vows to protect Thea from the General’s ever-increasing irrationality.

The story becomes a fascinating treatise on one man’s descension into despair. The General goes from competent pragmatic leader to a man motivated by fear.

Karloff is great in the role. As I said, it’s among his best performances. Famous for making the Frankenstein Monster a sympathetic character, he does the same here for the cutthroat General Pherides. At times, Karloff channels the cold dark ruthlessness of the General, but he also imbues the character with a fierce need to protect those around him.

Jason Robards Sr. is also memorable as their host on the island, Dr. Albrecht, as is Ernst Deutsch as Dr. Drossos, the doctor called to the island to deal with the plague. Deutsch was also notable in a supporting role as Baron Kurtz in Carol Reed’s classic THE THIRD MAN (1949) starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. Deutsch also starred in the silent German classic THE GOLEM (1920).

Also in the cast is Alan Napier, as one of the guests. Napier of course would go on to play Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, in the Adam West BATMAN TV series (1966-68). And Napier starred in several other genre films as well over his career, movies like THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940) and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959).

And Helene Thimig makes for a creepy housekeeper, Madame Kyra, who keeps peppering the General’s thoughts with her cries of “vorvolaka!”

Director Mark Robson, who also directed BEDLAM, does a nice job with the spooky atmosphere, giving such authenticity to the warm winds blowing over the island you can almost feel the breeze on your skin.

There are lots of creepy elements to keep the audience unsettled, including one of the characters who suffers from a condition where she collapses into a catatonic state that mimics death. Rightly so, she has an intense fear of being buried alive. That sort of thing couldn’t possibly happen on this island, right? RIGHT???

Sorry. All bets are off.

I really enjoyed Robson’s work here, so he can be forgiven for directing one of the all time worst disaster movies, EARTHQUAKE (1974) starring Charlton Heston and George Kennedy.

ISLE OF THE DEAD is a classic example of quiet horror. It possesses a winning combination of smart writing, atmospheric direction, and solid acting. Detractors of Val Lewton’s movies complain that they are more drama than horror, as the supernatural elements are reduced to pretty much nil, but this has never bothered me because regardless of whether or not the supernatural is alive and well in these films, they still tell stories of horror.

What happens on the island in ISLE OF THE DEAD is frightening, and as such, it makes for a compelling horror story.

It’s also fun to watch Boris Karloff play a role in which he’s not a monster, or a mad scientist. The three Val Lewton films that Karloff starred in gave him the opportunity to play roles unlike the ones he was playing for other directors. I think some of Boris Karloff’s best acting appears in these movies.

September means the end of summer. Vacations are done, the kids are back in school, and the focus for most is on work rather than play. Likewise, September is the perfect month for some serious horror viewing.

So check out ISLE OF THE DEAD, a classic horror drama shot in spooky black and white that tells a subtle yet nonetheless frightening story of a group of people quarantined on an island, fighting both the plague and the horrors of superstition, and featuring one of Boris Karloff’s best performances, as General Pherides, “the Watchdog,” a man hellbent on protecting those around him, unless of course, he suspects they’re a vorvolaka. In that case, he’s every bit as lethal as the plague.

It’s a deadly mix, and for the folks on this island, it really is the ISLE OF THE DEAD.

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