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The Creeper (1948)

"Don’t tell me you still have that ridiculous
aversion to cats!?"

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creep.jpg (10844 bytes) Director: Jean Yarbrough

Starring: Janis Wilson, John Baragrey, Onslow Stevens, Ralph Morgan, June Vincent, Eduardo Ciannelli, David Hoffman

Screenplay: Maurice Tombragel

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Synopsis: Dozing in his study, Dr Lester Cavigny (Ralph Morgan) awakens to find that his daughter, Nora (Janis Wilson), has entered the room while sleepwalking. As her father watches in horror, Nora takes the gun from his drawer and returns to her room with it, slipping it under her pillow before getting back into bed. As Dr Cavigny retrieves the weapon, Nora wakes, startled. When she sees the gun, which her father tells her he has been cleaning, she confesses that she had just had a dream about taking the gun because she felt that something was after her.

The next day, shipments of equipment and specimens arrive at the Cavigny-Bordon Laboratory in the Medical Research Center. While Nora and Gwenn Ronstrum (June Vincent), a research technician, unpack, Dr Cavigny has a disagreement with his partner, Dr James Bordon (Onslow Stevens), over the direction of their work. The two men are interrupted by a cry from Gwenn, who has discovered that all of their precious serum samples have been smashed. While Cavigny suggests that this may be for the best, Bordon announces his intention of obtaining more serum from the experimental cats the group worked with in the West Indies. At the mention of the cats, Nora becomes visibly distressed. Bordon scoffs at her, but her father comforts her, telling her that her fear is simply a residual effect of the severe illness she suffered in the West Indies, where her delirium induced hallucinations about cats.

While Cavigny and Bordon argue over continuing their research, which has produced unexpected results, Dr Van Glock (Eduardo Ciannelli), who works in the laboratory next door, spies them upon. Borden insists that he is going on with the research. Cavigny reassures Nora by reminding her that he holds all the notes of the experimental work, without which Bordon cannot proceed. Nora is visited by Dr John Reade (John Baragrey), Dr Van Glock’s partner, on whom she had a crush as a girl. The two exchange greetings, but are interrupted by Gwenn, who was involved with John before the trip to the West Indies. John takes both girls into his lab, introducing Van Glock and making them coffee. As John shows them around, Nora becomes terrified of John’s cat, Creeper, and flees. Concerned, John wants to go after her, but Gwenn dissuades him. That night, Nora suffers an hallucination about a giant cat attacking her. A few days later, Nora visits John in his lab, confessing her fear of cats and describing her terrible, fevered illness, during which she became haunted by the death of the wife of her father’s assistant. John takes Nora out to dinner, but the evening is spoilt when Nora has another encounter with a cat. Jealous of John’s growing interest in Nora, Gwenn confronts the girl, forcing her to face her greatest fear: schizophrenia. Soon afterwards, Dr Cavigny is found dead, his body mutilated by the claws on an enormous animal….

Comments: Where to start, where to start? The terrible acting? The ridiculous dialogue? The incomprehensible storyline? The mindboggling "science"? Ah, yes – there, I think! The Creeper is one of those films that turns on a "scientific" discovery so stupid that, try as you might, you can’t think of a single practical application for it.

Our central scientists, Dr Cavigny (The Good Scientist) and Dr Bordon (The Bad Scientist) are trying to develop a method for introducing phosphorescence into human organs, the aim being to assist with visualising tissues during surgery. Consequently, the two head for the West Indies, where they generate an experimental serum using a horde of cats: a serum that turns out to have the unexpected side effect of turning human body parts into animal body parts. For some reason, Dr Bordon thinks this is a discovery on par with Galileo’s discovery of the Earth’s rotation, and in the best mad scientist tradition, pursues his obsession through conflict, self-experimentation, and murder.

Now, let’s examine this scenario. In the first place, I concede that the phosphorescence idea isn’t entirely without merit – unless you count the fact that anyone undergoing such treatment would undoubtedly die of it. But why in the world would it be necessary to carry out such research in the West Indies? – and why, why would you carry out your experiments on cats? No-one – but no-one – would use cats in research such as this! As experimental animals, they’re too big to be convenient. As serum-donors, they’re far too small to be useful. The answer, I suspect, lies in the fact that The Creeper was made in the nineteen-forties, a decade in which the horror genre was turned on its head by the beautiful, lyrical fear-poems of Val Lewton and his team. Thus, this misbegotten little film steals the haunting cat motif from Cat People (1942) and The Curse Of The Cat People (1944), the setting from I Walked With A Zombie (1943) and has a leading lady dressed and made up to resemble Kim Hunter in The Seventh Victim (1943).

But where Lewton was subtle, intelligent and frightening, The Creeper is crude, confusing and laughable. The story takes place, by and large, in one of the dingiest, cheapest, most pathetic excuses for a "Medical Research Center" I’ve ever seen – and considering that my colleagues and I have been forced to work out of a construction site for the past eight months, I know what I’m talking about! (Are you listening, South Eastern Sydney Area Health Service??? Nah, probably not….)

All of the scientists who work in the Center are carefully labelled via their wardrobes: The Good Scientists (Cavigny and Reade) wear button-up lab coats over white shirts and tasteful striped ties; The Bad Scientists (Bordon and Gwenn) wear wrap-around, tie-up lab coats; while The Red Herring Scientist (Van Glock) wears a coat that buttons up to the throat. The two labs we see are remarkably similar: four blank walls, a table, a sink, and a lot of test-tubes, glass flasks, and bunsen burners; which, as we all know, is all the equipment any scientist needs to carry out any piece of work, whether it be creating mutating serums, or more importantly, making the coffee.

Great science is being carried out in these unlikely environments – at least, the characters in the film tell us so. The only experiment we actually see is conducted by Dr Bordon and Gwenn, and seems to involve sticking a piece of rubber hosing into each end of a rat which, not surprisingly, is soon on its way to rat heaven (don’t ask me: I don’t write ‘em, I just report ‘em). Dr Van Glock does try to do some work, but there’s something about the allergy lab that makes people drop what they’re holding, and thus most of his efforts end up smashed on the floor.

As for John Reade, his sole function seems to be to make the coffee (not that there’s anything wrong with that). However, the lack of facilities forces him to make it in a glass flask and serve it in a beaker, adding sugar that just lies around amongst the chemicals and milk that is stored in a small fridge along with all the blood samples. In time, the Cavigny-Bordon lab becomes further occupied by a pathetic group of cats, each one confined to a wooden cage about one foot cubed. (Despite their having been imported from the West Indies, and injected with God knows what to generate the serum, US customs apparently saw no reason to refuse the cats entry.) The allergy lab contents itself with mice and rats, John Reade keeping his favourite specimens in his desk drawer, and managing their populations by having a pet cat running free in the lab.

This poor animal, dubbed "Creeper" in a rather sad attempt to create some mystery about what’s going on, is no Mr Bigglesworth. My guess would be that he scored his role purely through his willingness to sit still while the producers dipped one of his paws in white paint. Offscreen, considering the way he gets about, Creeper would seem able to open and close lab doors all by himself. However, the only time he shows any personality onscreen is when, while being hauled around by one of the cast, he speaks for the viewer as well as himself by thrashing his tail irritably. Now, much of this is amusing, and had The Creeper stayed focused upon the generic "Medical Research Center" and the goings on within, it may have been still more amusing, if even less sensible. Unfortunately, most of the film centres upon the trials and tribulations of Nora Cavigny. The screenplay tries to create sympathy for Nora (tries, I said), while at the same time trying (trying, that word is) to generate some suspense over whether she is really a murderer, either as a result of insanity or of turning into a killer beast. However, Nora would go close to being the most irritating heroine I’ve ever come across.

All the acting in The Creeper is bad, but Janis Wilson’s is the worst. Wilson showed some promise as a child actor – she was particularly good as the girl who grows up to be Barbara Stanwyck in Lewis Milestone’s marvellous The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (1946) – but here she is simply dreadful, registering every emotion by dropping her jaw and opening her eyes as wide as she can. Her cat-induced terrors come across as petulant tantrums, and after the first one or two it is impossible not to sympathise with Gwenn and her obvious pleasure in tormenting the girl. (Speaking of Gwenn, June Vincent’s hair is really peculiar – it’s mid-brunette at the back, but they’ve dyed the lock either side of her face platinum blonde.) The film’s nadir, in several senses, comes when John asks Nora out to dinner, taking her to an "exotic" place that he saves for "extra special occasions": the local Chinese restaurant. Their cosy evening lasts about five minutes, because then a cat wanders in. It sits down by Nora, hissing and spitting (or at least, it’s meant to. The animal in question – possibly Creeper sans painted paw - obviously wouldn’t co-operate, so a brief clip of it opening its mouth is played forwards and backwards and forwards and backwards). This is enough to send Nora – already shaken by the "strangeness" of the restaurant (yeah, okay, I know – tempora mutantur. But at least I refrained from making any "cat in the Chinese restaurant" jokes!) – screaming into the night. Fun date, huh? But this tactic seems to work: John really does fall for her, thus proving himself a bigger nutcase than Sean Connery’s Mark Rutland in Marnie (1964).

Soon afterwards, the killings start – all of them tastefully offscreen, so don’t get your hopes up. Cavigny is the first to go, allowing Nora to be briefly incarcerated as a suspect, and leading to one of those glorious, low-budget film newspapers where they change the headlines but don’t bother to change the text of the story. (In this case, Nora’s release suddenly segues into a report on a political conference). Andre, the cat-keeper, goes next, mostly to prove that he didn’t kill Cavigny. Gwenn is the final victim, killed because she had a change of heart and wrecked Bordon’s experiments. However – thankfully – she didn’t get all of the serum. Having accidentally shot John (yay!) Nora is cornered by Bordon, who gives the standard mad scientist confession speech ("That’s why I killed him!") and injects himself with the very last of the serum. This causes his left arm to turn into the silliest, tattiest excuse for a cat’s-paw I’ve ever seen (cats have fur, people, not wool!). But it’s enough to terrify Nora. As she backs into a corner screaming, John recovers (boo!) and plugs Bordon about four times – and this killing we’re allowed to see (naturally – gun-related killings are so much less disturbing, aren’t they?). As Bordon dies, his arm changes back. John, it turns out, didn’t see anything unusual, and advises Nora not to go around telling "that story". Nora finds her boyfriend’s total lack of belief in her charming, it seems, because she immediately falls into his arms (well, arm, anyway – she shot him in the other one). And so we come to the end of sixty-two extremely long cinematic minutes. I shall now go and watch Cat People, and flush all of this nonsense out of my system.