During the 1950s and 1960s, Hammer Films sometimes lent out their facilities and crews at Bray to other independent producers, examples of this arrangement including Val Guest's Up the Creek (1958), Nathan Juran's Siege of the Saxons (1963) and Don Sharp's The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966). Occasionally, the studio would work as co-production partners on these ventures, either under the Hammer banner, or establishing a subsidiary company to accommodate the exercise, as was the case with Shadow of the Cat, made with Jon Pennington, a name normally associated with comedy vehicles.
Arguably the most notable aspect of Shadow of the Cat's production is the presence of director John Gilling. Gilling had worked as a screenwriter at Exclusive, and that company's later incarnation Hammer, from the end of the 1940s to the early 1950s, with titles like Francis Searle's The Man in Black (1949), Godfrey Grayson's Room to Let (1950) and Terence Fisher's Wings of Danger (1952) to his credit. He and the studio parted company sometime in 1952, reportedly in somewhat acrimonious circumstances.
In the intervening years, Gilling had worked as a writer and director, sometimes working in both capacities on the same production, on a varied collection of "quota quickies", among them Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952), The Gilded Cage (1954) and The Gamma People (1956). Most of these were made for Tempean Films, owned by Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman who, at the end of the 1950s, began producing genre items in the style of Hammer, often using employees from that company, notably Jimmy Sangster who wrote Henry Cass's Blood of the Vampire and Quentin Lawrence's The Trollenberg Terror (both 1958). In 1959 Gilling himself contributed the Peter Cushing gothic vehicle The Flesh and the Fiends, which is probably how he came to the attention of his erstwhile employers.
At first glance, much of Shadow of the Cat seems very familiar, notably the presence performers who are readily associated with Hammer Films, such as Barbara Shelley (The Gorgon (1964)) and Andre Morrell (She (1965)). Also, aficionados of the studio's output from this period will recognise Bernard Robinson's redressed sets from three Terence Fisher productions, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), Brides of Dracula (1960) and The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), while the music score from Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis (The Day the Fish Came Out (1967)) is very much the archetype associated with the company.
There are, however, a number of features contained within the work that tend to set John Gilling's picture from the standard Hammer fare. The most obvious is the decision (possibly economic) to shoot the film in monochrome, rather than the lurid EastmanColour, later TechniColor, favoured by the studio, the house style being set by Terence Fisher's two seminal works, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958). In addition, cinematographer Arthur Grant (The Damned (1961)) makes striking use of deep-focus photography and low-angled camera positions, giving Bernard Robinson's sets the impression of being much larger in scale than their appearances in the Fisher ventures, frequently dwarfing the actors.
With the use of shadows and light also proving important in creating a strong visual setting for the movie, Gilling and his crew have moved some way from the naturalistic approach normally favoured by Hammer's other filmmakers, and instead have created an environment that has more in common with the expressionist style of cinema seen in the classic Universal Pictures horror pictures of the 1930s and 1940s, although the expressionism adopted for this work is nowhere near as delirious as that shown in something like Rowland V. Lee's Son of Frankenstein (1939).
Although there are of course exceptions, what is perceived as the Hammer formula for their gothic entries, usually involves frequent bouts of visceral action, together with well-timed shock effects. Shadow of the Cat proves to be a more low-key and deliberately paced affair which, in fact, helps to give more violent or physical scenes more impact, as evidenced by the brutal opening murder of Catherine Lacey (The Sorcerers (1967)) with a mallet, Freda Jackson meeting her death on a flight of stairs and Andre Morrell falling headlong into a giant cobweb.
American mystery writer George Baxt, who had previously worked as an uncredited script doctor on Terence Fisher's The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), among others, and who scripted what is effectively the first Amicus production, John Moxey's The City of the Dead (1959), here reworks elements from two distinct literary traditions, the "old dark house" mystery, typified by John Willard's theatrical warhorse of a play, The Cat and the Canary, officially adapted four times for English-language cinema in 1921, 1927, 1939 and 1977, and 19th century gothic literature, especially that written by American author Edgar Allan Poe, whose works had recently undergone something of a revival with the success of the first of a sequence of adaptations from Roger Corman in Hollywood, The House of Usher (1960).
The allusions to Poe become apparent almost immediately, with Catherine Lacey seen reciting The Raven to her pet cat, Tabitha, in the film's opening scene. Surprisingly Tabitha is the breed of black cat favoured by Poe in his writing, rather a common-or-garden British tabby (hence the name), but it does fulfil the role of avenging spirit, or the embodiment of certain character's guilt and paranoia, depending on the viewer's point of view, and so connects with two of works from the author's canon, The Black Cat and, to a lesser extent, The Tomb of Ligeia, the latter filmed by Corman, using Hammer talent, in 1965.
Another possible influence on George Baxt's screenplay may be The Fall of the House of Usher. Dialogue implies that the Venable bloodline may be tainted in some way, as Andre Morrell's characters tells the inspector and the reporter that the family has suffered its fair share of scandals in the past. The housekeeper also remarks about the odd, malevolent atmosphere of the mansion that seems to go beyond the mere hostile presence of the cat.
With an obviously very aged portrait of Tabitha hanging in the building's attic, guarding a valuable secret, it is conceivable that the animal actually embodies the spirit of the house in some way, insinuating that it is alive in some way. The cat may not, in fact, be Ella's pet at all, but has rather taken on the role of protecting the head or owner of the house. This impression is underlined in a coda where a new family take over the property, the husband and wife already hatching a nefarious scheme involving their elderly patriarch (Kynaston Reeves, Fiend Without a Face (1958)), as Tabitha looks on.
While the elements taken from Edgar Allan Poe are certainly very important to the overall work, Baxt and John Gilling's real interest lies with the characters, especially the internecine plotting between the greedy relations.
Of course a film like Shadow of the Cat, where character interaction plays a pivotal role in the development of the plot, with dialogue being extensively used to convey information, the importance of the script and the performances should never be underestimated. Fortunately George Baxt's efforts are well served by an outstanding cast of character actors who bring the vicious scheming of the relatives vividly to life, and who give some wonderfully vitriolic dialogue ("Now that I've got that off my chest, I can at least pretend you're human!"), an extra edge.
Particularly notable performances come from Andre Morrell as the frozen-hearted patriarch, whose descent from arrogance to terrified paranoia, works so well because of the he underplays the part, rather than opting for the expected histrionics, while proving to be even more callous is his nephew, played as a particularly slimy individual by William Lucas (X the Unknown (1956)). Frequently descending into quite rampant hamming the more her housekeeper character unwinds, Freda Jackson (Die, Monster, Die! (1965)) does at least grab the viewer's attention.
Barbara Shelley's character, meanwhile, is initially presented as demure, but is later revealed to have a rather haughty side, with a gently mocking tone in her voice, which she uses most efficiently against her uncle and his family. She proves to be an intelligent, resilient woman, not prone to screaming uncontrollably at the sight of a dead body, unlike her cousin Louise (Vanda Godsell, The Earth Dies Screaming (1963)), who despite creating a first impression of being calm and collected, soon succumbs to the atmosphere in the house, in particular the taunting of the cat. Beth also proves very intuitive in determining that something terrible has befallen her aunt, and that her husband has something to do with it. On the basis of this film, it is easy to see why Shelley's screen presence was considered such an important asset by Hammer.
Although Conrad Phillips (Circus of Horrors (1959)) makes for a rather bland leading man, as the suspicious reporter and romantic interest, there are compensations in some of the minor roles, such as that of the inspector (Alan Wheatley, Spaceways (1953)) and John Dearth as a local bobby seen trying to tempt the cat with some sardines, but instead munching them himself.
Seemingly wanting to impress his old employers, director John Gilling goes out of his way to inject Shadow of the Cat with a real sense of style, with a highly mobile camera, notably in the film's opening scene, beginning with a close-up of a portrait and tracking back past a will seen lying on a desk, through the attic to rest at the bottom of a flight of stairs, where Catherine Lacey is seen reading, and the final confrontation between Edgar (Richard Warner, Village of the Damned (1960)) and the cat in the same location, Gilling here employing not only camera tracks, but rapid pans and hand-held shots. The director and Arthur Grant also make use of very tight and strikingly composed static images, often involving the position of performers within the frame and against their environment. Overall, his direction is never less than highly imaginative.
Interestingly, while Gilling proves highly adept with the plot's more macabre moments, including a withered hand shown protruding from beneath the ground, Andrew's mud-caked corpse being dragged from the swamp, and the cat crawling painfully slowly up a petrified Andre Morrell's bed toward his face (seen from the animal's point of view by way of very effective optical distortion), some lighter scenes are among the film's most impressive. Among these are the conspirators gleefully celebrating the capture of Tabitha in a wire cage, and an elated Andrew skipping through the wood with a sack containing the cat, accompanied by a jaunty piece of music from Mikis Theordorakis.
The climax of the picture has Edgar managing to locate the lost will behind the painting of the cat, and then lashing out at her, before being crushed under some masonry. Again there is the suggestion that the house only appears unstable, and is instead protecting itself and its avatar, the cat, by physical means, again another allusion to Poe and other gothic writers.
B.H.P films apparently became a separate entity, removed from Hammer, after this production, with at least two films appearing under its banner, none of them connected to the studio, Roy Ward Baker's Anglo-Italian war adventure The Valiant (1962), produced by Jon Pennington, and Cliff Owen's adaptation of the British stage farce No Sex Please, We're British (1973).
John Gilling continued to work for Hammer as a director and/or writer throughout the 1960s, providing scripts for such productions as Terence Fisher's The Gorgon (1964), and helming movies like The Reptile and the minor classic The Plague of the Zombies (both 1966), before quitting the industry at the end of the decade and relocating to Spain. There, he made a single film, the rarely seen La cruz del Diablo (1973), retiring shortly after to concentrate on painting.
Review: Iain McLachan
Images: Marcus Brooks