Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Love of Darkness

CAT GIRL (1957)

"The love of darkness, the craving for warm flesh and blood … it is my legacy to you ... passed on from generation to generation of our family …  for 700 years!" Ernest Milton and Barbara Shelley provide the only sparks to this pedestrian programmer.

PRODUCED by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, RKO's 1942 CAT PEOPLE divided critics at the time, but is now considered a sophisticated classic. Telling the story of young Serbian Irena (Simone Simon), who believes herself to be a descendant of a race of people who turn into cats when sexually aroused, the style of the film concentrates on the theory that unseen terrors are more effective than visual ones (what Lewton referred to as "patches of prepared darkness"). This use of suggestive shadow, and the genre-defining shock Lewton Bus moment, was in contrast to the Universal trend of the time, who would make FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN a year later.

CAT GIRL - a British CAT PEOPLE from Insignia directed by Alfred Shaughnessy - barely registers as horror, its stagy and stilted execution making it hard to believe it was released in the wake of Hammer's game-changer, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Leonora (Barbara Shelley) is summoned to her ancestral estate by uncle Edmund Brandt (Shakespearean actor Ernest Milton, doing his best Ernest Thesiger impression). Recently married to Richard (Jack May), Leonora also brings friends Cathy and Allan (Patricia Webster and John Lee) to the house. Brandt's niece discovers that she is to be united with the soul of Edmund's pet leopard, continuing a family curse which enables mental control of the big cat to "kill ... kill." Under Leonora's control, the leopard savages her husband for having an affair with Cathy, then turns its attentions to Dorothy (Kay Callard), the wife of Leonora's true love Dr Marlowe (Robert Ayres).

Barbara Shelley - the "first leading lady of British horror" - is haunted Leonora. Shelley's looks and stature command the screen, with Barbara playing it commandingly straight.

Aside from Shelley and Milton, the performances are self-conscious (even leopard Chiefy, a performing cat from Southport Zoo, surprisingly lacks menace), and Ayres makes for a particularly characterless 'hero'. Shaughnessy - directing his only fantastic film before creating UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS and planting the seed that would become Pete Walker's HOUSE OF WHIPCORD - couldn't remain positive about the release's own main legacy, lamenting in his autobiography "by using [Barbara Shelley] I fear we condemned a very beautiful and talented actress to a long career in horror films."

Similar to Shelley's Helen in DRACULA PRINCE OF DARNESS, when a hex kicks in, Leonora's sexual repression is unshackled. Now infused with feline aggression, things get weird when she briefly imagines herself turning into a leopard, and eats a budgie (off screen); Leonora's eyebrows also suggest a sudden predatory look (critic David Pirie argues that it is with CAT GIRL that British film heroines started to distort from their emotional norm, even if they are portrayed as mental patients and die violently). In her first starring role Shelley atypically shows off areas of flesh; yet any real charge is smothered by the picture's mundaneness, as a lingering shot of Leonora's naked back sees the camera pan away, leaving the maid to comment on her beauty.

"Everything else is darkness"; the hypnotic stare of Christopher Lee as RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK.

Directed by Don Sharp and scripted by Anthony Hinds, Hammer's RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK casts Shelley again under the spell of Christopher Lee in redressed sets from DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS. After healing an innkeeper's wife and cutting off the hand of the keeper's daughter's suitor, Grigori Rasputin (Lee) is hauled before an Orthodox bishop on grounds of sexual immorality and violence. Preferring to give God "sins worth forgiving", Rasputin is unperturbed by the bishop's claims of Satanism. Heading for St Petersburg, the exiled Monk befriends struck-off Dr Zargo (Richard Pasco) and begins his campaign to infiltrate highest Russian society. This includes gaining influence over the Tsarina's ladies-in-waiting Sonia (Shelley) and Vanessa (Suzan Farmer), but his relentless sexual appetite and pursuit of wealth eventually leads to his death at the hands of Zargo and Ivan (Francis Matthews).

Initially announced in 1961 as THE SINS OF RASPUTIN, Hammer's brisk pseudo-exploration of "History's Man of Mystery" is dominated by Lee's extraordinary performance. Unlike his appearances as Dracula - often off-screen and reduced to set pieces - Rasputin is overpowering from his appearance at the Inn door. Passionately researching the role, the actor even sought advice on how to play a medically accurate death by cyanide poisoning. But the film was hampered by overspends on DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS, foreshortening the script and scope; the production was also under the threat of legal action from Prince Felix and Princess Irina Yousoupoff, Felix being one of Rasputin's real-life assassins. Having successfully sued MGM over their 1932 release RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS, pressure from the Yousoupoff's is the reason that Hammer's surrogate assassin Ivan is Vanessa's brother rather than husband, and why Vanessa and Rasputin do not meet in the film's climax.