FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
Cats and old houses are staple ingredients of horror-films, and over the decades both have accrued many complex symbolic associations.
There’s nothing complex about John Gilling’s SHADOW OF THE CAT, however. An old woman, owner of a ritzy country mansion and a cat named Tabitha, is murdered by a cabal made up of her servants and relatives. The conspirators hide the old woman’s body in the hope that she’ll be declared legally dead in time, allowing them to divvy up her estate. But there’s one problem: Tabitha witnessed the murder.
There’s absolutely no hint of the supernatural here; not only is the old woman’s spirit not in the cat, there aren’t even any significant parallels between feline and owner. The cat isn’t even spooky-looking in any way, nor does it ever seem possessed of more than feline intelligence. Nevertheless this common-looking housecat holds a grudge and manages to bedevil the murderers—all of whom conveniently remain in residence at the mansion—into falling down stairs, venturing into deadly marshes, and so on. The only diversion from this main plotline is a subplot about the old woman’s missing will, which if found will confer great favor with the woman’s only “good relative,” played by Barbara Shelley, who doesn’t do anything but cluck her tongue at her relations for persecuting a poor little cat.
The best facet of this standard “punish-the-evildoers” tale—which I enjoyed on that level, even without much in the way of symbolic flourishes—is that Gilling keeps everything looking rather ordinary. Not only is Tabitha a commonplace feline, but the mansion is, rather refreshingly, never treated as an “old dark house.” Most of the scenes take place in well-lit areas, so there’s no visual or musical cues to warn the audience before the cat strikes. One might fairly regard SHADOW OF THE CAT as a minor harbinger of the vogue for “naturalistic horror” in the early 1970s, though Gilling didn’t pursue this approach in his later and better-known horror-films of the 1960s, such as THE REPTILE and PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES.