Scaredy Cats: Cat Girl (1957)

The low-budget opus belatedly attempts to cash in on Cat People, but it has little of the subtlety or style of the 1942 Val Lewton production. In a strange way, Cat Girl seems more old-fashioned than its model: the limited production values, melodramatic tone, and outdated attempts at spooky atmosphere suggest a cheap British rip-off of 1930s’ horror classics. The film earns some points for effort, but its greatest strength is Barbara Shelley - a fine actress who effectively follows in the paw prints of Simone Simone.

The most original element of the derivative story is having the titular character Leonora (Shelley) mentally control a wild cat instead of turning into one. This interesting thematic variation (which predates Lucio Fulci's 1981 The Black Cat) creates a perfectly ambiguous situation: there is no doubt that the leopard is killing people, but there is no way to prove that it was acting out Leonora’s wishes. Unfortunately, the movie confuses the issue when Leonora briefly hallucinates turning into a cat-girl, implying that she is psychotic rather than cursed.

Either way, Cat Girl equates female passion with feline aggression: the leopard embodies Leonora’s formerly repressed emotions, and the horror derives from the typically British fear of these emotions being unleashed. (This is the opposite of Cat People, in which violence resulted not from the expression of passion but from its repression due to superstitious fear.) Shelley effectively conveys the transition from demure to dangerous; when her new persona manifests, it is a recognizable part of herself, something we have seen lurking behind her eyes in earlier scenes. Her alter ego, the leopard, is sleek predator, though not as impressive as the panther in Cat People. (Its attack scenes lack suspense). Far more horrifying is Leonora’s mouth-watering interest in a pet bird, which she satisfies off-screen, evoking a shudder of revulsion in the audience. She is the film’s true scaredy cat.

Normally, when blogging about "Scaredy Cat" movies , I like to include photos of the kitty-cats as they appear on screen, but there are no stills that I cand find and the film is not available on DVD, so it is difficult if not impossible to capture high-quality frame grabs. Hopefully, you will be satisfied with the poster image included above.

Read a more in-depth review of Cat Girl at Cinefantastique Online.

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