Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Cat and the Canary is quite an eye-opener, an amazingly adept horror-comedy that uses
the full lexicon of expressionist devices to create a stylish mood that greatly influenced
the horror films that would follow in the early 30s. Its German director was imported by Carl
Laemmle on the basis of his remarkable
Waxworks, a stylish fantasy
that also used a sense of humor to leaven its creepy visuals. Hugely entertaining and still a
crowd-pleaser, The Cat and the Canary is one of those visual marvels that showed how
flexible the silent screen could be, before the talkies gave the upper hand to stage directors
and dialogue writers.
The relatives of Cyrus West gather at his mansion for the reading of his
will twenty years after his death, greeted by stony-faced caretaker Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox).
Lawyer Roger Crosby reads the will: young Annabelle West (Laura La Plante) gets the haunted mansion
and the fortune (including some priceless diamonds) if she can be judged sane. Amid the general
jealousy, Crosby disappears, Annabelle finds her way to the missing diamonds and a guard from a
nearby asylum searches for an escaped loony. A creepy creature appears to be prowling through secret
passages. Then a ragged claw reaches right over Annabelle's headboard while
she sleeps, to snatch the diamonds from her neck!
The Cat and the Canary is a knockout from the very first shots. A creepy hand pushes aside
cobwebs to reveal the main titles, and eerie hand-lettered (and sometimes animated) intertitles
introduce the haunted mansion of a madman. Its castle-like towers dissolve away to reveal a
wheelchair-bound codger surrounded by giant medicine bottles, and then the bottles are surrounded by
three black cats representing his greedy relatives waiting for him to die.
Horror anthologists complain that what passed for horror in a typical 1920s movie was usually a
creaky stage play where people shiver at the thought of ghosts and curses. But the source of the
anxiety almost always boils down to some kind of foolish scam to inherit money or have someone
committed to the nuthouse. The supernatural content was always explained away as phony, even if the
explanation couldn't account for everything we see. In Benjamin Christiansen's evocatively titled
Seven Footprints to Satan playboy Creighton Hale is trapped in a bizarre world of mystery
and fantastic settings, until he comes upon the devil himself sitting on an art-deco throne
surrounded by enticing demonesses. But we have to enjoy the surreal thrills while they last, because
it all turns out to be an elaborate charade to give the jaded hero a "new thrill."
Lon Chaney's lost London After Midnight was another faux-supernatural horror tale that turns
out to be a con game. The lame haunted house comedy lasted well into the sound era. The Bat
Whispers added a dimension of gangsterism (and 70mm, as well), while Mark of the Vampire
presented all manner of fantastic phenomena that its make-believe ending couldn't reconcile.
The Cat and the Canary was remade several times. One version with Bob Hope reignited a series
of spook-house comedies.
This 1927 original is a visual delight that charms us even as we recognize that its thrills are
all synthetic. A half-dozen nervous heirs fret and worry while people disappear and an asylum guard
searches for a dangerous lunatic. Because the first thing we see is the safe with the will being
tampered with, we know that somebody is just pretending to be a fanged monster with one bulging eye,
reaching from hidden panels with a hairy taloned claw. The players are silly caricatures,
with Creighton Hale playing a stuttering milquetoast who finds his courage while defending the
girl he always admired.
The Cat and the Canary works because of its departures from formula. There's a deserving
heroine and some undeserving relatives, but no obvious hero to step forward and be gallant. The
witty comedy (Annabelle: "Paul! I haven't seen you since they dropped you on your head as a child!")
is more than balanced by an uncanny atmosphere that tops that of many 1930s
classics. The camera never stops moving and frequently assumes a subjective role, prowling
through sets while representing our point of view. When a portrait falls from its place on the wall
in a series of jerking motions, the camera POV of the group watching it does the same thing.
More famous is
the push-in and focus-pull on the grotesque face of the mystery murderer, but the most influential
images are some dreamy trucking shots down a hallway lined with tall gauzy curtains that
billow almost in slow motion. That visual has been repeated to great effect in everything from
The Uninvited to
Beauty and the Beast, and is
the oneiric basis of 1001 Euror horror corridor-wandering scenes: Just add a terrorized Barbara
Steele or Dahlia Lavi holding a candleabra, and you're there.
The hatchet-faced housekeeper with the sternly pulled-back hair, I just realized, is the obvious
model for Harriet White Medin's nefarious servant in
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock,
forty years later. Even the intertitles get in on the act, with words nervously spelling out one by one, or
drifting in hazy clouds of fog. When an old biddy swears at our clumsy hero, the intertitle is a
clot of overlapping symbols (&,#,%,@) that must already have been a substitute for profanity back
Paul Leni's horror-comedy transcends the silly haunted-house subgenre. Audiences reportedly jumped at
every appearance of a hand creeping around a corner, or nearing the pale neck of our innocent
heroine. We can appreciate the thrills even when they no longer seem shocking. The creativity in this
picture is nothing to sniff at - a great many cinephiles think this was the greatest era in movie
Image's DVD of The Cat and the Canary is another superb restoration by David Shephard of a
silent masterpiece. The image hasn't been digitally re-invented (a good thing) and there are a few
instances of tiny film damage, but nothing that interferes with the masterful visual storytelling.
A new score is provided from Franklin Stover and the original James Bradford score from 1927 has
been adapted by Eric Beheim. Each is a good accompaniment. Richard Peterson provides liner notes that
are more than adequate, and the package is decorated with great original art.
As an added extra, Shepard throws in the 1920 Harold Lloyd haunted house comedy, Haunted
Spooks. As W.C. Fields would say, those
are the very worst kind. It's in excellent condition. The comedy gets silly in the haunted
house and relies a lot on basically harmless racial humor in the form of trembling black servants.
The best part is an earlier section where Lloyd is passed
over for matrimony and repeatedly tries to kill himself, without any luck.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Cat and the Canary rates:
Video: Excellent -
Supplements: 2nd short subject, Haunted Spooks
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 22, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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