CAT GIRL. Insignia Films/AIP, 1957. Barbara Shelley, Robert Ayres, Kay Callard, Ernest Milton,Jack May. Written and produced by Lou Russoff (brother-in-law of Samuel Z. Arkoff, head of AIP). Directed by Alfred Shaughnessy.

   A British-born variation on Val Lewton’s classic Cat People (1942) this is cheap and a bit crude, but oddly sensual for a 1950s Monster Movie.

   Director Alfred Shaughnessy went on to some acclaim writing Upstairs Downstairs (1971-75) and writer-producer Lou Russoff was responsible for classics like The She Creature, It Conquered the World and Beach Party, so you can appreciate the dynamic tension present in the creative process here.

   It all opens up in a creepy (and rather cheaply-furnished) old castle on a dark & stormy night, where Barbara Shelley is summoned to inherit the Family Curse, which has something to do with a psycho-spiritual link with predatory cats. Seems rather a heavy burden to bear — especially since the old man who passes on the familial blight gets mauled by a cheetah shortly thereafter — and I can’t imagine why the family didn’t simply opt to pay a fine instead, but I guess that wouldn’t make much of a movie, would it?

   Anyway, Barbara has more to contend with than mere Doom; it also seems she’s married to an unfaithful boor who makes the Curse of the Cat People seem a mere inconvenience: greedy, condescending, completely self-centered, and it’s a bit of a relief when Barbara finds him out on the castle grounds shaking the bushes with a comely female guest and, in the words of one critic:

   “The legacy of emotion and sensuality suppressed in countless British film heroines over the past twenty years, appears in a particularly violent and distorted form…. as the ghostly cheetah, powered by all her repressed desire, begins to savage the lovers while she looks on in ecstasy….”

   Well, that’s a good deal stronger than anything you’ll find in Cat People, and Barbara Shelley’s sexuality is much more overt than Simone Simon’s: she sleeps in the nude and goes about in a strapless gown apparently held up only by her firm anatomy — which in 1957 was pretty strong stuff, especially for a monster movie supposedly aimed at kiddies, but I digress.

   Up to this point Barbara has all our sympathy, but it quickly develops that she’s still in love with an old boyfriend, now a happily-married psychologist, who begins treating her obvious symptoms of dangerous insanity. And naturally he decides that the best thing for her is to move in with him and his mousy missus, as the attentive viewer mutters, “Yeah, right,” or the functional equivalent.

   At about this point, Cat Girl begins aping Cat People pretty shamelessly as Barbara’s jealousy turns to evil, and she starts plotting her rival’s demise. We get a variation on the birdcage scene from the earlier film, then a repeat of the night-stalk, leading up to a rather muddled conclusion where… well I won’t give it away, just take my word: it’s muddled.

   Yet I still enjoyed Cat Girl, and if you have a taste for cheap monster movies you will too, thanks mainly to Barbara Shelley. Her sheer screen presence in a role with a bit of depth to it lifts this well out of the ordinary. In fact, even before I watched this last week, I remembered it with affection from when I saw it on its first release, sharing a double bill with The Amazing Colossal Man.

   Now THAT was Bang for your two-bits!