The Cat Creature
Original airdate: Dec 11, 1973
Within a gleaming estate of modern opulence in Southern California, director Harrington skillfully captures a setting that, despite its lavishness, exudes an eerie and unsettling ambiance akin to a New England churchyard.
A man, tasked with taking inventory of the recently deceased millionaire’s eccentric possessions, vocalizes his notes into a tape recorder.
He pays particular attention to the mansion’s ominous aura, with a keen interest in the renowned Egyptian collection that had consumed a substantial portion of the deceased’s fortune.
Armed with a flashlight, he ventures into the room where the collection is housed, where his gaze is drawn to a standing sarcophagus at the room’s far end.
Perhaps unfamiliar with the conventions of horror movies, he decides to unlatch the sarcophagus.
Inside, he finds a rather weathered mummy adorned with an amulet whose craftsmanship and quality appear to belong to the era of a high school production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
Respectfully, he returns the lid to its original position and departs from the room.
However, in a twist of fate, as he leaves, a thief, who had apparently been concealed behind a stone frieze all along, suddenly emerges, removes the lid, and makes off with the necklace.
When the unfortunate man returns to continue his notes, he is horrified to witness the sarcophagus opening on its own accord, revealing an empty interior.
Yet, a menacing feline shadow draws nearer, and before he can react, he lets out a scream as the cat pounces upon him, viciously tearing out his throat.
The thief eventually arrives at Gale Sondergaard’s Antiques and Magic Shop, which boasts one of its many eccentric quirks: a live owl in a cage placed near the entrance.
He tries to pass off the stolen necklace as a “family heirloom,” but Gale remains unconvinced and clearly intrigued. She’s familiar with the art of misdirection, understanding that such an obviously cursed artifact can’t be easily sold.
Consequently, she dismisses him. She makes an attempt at small talk with her somewhat surly shopgirl, who’s eager to wrap up her work and head home for the night.
The shopgirl’s mood brightens when she notices the case left behind by the thief, and she asks if she can have it.
Gale generously grants her request and even offers to drive her home, but the shopgirl declines, opting for a short walk instead.
On her way home, the shopgirl becomes increasingly uneasy as she notices the silhouette of a cat following her closely.
Gale believes she’s in the clear when the shadow reveals itself to be an innocent black cat poking around the trash cans. She takes the cat home, and in an unexpected turn of events, the cat employs its HypnoCat abilities, causing her to calmly throw herself off her balcony.
The cat’s final touch is regurgitating on the floor in a spot where someone is bound to step in it, a devious twist of fate.
Next, we meet our heroine, Reena Carter, portrayed charmingly by TV veteran Meredith Baxter.
She’s applying for the recently vacated position at Gale’s shop, and Gale, who has introduced herself as the delightfully absurd Hester Black, comments on the mystical sound of her name, which seems to appeal to her eccentric customers.
Most of her clientele appear to be a curious blend of post-hippie mysticism enthusiasts who have latched onto various esoteric beliefs, from Satanism to EST, as the Age of Aquarius transitioned into the Me Decade.
Meanwhile, back at the mansion, Lieutenant Marco, played by Stuart Whitman, seeks the help of an “Egyptology” expert, Professor Rodger Edmonds, portrayed by David Hedison.
The professor exudes charm with every fiber of his trendy turtleneck.
Accompanying Marco, Edmonds visits a series of pawn shops where the thief might have tried to sell the amulet, ultimately arriving at Black’s shop.
As Marco clashes with Black over her criminal history, Edmonds turns on his charismatic charm, inviting the alluring young Baxter to join him for dinner at a trendy Tiki establishment.
Macro’s investigation leads him to the skid row hotel where the thief has checked in.
The hotel’s desk is run by the elderly John Carradine, with a little person dressed as a femme fatale sipping brandy like a scene straight out of David Lynch’s unsold pilot for “Hotel.”
They guide Marco to the thief’s room, but not before the Cat completes its lethal mission. Edmonds pays a visit to Black’s shop the next day, hoping to continue his flirtations with the young Baxter, but it happens to be her day off.
Black has been busy reading Tarot cards, and she playfully hints at Edmonds’ fate, suggesting that his cards don’t bode well. As he draws the final card, true to the script, it reveals the ominous image of Death.
Cursed objects, particularly those with an Ancient Egyptian origin, had been a staple in horror for many decades.
However, Robert Bloch, renowned for his work on “Psycho,” provided the teleplay for this production and demonstrated a talent for blending tropes in fresh and unexpected ways.
He infused the narrative with subtle details that contributed to an ever-growing sense of unease, leaving viewers with the unsettling feeling that something is fundamentally awry.
Director Curtis Harrington, known for his early horror and suspense films such as “Night Tide” and “Games,” possessed a unique ability to infuse a dreamy formalism into his work, gradually eroding the viewer’s certainty about what is real.
Together, they crafted a Los Angeles that felt more akin to the pages of “Perdido Street Station” than the glitzy world of Hollywood.
Even in broad daylight, the streets took on an eerie quality, with locations populated by enigmatic figures like the aforementioned petite femme fatale and individuals harboring secrets, or perhaps seven of them.
The film particularly sets itself apart with some surprising plot twists in its third act.
The cast delivers a solid performance, blending elements of Old Hollywood with Method acting and reliable supporting players.
Gale Sondergaard may have moved on from being Bette Davis’ formidable rival in “The Letter,” but there’s a certain charm in her portrayal of a seemingly sweet old lady who harbors a darker side, ready to stab someone in the back.
Stuart Whitman portrays his detective character with a weary determination and a peculiar habit of pronouncing “amulet” as “a-muay-leht.”
David Hedison, while somewhat unremarkable as the leading man, manages to fit in amidst the oddity surrounding him.
In an age where films often mistake length for quality, there’s something to be said for a movie that concludes when the story naturally ends and carries itself with a polished professionalism.
It doesn’t make excuses or offer winks for its more unconventional aspects. Notably, Bloch’s creation of an Ancient Egyptian mythos is entirely original, introducing the idea that the Tarot and Zodiac have modern-day roots in this ancient tradition.
The film clocks in at a concise 75 minutes and provides a delightful and distinctly vintage viewing experience.