Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Salina [KS] Journal, July 15, 1958

The Screen Gems promotional booklet for SHOCK! devotes a page to each film in the syndication package. On the right side of the page, there are three sections: the first has copy for two on-air teasers (ten and twenty seconds) "for use with telop BEFORE day of telecast"(for an example, see the one below for the next movie in my viewing project, DEAD MAN'S EYES); the second section is a "TV News Release," a fake news story that can be used by the station to promote the movie of the week; and the third section is a biography of one of the cast members for the film. Over on the left side of the page, there is a large illustration (usually a publicity still or a detail from a lobby card that can be reproduced for a print ad) and, beneath that, a brief but detailed synopsis (including spoilers), and a short credit list (producer, director, writer, running time, and release date).

The Screen Gems synopsis for THE CAT CREEPS begins: "Terry Nichols (Fred Brady), a reporter, learns that a fifteen-year-old suicide case was actually a murder." A few lines later, it explains that Terry is "told that the victim's soul passed into the body of a cat and will not be at peace until the murder is apprehended." This is an error in the description; actually, an old woman who claims to have information on the murder is killed while Terry is investigating the case, and it is her soul that is supposedly transmuted into the body of the black cat.

Whoever wrote up the capsule description of THE CAT CREEPS for the newspaper TV listing service misinterpreted the already incorrect Screen Gems synopsis even further:

San Antonio [TX] Light, July 17, 1960

The only explanation that I can come up for what happened here is that a copywriter for the service (I saw this same description in more than one newspaper) misread "fifteen year-old suicide case was actually murder" in the SHOCK! book as "a fifteen year-old's suicide was actually murder," thereby giving us "A teenager is murdered and her soul lingers in body of a cat." And actually, that erroneous TV listing description sounds like a much darker and more interesting movie than the one you would have seen if you had tuned in that Sunday night for THE CAT CREEPS.

Here's my own attempt at a quick synopsis: A new clue has surfaced in a suicide of bootlegger Eric Goran that suggests that a senatorial candidate is involved, so a newspaper sends a smug, wise-cracking reporter and his photographer to investigate. Before long, the reporter, the photographer, the senatorial candidate, his daughter, his lawyer, his lawyer's ailurophobic secretary, and his lawyer's shady private eye operative are all gathered in an old house on a remote island where the elderly witness, Cora Williams, lives with a hidden $200,000 stash of Goran's loot. The old woman is killed (strangled, I think, but it is never entirely made clear); a woman claiming to be Goran's daughter Kyra shows up in the house with a black cat in her arms and she says that the cat has been taken over by Cora Williams's spirit and it now has "superhuman" and "supernatural" powers. Then a few more people get killed off and everyone's a suspect, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE-style.

The movie is a mess of plot holes and hurriedly-explained back-stories, but more importantly, it is not a horror movie. When all is said and done, it is murder-mystery despite its forced flirtation with "weird mystery" atmospheres and the conventions of the "old dark house" subgenre. (In 1930, Universal made a film called THE CAT CREEPS which was a re-make of that 1927 classic, THE CAT AND THE CANARY. This 1946 movie has absolutely nothing to do with that story.) Because it pulls back from its horror-movie inclinations, THE CAT CREEPS was probably considered a very versatile picture by program directors at television stations; as I was looking at listings from between 1957 and 1962, the movie shows up in late-night showcases where other SHOCK! titles were featured but it also surfaced a lot more in late-morning and afternoon movie slots.

Yet despite its shying away from its potential horrors and of all the ineptitude, confusion, and misdirection surrounding the production of this B-movie (it was originally released in 1946 in support of SHE-WOLF OF LONDON), I didn't mind it. It's reviled as one of the most disappointing films of the Universal horror canon, but if one can watch it with the lowest possible expectations (in other words, if you hadn't seen the macabre "murdered-teenage girl's-soul-in-a-black-cat" description in the TV listings), then you might be able to kick back with a mildly diverting late-night hour's worth of viewing. I've been far less patient with the movie in the past, but anchoring it in the context of SHOCK! seemed to lessen my aggravation this time.

One thing that I found interesting in researching THE CAT CREEPS for my viewing project was its appearance in a few movie theaters in the Midwest and the South in 1957-- I would've expected FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA to still be making the rounds even though it was included in the the SHOCK! assortment, but I certainly didn't think that THE CAT CREEPS would be, too.

I want to call attention to one particular instance of its theatrical run, specifically at the Pocomoke theater in south-central Maryland at the end of May 1957 where it was billed as part of a spook show (since the other two movies were a Western and an Abbott and Costello comedy, I'm going to say that THE CAT CREEPS was meant to be the feature that followed the "Ghost Party").

Salisbury [MD] Times, May 29, 1957

The "Midnight Ghost Party" spookshow (note that "midnight" is erased from the ad since the show probably began at dusk at the Pocomoke) was hosted by the "noted mental scientist" and "physiognomist," Kirma. You'll notice that the Pocomoke theater was a drive-in; Mark Walker's Ghostmasters identifies Kirma as a performer and entrepreneur who actually specialized in drive-in spookshows, often performing on the roof of the refreshment stand or the building that housed the projection booth in an elegant white dinner jacket.

"His creep show ran thirty minutes," Walker explains. "With flood lights set up around him, the crowd had to get out of cars and gather in front of the building to to watch his presentation," which was a magic act that included mind-reading, fortune-telling, a séance stunt, and some hypnosis routines. "Following the actual show, spectators cleared out as Kirma announced it was time for the arrival of the monsters. People were instructed to lock car doors and roll up windows as management could not be held responsible for their safety. During this sequence, local helpers dressed in monster outfits ran about, banging on automobile windows and hoods."

Given that the spookshow magicians were the precursors to the TV horror movie hosts who frequently presented the SHOCK! films, I found this instance of Kirma and THE CAT CREEPS to be worthy of mention. I probably would've enjoyed THE CAT CREEPS a lot more at a drive-in in 1957 with Kirma's spookshow monsters pounding on the roof of my car than I did watching it alone last night on DVD.

NEXT: "A killer feels safe until he discovers that his victim's eyes have condemned him to death! For the most amazing story in the annals of crime, don't miss the SHOCK feature film DEAD MAN'S EYES, telecast on this channel! It's a thrill classic that you'll always remember!"


Mirek said...

Walker's Ghostmasters is indispensable as a study of the spook shows of the day. I'm sure many average or even mediocre films benefited by being part of the spook show dynamics.

I don't believe I've ever seen THE CAT CREEPS, but I certainly will at some point based on your review. Interesting that because it was a mystery and not a straight-out horror film, it could find more slots in TV programming.

kochillt said...

This one had even less atmosphere than SHE-WOLF OF LONDON, but a good cast again makes it enjoyable. This also aired 7 times on CHILLER THEATER.