Lou Rusoff’s SHE CREATURE ended on an upbeat note for its monstrous female, but about a year later Rusoff's CAT GIRL, like its probable inspiration 1942’s CAT PEOPLE, consigns the titular female fiend to destruction by the forces of realism and practicality.
The film doesn’t open on the title character Leonora Brandt (lion-brand?). Instead it begins with her aged uncle Edward looking out the window of his English manor into a dark and stormy night, awaiting his niece’s arrival. A brief conversation with Edward’s housekeeper establishes that Edward has a legacy he wants to bestow on Leonora, one that connects in some strange way to the caged leopard in the cellar.
The scene shifts to an inn not far from the manor, where Leonora and her three associates have paused—a couple named Kathy and Alan, and Leonora’s husband Richard Johnson. Interestingly, Leonora is never addressed as“Mrs. Johnson.” Despite the fact that they’re only a few miles from Edward’s domicile, Leonora fears seeing her uncle again and begs Richard to take her back to London. Richard proves indifferent to her fears, urging her to be “practical,” though in this scene and others it’s clear that he merely wants to placate her wealthy uncle’s whims so that he won’t cut Leonora out of his will. While at the inn Leonora encounters what seems a more positive male figure from her past, a psychologist named Brian—only to find out that after they broke up (for reasons never specified), Brian married another woman, name of Dorothy.
In DELIRIOUS #5, Steven Johnson interpreted Leonora’s fear of her uncle as indicative of an incestuous, or quasi-incestuous, relationship. There’s no overt testimony of such, but it’s clear upon Leonora’s arrival that she shares a bond with her uncle, for she hears the roar of the caged leopard below when no one else in the room with Leonora hears anything. The uncle refuses to interact with Leonora’s guests, though he does come across Richard cheating on his wife with Alan’s girlfriend Kathy. Later that night, when everyone else is asleep, the housekeeper summons Leonora (who isn’t sharing a bed with Richard) to meet Edward in the cellar, a room where in earlier days Leonora was never allowed to trespass.
Edward, calling his brother’s child“my Leonora,” shows her the caged leopard and tells the girl that their family shares a common curse in which they share identity with a great cat. It’s lightly suggested that the leopard may be more than a simple beast, though only at the story’s end does it seem to possess any strong metaphysical traits. Edward tells Leonora that when he dies, the curse will descend upon her, so that she will revel in the leopard’s killings and be “as one” with it. Thus he encourages her not to make his brother’s mistake: that she should never reproduce. Leonora doesn’t believe him and flees, but not before Edward encourages her to touch the leopard’s fur, which apparently bonds her to the big cat. After Leonora runs away, Edward releases the creature from its cage and allows it to kill him.
The leopard escapes the manor. The authorities are called in, and because Leonora is so distraught, they call in the closest psychologist, Brian. Brian attempts to refute Leonora’s fears of werewolfism with paternalistic logic. But the next night Leonora discovers Richard messing around with Kathy, and, as if in tune with Leonora’s savage hatred, the leopard shows up and kills Richard. Guilty Leonora tries to confess, but the police suspect no one but the leopard.
Brian talks Leonora into seeking psychiatric help at the sanitarium he runs. Brian never makes any direct overtures to her, but he’s evidently not forgotten her charms, since in his wife’s presence he calls her “Lee,”prompting Leonora to observe that no one else calls her that. At the sanitarium Leonora imagines that she transforms into a were-cat, but when Brian challenges her to summon the cat, as she claims she can, Leonora fails. She seems to improve enough that Brian releases her, hoping that normal life will dispel the last of her abnormality.
Instead, her release encourages Leonora to plot Dorothy’s death. Brian makes this easy, since he encourages Dorothy to help Leonora despite Dorothy’s fearful presentiments. When Brian invites the two of them to meet him at night—the time when the leopard can prowl best—Leonora tries to set things up to have her “other self” slay Dorothy. Only Brian’s belated ability to listen to his own presentiments prevents Dorothy’s death, with the result that Leonora perishes instead. The curse is in theory laid to rest, though the film fades out on Edward’s haunted manor and the forbidding forest, as the voices of Edward and Leonora repeat phrases spoken in life.
CAT GIRL isn’t as stylishly directed as CAT PEOPLE; Alfred Shaughnessy is never more than simply competent. However, though most critics prefer CAT PEOPLE’s script for its ambivalence as to the existence of the supernatural, I find that sort of ambivalence tedious. I like the way CAT GIRL shows up the conceit and pretension of patriarchal society, as represented by Richard and Brian, by showing the profundity of the world of feelings to which women are sensitive—and, by extension, the reality of Leonora’s shared identity with a prehuman creature.