Let’s face it. Cats are cool animals to have in horror movies. Whether it’s a classic like The Black Cat or a modern masterpiece like Cat’s Eye, a feline presence adds just the right amount of cuddly creepiness to any fright flick. Cats are even cute when they turn into the antagonists of the movie, such as in Cat People, because in the end, the cat is not to blame, right? Director Jean Yarbrough (The Devil Bat, She-Wolf of London) played around with the cat-like villain motif with his aptly named 1948 noir thriller The Creeper.
The Creeper is about a research team, headed up by Dr. Lester Cavigny (The Monster Maker’s Ralph Morgan) and Dr. Jim Bordon (Onslow Stevens from Them!), that has been doing experiments on cats in the West Indies, introducing luminescence into living tissue to aid with surgery. Cavigny and Bordon disagree about the direction of their research, with Cavigny feeling that their experiments are unethical and Bordon, of course, wanting to proceed at all costs. When the veils of their extracted serum break, Bordon requests that they have their study’s cats sent over from the Indies, and Cavigny’s daughter, Nora (Janis Wilson from The Strange Love of Martha Ivers), is horrified at the prospect. A research assistant named Gwen Runstrom (Black Angel’s June Vincent) deduces that Nora has a phobia of cats, and even seems to enjoy tormenting her with the lab’s mascot, a black kitty named Creeper.
Meanwhile, the scientists-next-door, a pair of fellows named Dr. John Reade (Gammera the Invincible’s John Baragrey) and Dr. Van Glock (Eduardo Ciannelli from Monster from Green Hell), catch wind of the Bordon/Cavigny research, and are fascinated by its prospects. Around this time, people around the lab start dying, seemingly slashed to death by a giant cat. Gwen paints Nora as the main suspect, positing that she suffers from schizophrenia and thinks that she’s part cat. The other theory is that the small bit of cat serum that is left has been used to turn one of the researchers into a giant “were-cat” that has been murderously rampaging through the medical center. Either way, there’s a cat-like killer on the loose, and the doctors have to figure out how to stop it before it strikes again.
Jean Yarbrough directed The Creeper from a screenplay by Maurice Tombragel (Horror Island, Mutiny in the Arctic) that was based on a story idea by Don Martin (Double Jeopardy, Devil’s Cargo). Basically, it’s a mumbo-jumbo packed film noir procedural built around a kernel of scientific fact that crosses over into the psychological horror realm while drifting ever so softly into both slasher and creature feature territory. And that makes it sound way more exciting than it actually is. Truthfully, the long-winded synopsis in the previous couple of paragraphs is a better description of the movie. It’s fun, but not slasher or creature feature fun. It’s more crazy melodrama fun.
At the center of The Creeper is the little black cat with which it shares its name. Creeper is both the catalyst that jump-starts certain events of the film as well as the common thread that holds a lot of the plot together. And, given his limited screen time, he’s the most interesting and memorable character in the movie. Not much is known about the feline actor (or actress) who portrays him in the film, but it is rumored that some of his scenes are made up of stock footage that was cribbed from the older Universal classic The Black Cat (which also appears to have leant footage to Catman of Paris a couple of years before). Wherever he was found, the cat in The Creeper steals the movie without even trying, which probably says more about the movie than it does about the kitty.
The Creeper was shot by second-tier Universal cinematographer George Robinson (Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Frankenstein), and for the most part, the photography is more representative of a noir mystery than it is of a horror movie. It’s a brightly lit movie, but there are moody shadows hanging in the corners of every scene. It’s not all straightforward, though; Robinson does get to play with some simple camera tricks. During Nora’s nightmare sequences, Robinson superimposes water rings and droplets over the image, giving it a groovy, surreal look. This helps to sell the fact that the “creature” is never shown, just represented by a furry paw creeping out from under the bed here or a high-contrast shadow on a wall there. Again, all shadows. But George Robinson does shadows as well as anyone, so The Creeper looks suitably…creepy.
The music in The Creeper sounds like stock music, and there’s a reason for that; it was written by famous stock music composer Milton Rosen, who also provided the scores for, among many others, King Kong vs. Godzilla and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Because it’s essentially stock music, the score for The Creeper sounds pretty much like most other forties and fifties sci-fi, horror, or film noir movies. That does not mean it’s bad, though; on the contrary, the blaring horns and subtle strings fit the movie’s faux-scientific vibe to a T.
There’s a reason why most horror fans have never heard of The Creeper. It’s a very forgettable movie, despite the fact that it stars a very memorable cat.