Classic Horror: The Cat and the Canary (1927)

A few weeks ago, I saw the silent horror/thriller film The Bat (see capsule review on Row Three, or soon here in my monthly recap) and liked it, but didn’t feel like it quite lived up to its potential, falling prey to some poor pacing. Then I saw The Cat and the Canary, and there’s a reason why this film is often name-checked as the “old dark house” movie to beat. It’s pretty similar to The Bat (made a year later, but both based on existing stage plays in a popular genre at the time), but it’s pretty much delightful from start to finish, with no lulls and consistently evocative art direction and photography.

In the prologue, an old man on his deathbed writes some complicated instructions to accompany his will and testament, which isn’t to be opened and read until twenty years after his death. He and his relatives don’t get along so well, you see – they all think he’s crazy and have been hovering over him, waiting for him to die so they could inherit his fortune (like cats hovering over a canary). Twenty years after his death, his family reconvene at his long-deserted mansion – crotchety aunts and glamorous nieces, sweet cousins and earnest nephews. (I have no idea how they’re actually related, but the adjectives are accurate.)

When the will is unsealed, the sweet Annabelle West is the one who gets the inheritance, but only if she’s deemed sane – if not, the fortune will go to another whose name is in a sealed envelope. But wait! Someone broke into the house earlier and peeked in the envelope, and as the family lawyer warns Annabelle, whoever’s name is in the envelope has a reason to want her out of the way. (The logic on some of this is suspect, to be sure, but it’s all delivered with such sincerity and gusto that it’s hard to want to nitpick it.) Soon after, the lawyer disappears, the other relatives are trying to catch Annabelle acting crazy and thus forfeiting the inheritance, and whoever read the name in the envelope is apparently swooping in and confusing/scaring the hell out of everyone.

A lot of this is played for comedy, and most of it works, as it swaps quickly between characters, all of whom are types, to be sure, but well-played and endearing ones. There are a lot of creepy moments, many involving a grotesque hand reaching out to grab an unsuspecting victim, and often with really nice throwbacks to Expressionism, including some very cool title card layouts. Though you suspect that the person instigating all the ruckus is one of the people we’ve already met, the film actually leaves the question open for a long while, thanks to the intrusion of a man who says he’s a guard from a nearby asylum looking for an escaped mental patient that he thinks entered the mansion. With that threat PLUS the potential treachery of the post-Annabelle inheritor PLUS the glowering of the genuinely creepy maid PLUS the general wish on the part of everyone that Annabelle would be insane and lose her rights, there’s a lot of distrust to go around. And it’s extremely fun to watch, with a few quite suspenseful (I won’t quite say scary) moments.

I’ve been a little disheartened most of the month that I haven’t come across any films I outright LOVED this October. Figures that when I do, it’s a silent film. The tone and style here captures a lot of the exuberance that I’ve come to love about silent film in general, plus it has lovely cinematography that in some scenes puts it almost up there with Sunrise and Metropolis. I’ll certainly be back to this one next October.

Director: Paul Leni
Adaptation: Robert F. Hill & Alfred A. Cohn
Titles: Walter Anthony
Based on the play by: John Willard
Producer: Paul Kohner
Cinematography: Gilbert Warrenton
Editing: Martin G. Cohn
Starring: Laura LaPlante, Creighton Hale, Forrest Stanley, Tully Marshall, Gertrude Astor, Flora Finch, Arthur Edmond Carew, Martha Mattox, George Siegmann, Lucien Littlefield