Leonora Johnson (Barbara Shelley) has been summoned to her ancestral estate in the country to meet with her uncle Edmund Brandt (Ernest Milton), but does not know the reason. For moral support, she has brought along her husband Richard (Jack May) and two of their friends, not knowing or unwilling to admit to herself that Richard is having an affair with Cathy (Paddy Webster), and her husband is growing bolder about this illicit relationship, even dancing with his lover mere feet away from Leonora in the tavern they have stopped off at along the way. But what none of them are aware of is Edmund's motive; as the owner of an adult leopard, he feels an affinity with the creature that may even be supernatural...
Barbara Shelley, that much-respected star of vintage British horror cinema, really gained that position with Cat Girl, which was one of many films to fit the pattern of her character possessed by an otherworldly threat and acting accordingly. In this case it was plainly inspired by the Val Lewton classic of the forties, Cat People, though some saw this equivalent taking an interesting path in that instead of the suffering wife going through her emotional pain of adultery in silence as was the norm, Leonora was not going to take this affront lying down, although granted she had to be influenced by her family curse to prompt her to take action, and that action was revenge. Whether that was entirely true was up for debate, but Shelley did make an impressive woman scorned.
Impressive enough to set her on her journey to Hammer and their newfound, lucrative capitalising on chiller cinema, though Cat Girl was not one of theirs, it was actually produced by Peter Rogers who would soon be trying comedy on for size with his very successful Carry On franchise, so horror's loss was humour's gain. One thing that set this apart from the Lewton production was the presence of an actual big cat in the plot, not some beast the heroine transforms into but Edmund's pet which we see comes in handy for when he wishes to catch a rabbit and eat it raw in the woods. The Brandt family must have kept a stock of leopards down the centuries seeing as how important they are to sustaining the curse, as they draw energy from one another.
Although you would suggest to Leonora that if she wanted to break that curse, how about packing the leopard off to the nearest zoo instead of leaving it around in the forest, she does have some degree of control over it after all. Anyway, no sooner has her uncle informed her of her ancestors' legacy, which he apparently just had to do in the middle of the night so we in the audience could see her woken up in bed having been sleeping nude (so she obviously has some kind of primal nature, or she would have had in the fifties), than Edmund has had his throat ripped out by that feline menace - and we thought they were friends. Yet he seems quite resigned to this fate, almost as if he welcomes it, not least because Leonora has to adopt the mantle of cat person now.
First things first as a cat person, our unstable heroine has a barely suppressed desire to do something about, no, not getting a nightie, but getting her own back on Richard, who clearly married her for her money. Unwisely canoodling in the woods with Cathy, the couple are set upon by the animal and it's bye bye Dickie, but did Leonora have anything to do with it, was it under her influence? The man she really loves is Dr Brian Marlowe (American in the U.K. Robert Ayres), and he becomes her psychiatrist, though he's already married to Dorothy (Paddy Webster), who his new patient looks daggers at every time they meet. This is where the movie gets bogged down in talk, with Leonora confined to a mental hospital for a quick Eleanor Parker impersonation, but rest assured she gets out in time to recreate the Cat People's ending as she stalks Dorothy through darkened streets - there's even a false bus scare. Shelley was the best thing about a rather stuffy production, as if she were the only one aware of the dangerous female implications, but it does amuse. Music by Peter Hennessy.
[Network's Region 2 DVD, part of their British Film line, has a trailer and gallery as extras. The print is very fine.]