Small Screen Shivers: The Cat Creature (1973)

CatCreature01

By Jessica Ritchey

The Cat Creature
Original airdate: Dec 11, 1973

A veritable banquet of delightfully weird seventies TV movies have found their way to YouTube in their entirety and this new series hopes to provide a guide to best of them. First up is The Cat CreatureWatch it here.

Inside a gleaming whitestone bit of SoCal noveau richery that director Harrington shoots to appear as off kilter and sinister as any New England churchyard, a man is doing an inventory of a recently deceased millionaire-of-the-eccentric variety’s belongings. He (Kent Smith who had similar feline trouble in the original Cat People and its sequel) records his notes out loud into a tape recorder, making special mention of the mansion’s creep factor. He’s especially interested in finally getting around to the man’s famed Egyptian collection he spent a great deal of his fortune on. He takes a flashlight and explores the room the collection resides in, his attention caught by a sarcophagus propped upright at the end of the room. Having apparently never seen a movie in his life, he decides to open it up. Inside is a rather shopworn mummy wearing an amulet whose craftsmanship and quality seems to date it to the Dynasty of The high school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He actually returns the lid to its proper place and leaves the room, but no sooner is he gone when a thief (who apparently has been hiding behind a stone frieze all this time) jumps out, pops off the lid, and absconds with the necklace. The unfortunate man returns to make more notes, only to witness the sarcophagus open under its own power, revealing it empty, but a shadow of a cat stalks ever closer. He has time but to scream at something before the cat is upon him tearing out his throat.

CatCreature03The thief ends up at Gale Sondergaard’s Antiques and Magic Shop, which in one of the productions many quirky touches, has a live owl in a cage by the door. She doesn’t buy for a second his line that it’s a “family heirloom,” but she’s just as obviously interested in it. However, Gale apparently has seen a movie before and isn’t about to fence so obvious a “Hi! I’m A Cursed Artifact!” item and sends him packing. She tries to exchange pleasantries with her surly shopgirl who just wants to get paid and go home for the night. The girl’s mood improves when the sees the case the thief left behind and asks if she can have it. Gale gives it to her gladly and makes another offer to drive her home, the girl lightly responding that walking three blocks won’t kill her and setting off. She has a very tense walk home with a now quite familiar silhouette of a cat following her. Gale thinks she’s in the clear when the shadow reveals itself to be a rather sweet little black cat poking about the trash cans. She takes the cat home, it repays the favor by putting its HypnoCat (!) powers on her making her calmly throw herself off her balcony (!!). (And then probably completing the job by puking on the floor in a place where someone will step in it before they see it, not that I speak from experience of anything.)

Enter our heroine Reena Carter, charmingly played by TV stalwart Meredith Baxter. She’s applying for the now vacant position at Gale’s, who has revealed her name to be the wonderfully ridiculous Hester Black, and comments that the witchy sound of her name is a boon to her customers. All of whom seem to be some sort of amalgamation of every post Hippie hangover bullshit mysticism enthusiast who glommed onto to everything from Satanism to EST as the Age of Aquarius calcified into the Me Decade. Meanwhile back at the mansion, Lt. Marco (Stuart Whitman) calls in an “Egyptology” expert. Professor Rodger Edmonds (David Hedison) arrives, radiating smarm out of every fiber of his groovy turtleneck. He accompanies Marco on a rundown of pawn shops the suspect could have tried to fence the amulet at, arriving at Black’s shop last. Macro spars with Black about her criminal past while Edmonds turns on that old Humbert charm to whisk the startling young Baxter off to dinner at a swingin’ Tiki place. Macro tracks down the thief to the skid row hotel he’s checked into, the desk run by an ancient John Carradine, and a little person dressed as a femme fatale taking sips from a brandy flask like we’ve stumbled into David Lynch’s original unsold pilot for Hotel. They point Marco to his room but not before The Cat has finished him off. Edmonds stops by Black’s shop the following day to see if he can continue to rob the cradle, but it’s Reena’s day off. Black has been reading Tarot cards, and she starts to rattle Edmonds’ cage by sighing and fluttering that his cards don’t look too good at all. Edmonds draws the last card, and since it would violate union rules to be anything else, it is Death.

Cursed objects, cursed Ancient Egyptian objects at that, had been old hat in horror for decades. But Psycho scribe Robert Bloch, who provided the teleplay, had a knack for combining tropes in startling new ways, and overlaying little details that help contribute to a growing sense of unease that something is fundamentally Not Right. Director Curtis Harrington similarly had a way of infusing his early horror and suspense pictures like Night Tide and Games with a dreamy formalism, slowly stripping away the vewier’s certainty about what was “real”. The two combine to create a Los Angeles that feels more out of the pages of Perdido Street Station than Hollywood glamour. The streets taking on a sinister cast even in daylight, and the places populated by people like the aforementioned little person femme fatale and people with a secret, or seven, to hide. It’s especially in some third act twists that it separates itself from an average shocker time filler.

The cast is good too, combining Old Hollywood with Method and ham and eggs reliable day players. Gale Sondergaard may no longer have been Bette Davis’ dangerous rival from The Letter, but there’s something rather appealing in her little old lady who is not as sweet as she would appear, or above sticking a knife in someone’s back. Stuart Whitman plays his cop with a weary determination and odd tic of splitting “amulet” into “a-muay-leht”. David Hedison is rather Harvest Gold press board as a leading man, but there’s enough weirdness going on around him to not matter much. In age of confusing “lengthy” with “good,” there is much to be said for a film that ends when the story does and that carries itself with a crisp professionalism. It does not apologize or wink at any of the more out there touches. Namely that Bloch’s Ancient Egyptian mythos is invented whole cloth; did you know the Tarot and Zodiac are just modern day descendants of it? Well you do now!

A very fun, and very brown 75 minutes.

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