Paul Leni, 1927
Starring: Laura La Plante, Forrest Stanley, Creighton Hale, Flora Finch
"He's a maniac who thinks he's a cat and tears his victims like they were canaries!"
Falling in with popular convention for horror films at the time, The Cat and the Canary was based on a stage play of the same name by John Willard and is one of the first films in a growing subgenre of horror films/black comedies about murders in an old, spooky mansion. Annabelle West, along with her other surviving family members, is called to the mansion of her uncle, Cyrus West, whose will is to be read 20 years after his death. To her surprise, Annabelle inherits the family fortune with one condition: she has to be declared sane by a doctor. Unfortunately for everyone, Annabelle and the rest of the family members are forced to spend the night in the house when a homicidal maniac known as “the Cat” escapes from a nearby institution and hides out in the house.
There are some twists and turns involving a second will that is hidden away, a creepy caretaker named Mammy Pleasant, possible hauntings from the ghost of their Uncle Cyrus, secret passageways, disappearing bodies, hidden diamonds, and a slew of weird relatives who all have something to hide and something to gain from Annabelle’s death or insanity. Really more of a murder mystery than an outright horror film, The Cat and the Canary is a memorable entry in early Universal’s mystery/horror canon. Directed by German expressionist Paul Leni, the film is full of stark, imaginative shadows - prefiguring the noir genre - and incredibly stylized horror imagery, such as a lycanthropic hand with hair and razor-sharp claws that reaches out in the night for the throat of our unsuspecting heroine.
Leni, including a number of other German directors - some of the finest talents in cinema history - such as Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang, relocated to Hollywood and brought with them the unique, influential imagery of German Expressionism. Universal head Carl Laemmle was impressed with Leni's expressionist horror film Waxworks and hired him to work in the U.S. for Universal. The Cat and the Canary was Leni’s first American film and it is important for the sole fact that it shows the powerful influence of German Expressionism on Hollywood horror, particularly the early horror films made at Universal. Leni’s imaginative visuals and trick camera work make this one of the most appealing and influential films in a string of “old dark house” movies made in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Though this subgenre is named after James Whale’s Old Dark House (1932), The Cat and the Canary is clearly the forerunner, combining the atmosphere of a horror film, incredible visuals, the plot of a mystery novel, comedy, satire, and murder in an a spooky old house. As with Chaney, it is a shame that Leni died (of blood poisoning in 1929) before making the transition into sound cinema, as he would likely have a bigger following today.
His use of comedy may be baffling for anyone expecting a serious horror film or straightforward mystery and might feel a little Scooby Doo-like, but part of what makes The Cat and the Canary so entertaining is that it never takes itself seriously and essentially satirizes a number of tropes that, though new to film, were already familiar and popular for plays and novels. Writers like Agatha Christie made their careers on these sorts of stories, which were beloved by the public. Leni playfully uses many of these cliches to the film’s advantage and manages to pull off some effective scenes of comedy. He also sneaks in a somewhat surprise conclusion, where the villain is unveiled during a fight with a formerly passive character, and his/her identity is not deduced by the primary detective character of the film.
As with many silent horror productions, this is not a perfect film and suffers from either wooden or overly theatrical acting and few compelling or developed characters. Though Laura La Plante was a lovely and very popular silent film actress, many viewers will likely find her boring or unmemorable for much of the film. I don't really think this was her fault, as roles for women in cinema, particularly horror films, were very limited during this period. As a heroine in a horror film, she had little opportunity to do much other than scream, bemoan her fate, and eventually be rescued by a male character. The cast of co-stars and side actors are sometimes hard to keep straight because none of them really stand out, but all of the actors give excellent performances and work with what little they have. In addition to La Plante, a Universal regular, there are a few actors here who made the rounds in other horror films from this period, such as Tully Marshall (Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Arthur Edmund Carewe (The Phantom of the Opera, The Ghost Breaker).
Though The Cat and the Canary may be an acquired taste for contemporary horror fans, it’s a must see for anyone who loves old dark house movies, horror satire, or old mysteries. The film has been remade a number of times after this, though Leni’s version remains the best. In 1930 it was remade as The Cat Creeps (directed by Phantom of the Opera’s Rupert Julian and John Willard, who wrote the original play) though this film is now lost. As with Universal’s Dracula, a Spanish-language version of the film was made on the same set at night, La Voluntad del muerto, starring Lupita Tovar and directed by George Melford, the same pair to work on Drácula. It was famously remade in 1939 as more of an outright comedy with Bob Hope, which kicked off the comedian's career, and again in 1978 by porn/erotica director Radley Metzger.
If you'd like to see The Cat and the Canary, there are a number of possibilities. There film has been restored and released on DVD by both Image and Kino, as part of the latter's silent horror series. The Kino version includes a new soundtrack, but the picture quality of the Image release is slightly superior. The film is also in the public domain, so you can watch it on Netflix or for free online. Learn more about the different DVD releases of the film at the Silent Era site.
If you are interested in old dark house films and want to check out more, I recommend a few things, beginning with the many versions of The Ghost Breaker (1914), technically the first film featuring a murder mystery set in an allegedly haunted house with some comedic elements. The original version was lost, but it was remade in 1922, 1939, and in 1953 as Scared Stiff. This also includes the many versions of The Bat (1926), first made as One Exciting Night by D.W. Griffith, but also remade in 1930 as The Bat Whispers and in 1959 with Vincent Price. There is also the Lon Chaney film The Monster (1925), Midnight Faces (1926), the lost but sort of recreated Lon Chaney vehicle London After Midnight (1927), and James Whale’s famous Old Dark House (1932) with Boris Karloff. Last but not least are And Then There Were None (1945), based on Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name, and House on Haunted Hill (1959), a Vincent Price vehicle to appear somewhat late in the game.