The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

May 29, 2016

May 29, 1912

John Gilling (May 29, 1912 to November 22, 1984) was a British director famous somehow for not very good horror films. IMDB mentions these films of his: The Shadow of the Cat (1961), The Plague of the Zombies (1966), The Reptile (1966) and The Mummy's Shroud (1967). We'll be discussing that first movie.

N. Emmett is the author of a review from which we quote:

An elderly woman is murdered by an accomplice of her family member Walter (Andre Morell) for her inheritance. There is only one witness to this crime: the victim’s cat, Tabatha.
Walter takes over the woman’s house; amongst the relatives to move in is his niece Elizabeth (Barbara Shelley). The only member of the household to be unaware of the murder, Elizabeth is baffled to see Walter and the others become obsessed with hunting down and killing the cat.

But the cat evades every attempt on its life. Soon, one by one, everybody involved with the murder of Tabatha’s owner begins dying themselves…

The film has often been overlooked by histories of Hammer horror, but deserves recognition as an oddity in the studio’s output: Shadow of the Cat is a Hammer horror that feels more like an Ealing comedy.

Walter slinking down into a cellar, squeaking “kitty, kitty, kitty” as he brandishes a large knife; the villains hiding in a hedgerow as they wait for the cat to walk into an elaborate trap; the cat escaping from a bag, leading to a chase scene that ends with one of the killers slipping off a log and falling in a swamp –
[all produces a comic effect.]

Even as the cat succeeds in picking off the murderers – by bringing on a fatal heart attack, startling someone into falling down the stairs or by luring one unfortunate soul into a Harold Lloyd-esque rooftop chase – it never really convinces as the preternatural nemesis that it is meant to be. Again, the film seems more like a slapstick comedy about a bunch of bumbling criminals bringing about their own deaths as they pursue this innocuous kitty.

Shadow of the Cat was almost certainly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” (Poe is directly referenced in the opening, as Tabatha’s owner reads “The Raven”), making it the studio’s only film based on the work of this author. The movie is, at least, a much closer adaptation than Universal’s 1934 film version; but while Poe successfully crafted a tale in which the uncanny elements can be chalked up to the narrator’s unhinged state of mind, Shadow of the Cat tries to have it both ways. It portrays the cat as being fully aware of its owner’s murder and deliberately attempting to punish the killers, while the murderers themselves set out to kill the cat even before its unusual attributes become apparent – a double absurdity that lends the feel of a cartoon right from the get-go.

Another misjudgement lies in the choice of cat to play the title role. Some cats do look pretty creepy, admittedly, but Tabatha is portrayed by a particularly harmless-looking tabby-cat. Poe’s narrator described a “hideous beast”, but Shadow of the Cat shows an animal that looks cuddly rather than scary: the film again lurches into comedy whenever the camera cuts to a close-up of this fluffy little kitty during the suspense scenes.

It is hard to believe that the people working on The Shadow of the Cat saw it as anything other than a bit of a joke. Certainly, that is how many modern audiences will see the film. And if John Gilling and company were not having a laugh, then Shadow of the Cat must surely rank as one of the great unintentional comedies of horror cinema.

Our reviewer thinks that the director should have foll0wed "the original idea [of the writer George Baxt] of an imaginary feline that represents the killers’ guilt." I saw this movie and did not find it as ridiculous as the reviewer suggests. It was silly in places, but most movies are --- silly.

John Gilling has a lot of writing credits also; he moved to Spain in 1970 to devote himself to painting.

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