Radley Metzger, 1978
Starring: Honor Blackman, Carol Lynley, Michael Callan, Edward Fox, Olivia Hussey
"I wasn't mad when I came here, but I certainly will be soon!"
The Cat and the Canary has a very long and somewhat complicated history. Like a lot of early horror films, it began as a play of the same name by John Willard in 1922. Soon after, German Expressionist director Paul Leni (The Man Who Laughs, Waxworks) made a silent adaptation as part of a wave of “old dark house” films popular during the period like The Old Dark House and The Bat. A blend of comedy, mystery, and horror, the general plot of these films involves a group of people trapped in an old mansion. A mysterious figure begins killing them off, one by one, and red herrings and comedy abound. In The Cat and the Canary, after an old man’s death, his family is gathered for the reading of his will, which was pre-recorded before his death. One of his nieces is named the heir, but the entire family must spend the night in his abandoned mansion. If she dies or goes insane, the inheritance passes to someone else. Much to the family’s dismay, a criminal known as the Cat escapes from a local asylum and may be hiding out in the house for the night...
The film was remade in 1930 as The Cat Creeps, which is sadly lost, though a Spanish-language version, La Voluntad del muerto was filmed on the same set. Like the Spanish-language version of Dracula, La Voluntad del muerto was directed by George Melford and starred Lupita Tovar. The Cat and the Canary was remade again in 1939 as a comedy with Bob Hope and again in Sweden in 1961. Radley Metzger, known primarily for his soft and hardcore sex films, made only two non-adult films. His debut, Dark Odyssey, which he co-directed, was sex-free, though this this adaptation of The Cat and the Canary is his only major mainstream film. It puts an equal emphasis on satire and scares rather than sex.
There are really two ways to watch The Cat and the Canary and how you interpret it will really depend on whether or not you like the film. If you’re unfamiliar with the larger mystery genre or “old dark house” films, this isn’t the best place to start. As a straight forward murder mystery, it is easy to focus on the somewhat low budget, B-level actors, plot holes, lack of true scares, few murders, and limited sex appeal (shocking for Metzger, I know). But if you are familiar with the genre, it’s easy to see this as along the same lines as Clue or Murder by Death, though without some of the bigger jokes and gags. It is essentially a subdued, intelligent satire of the staid British murder mystery genre that was popularized by Agatha Christie. There are the usual dark shadows, ominous thunderstorms, hidden passageways, and unexpected victims. There’s also a particularly great scene where the asylum director (Edward Fox from Day of the Jackal) dashes into the room via the library window to inform everyone, "There's an escaped homicidal maniac on the loose who has escaped from a home for the criminally insane! Just up the road!" For the remainder of the film, the window has been mystically repaired.
Though this lacks the major star power of films like the somewhat similar Clue, there are a number of nice genre actor appearances. Carol Lynley (The Poseidon Adventure) stars and though something about her reminds me of Barbara Harris in Hitchcock’s Family Plot, Lynley lacks the presence or dry wit to really pull off the role. The big draw is Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore in Goldfinger) and Olivia Hussey (Black Christmas) as cousins involved in a not-so-secret lesbian couple. If she had a been a few years younger, Blackman would have been perfect in the lead role, but she is a nice addition regardless and hams it up at every turn. The film’s only real hero, the wholesome American cousin, is played by Michael Callan (lots and lots of television, Freeway, Chained Heat, Leprechaun 3). Wilfrid Hyde-White (The Third Man, My Fair Lady, Ten Little Indians) appears from beyond the grave as their dead uncle.
I really enjoyed the film, but I’ll watch or read just about any murder mystery, particularly those with comic elements. If you’re looking for a film with satire, a few laughs, a nice, spooky atmosphere, absolutely lovely visuals, and a somewhat complex murder mystery, this is well worth checking out. There are a few surprise scares and some clever dialogue, and Metzger seems to embrace the ridiculousness of the genre as easily and steadfastly as he does with his porn films. As with Metzger’s best films, like The Opening of Misty Beethoven, whimsy abounds. The subtle, sophisticated humor is an acquired taste, but those who enjoy the genre should definitely check out this overlooked treat. There’s a basic DVD available from Image as part of their Metzger series.