The Shadow of the Cat
What makes a Hammer film, do you think? Is it just Lee or Cushing in a fun English horror film? - cos there are a few of those that had nothing to do with Hammer. So was it just whatever some blokes behind a door marked ‘Hammer productions’ decided to put on celluloid? And is that all it was? Or was it the people and places that were brought together by those blokes, and over the years a style developed that meant it didn’t matter who was sat behind the door, or even what was written on it. Take The Shadow of the Cat, for example; here’s a movie that’s filmed at Hammer’s studios in Bray, stars Hammer stalwarts Barbara Shelley and Andre Morell, and most of the yelling, fixing, and running about on set was done by old Hammer hands. And yet it’s a BHP production, a short lived company created to take advantage of a tax benefit.
Now I could be wrong about this, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that lots of people on the internet have argued about whether or not this is a Hammer film. Because, well, that’s what the world is these days isn’t it? A series of pointless fights that end up making people feel terrible. And whoever made The Shadow of the Cat wanted to frighten you, but they didn’t want you to feel terrible. They wanted to make a fun, gothic horror, using Hammer’s know-how, in order to make a few bob at the box office, and hopefully give people a good time. The idea that people would be arguing over whether or not it’s a real Hammer movie over fifty years later would probably have left them a little sad. After probably feeling quite chuffed that they had a made a film good enough to still be talked about fifty years later, to be fair.
Because the things is, it is quite a good movie. Of course, one problem with loving old Hammer films (or whatever, just let this one go, eh?) is that you are sometimes slightly divorced from the context of the time the movie was released. For all I know the market was flooded with spooky cat pictures and this was only the seventh best one released that year. But I don’t know about any of them, I only know about Hammer ones (alright, two, let these two go...) And I really loved the idea of a house cat becoming the repository for all the guilt and self-loathing of a rum old group of murderers. It’s as if the three members of the spooky household who banded together to bump off the old dear with the cash were so convinced that any half-decent higher power would never let their evil deed go unpunished that they willed the cat’s revenge into existence. Because, basically, that’s the plot of the movie. The cat takes its revenge on the people who murdered its master, which I think is a splendid idea for a film.
In that sense, it is a bit different from Hammer’s usual fare. They appear to be going for an Edgar Allan Poe sort of vibe, instead of old Universal-type monsters or Hitchcock-y suspense. Not that they were immune to trying any old thing if they thought it would work - The Lost Continent anyone? - but the black and white gothic turn-of-the-century ghost story is a new one on me and if it took having a new name above the work to try something a bit new, well then that’s fine with me.
I have never seen Andre Morell be a bad ‘un before either. He’s usually solid and dependable, a sort of slightly melancholy Cushing. His Watson in Hound of the Baskervilles is one of my favourites, and he’s brilliant in Plague of the Zombies as the exasperated scientist banging his head against a village’s wall of silence. But here they let him be a scene-chewing patriarch, a right grumpy old bastard who is fixated on the cat from the moment he spots it running away from the murder scene. He spends most of the movie propped up in bed after a cat-induced heart attack which involves a lot of scheming and shouting while mostly lost in thick pillows and blankets which is no mean acting feat. He is the withered black heart of the movie and brilliantly sells the disintegration of reason in the face of this persistent and consistently successful revenge cat.
I have also not seen a lot of William Lucas either, who plays the dial-a-bastard relative that old Andre has to turn to. He needs to find an old will or something, but really he’s called up the black sheep of the family to take out the bloody cat. Lucas is fantastic, having an absolute ball being an irredeemable swine who is the only one not terrified of the cat, mostly because he feels joy instead of guilt at the prospect of getting his hands on a load of loot.
Of course, the old Hammer stalwart of nice, young dull people being two steps behind the audience, as well as falling in barely deserved love, is still here but they’re only window dressing really. This is definitely the cat’s show. We should spare a thought for the poor cat wrangler too. I’m sure Hammer had some old animal handler to look after hounds, and horses, and what-have-you for their movies but I bet all his experience didn’t save him from being one well-clawed crew member by the time this shoot was done. He at least would have been happy to get back to normal Hammer duties once filming was wrapped for BHP.
See, personally, I think arguing over whether or not this is a Hammer film or not is a bit silly. It was made by Hammer people on Hammer sets, and even though it’s a little different, you’re getting what you want from a Hammer film. A fun and spooky tale told by great actors and an experienced crew with a bit of imagination and a whole lot of know-how. Sometimes I suppose, there are just some things not worth arguing over. Speaking of which…