America is where commercial movies were invented, and Hollywood currently exports American films (and culture) all around the world. The US wasn't always the center of movie production however. Between the two world wars, the most artful and intersting movies were beign produced in Europe, with Germany leading the pack. During this short period, Germany produced some of the greatest films in the history of the medium, and nurtured several incredibly talented directors. Hollywood just couldn't compete artistically with the German studios. Subscribing to the old adage "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" Hollywood imported the cream of German directors. Fritz Lang worked for MGM starting in 1934, F.W. Murnau went to Fox in 1926, and Ernst Lubitsch was hired by Mary Pickford in 1922. One other notable director was also brought to America at this time; Paul Leni. He was hired by Universal in 1926, and though his movies are just as strong as the other prestigious German directors, today he is largely forgotten. Much of this has to do with his limited output. He only made for films in America, and tragically died of blood poisoning in 1929.
Image, in association with David Shepard and Film Preservation Associates has now released a remastered version of Leni's first American movie, The Cat and the Canary. This expressionist influenced film shows Leni at his height as an artist, presenting striking visuals and creating a spooky atmosphere, while also putting in some comic releif that actually works quite well.
Twenty years after Cyrus West's death, his relatives gather late at night in his old mansion to hear the reading of his will. Cyrus' lawyer reveals that Annabelle West (Laura La Plante) inherits the fortune, but only if she can pass a psychological examination that night to prove that she is sane. If not, another of the jealous group is to get the estate.
Strange things start happening almost immediately. The lawyer disappears while talking to Annabelle, and a guard from the local asylum announced that he's tracked an escaped lunatic to the West house's grounds. With a madman on the loose, can Annabelle survive the night, much less stay sane?
With bodies falling out of closets, secret passages, and disappearing corpses this movie contains all the elements that future haunted house movies wiill utilize untill they eventually become clichés. They don't seem trite in this movie however, they are used to great effect. Leni was a master at creating atmosphere, he started out as a set designer in fact, and he works his magic with this film. The images of curtains billowing the length of a deserted hall or the shadow of a maniac's hand passing over the face of a young girl all serve to give the film a chilling aspect.
The movie is not all eerie stalkings though, it would be hard to keep the tension up for the whole length of a feature. To break up the suspenseful elements, Leni incorporates a fair amount of humor in the movie. The scene where a man is hiding under a bed, only to discover that it belongs to a woman and her daughter who proceed to bar the doors against entry is light yet fits in well with the plot. The humorous aspects of the film don't detract from the serious parts. Something that is very hard to accomplish.
Leni's Expressionist background serves him well in this film. There are a lot of images that have that German touch. Near the beginning of the film, a silhouette of Cyrus West's mansion dissolves into a series of medicine bottles: illustrating what the old man's world had become. Leni also uses a hand held camera to illustrate what the intruder who is loose in the building sees, a very modern looking set of shots. The director also pay tribute to his German roots with an inside joke: The doctor who comes to examine Annabelle looks very much like Dr. Caligari.
This influential film which set the tone for haunted mansion stories for decades to come (not to mention at least half of all the episodes of Scooby Doo) holds up to the test of time very well. The acting is solid without being overdone and the story, though not as surprising as it must have been in 1927, is still interesting. A very well made film from an excellent director.
There are two audio tracks offered on this disc. The original score penned by James Bradford is preformed by Eric Beheim, and a new soundtrack by Franklin Stover is also included. Overall, I prefer Stover's new score over the original, though I've very glad that they included both. Stover offers some minimal sound effects, that were sometimes included in theatrical showings of silent films, which add to the movies atmosphere. In one scene the sound of a knock on a door precedes a group of people being startled, while in the original soundtrack you don't know why they jumped until the movie cuts to someone knocking at the door.
The quality of both soundtracks are very good, with no hiss, dropouts or other defects that sometimes interfere. The only complaint that I have is that you can't switch between audio tracks while the movie is playing. I found that fairly strange. You have to exit out of the movie and go to the audio sub-menu to change audio tracks. The audio button on your remote won't accomplish that.
David Shepard has done another wonderful job with the restoration of this film. This DVD features a tinted version of the film, that has been lovingly restored. Though a couple of scenes were taken from a second inferior print, the majority of the movie looks excellent. The image is sharp and the contrast is very good, even in the tinted scenes. There is some damage to the print, a little dirt and some scratches here and there, but these aren't distracting to the movie. A nice looking DVD.
Also included on this disc is a Harold Lloyd two-reeler, Haunted Spooks. This was the short that Lloyd was making when he was nearly killed during a publicity photo shoot. Some one handed him a supposedly fake bomb with the fuse lit. When it went off, Lloyd lost two fingers (he wore a glove in all of his movies from then on to hide the disfigurement) was blinded, and suffered bad burns on his face. He thought that his injuries would end his career, but after months spent recovering, he picked up and finished Haunted Spooks.
Lloyd is a depressed young man who is trying to kill himself, with no luck at all. He stands in front of a street car that proceeds to switch tracks, jumps into a river that is only ankle deep, and can't even manage to shoot himself with a gun that he finds. Things start looking up when a girl, Mildred Davis (Lloyd's frequent co-star and future wife,) asks Lloyd to marry her so she can claim her inheritance. In order to gain a fortune, she and her husband have to stay in an old house, one that is haunted.
This is a really funny short, and shows Lloyds skill in arranging comic gags. The gags all flow naturally from the (admittedly unrealistic) plot. The film doesn't dwell on any one joke, they quickly move on to set up the next one. The image, slightly windowboxed, looks very good. Given the subject matter, this is a great short to accompany The Cat and the Canary.
Paul Leni's career was much too short, and this film is a showcase for
his skill at telling a story and creating a mood. Though many of
the devices he originated with this film have gone on to be almost clichés
in haunted house movies, this film still feels fresh and engaging.
The image on the DVD is very good, and does this influential movie justice.
The Harold Lloyd short is a great bonus feature. Highly Recommended.