I recently had the opportunity to truly step back in time and take in a piece of horror history--even film history, for that matter. Universal's The Cat and the Canary is truly an underrated marvel, and an influential piece of work that you owe it to yourself to see, if you haven't. Especially if you're someone who enjoys films like Nosferatu, Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera, and Barrymore's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (and really, if you're not, what are you doing here? Shouldn't you be surfing Texts from Last Night or something?)
It gives one pause to think that not a single member of the cast and credited crew of The Cat and the Canary is still alive. This contributes to giving the film the feel of a genuine relic of a bygone age. This is a motion picture made literally a lifetime ago, and this only adds to the rich, thick atmosphere already layered upon it by the deft direction of the German-born Paul Leni (who would do The Man Who Laughs for Universal the following year), and especially the camera work of cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton.
I say "especially", because one of the things that most recommends The Cat and the Canary is the endlessly fascinating cinematography. During a time when film-makers were still discovering their art, and learning how to use the new medium to its fullest advantage, The Cat and the Canary emerges as a lot more than simply a filmed play--which technically it was, since it was based on the very successful early 1920s stage production by John Willard. The movement of the camera is brilliant, vibrant and only further enhanced by the expert use of tinted color film stock.
In fact, in order to fully appreciate the film with the colors in place, I'd recommend the excellent Kino DVD edition of the film, since many public domain prints of silent movies don't include them. The Kino edition also replicates the original score, as composed by Hugo Reisenfeld. Yes, for those who don't know, many silent films had specifically composed scores, written to be played lived when the film was shown.
While the epitome of the classic "old, dark house" horror movie trope, The Cat and the Canary also typifies the manner in which American horror cinema was not yet ready to embrace the supernatural--that would come just a couple years later with Tod Browning's Dracula. This is more of a murder mystery than anything else, but it is so stylized and has such delicious ambiance, that it crosses confidently over into terror territory.
Yet there's also comedy, and plenty of it. The whodunit-style cast is populated by actors and actresses who defy the very unfair stereotype of the silent film actor, emoting both broadly when needed, and subtlely when the moment calls for it. The intoxicating ingenue Laura La Plante is our put-upon protagonist Annabelle West; Creighton Hale nearly steals the proceedings as her cousin Paul, bringing an irresistible pathos and comic presence to the role; Flora Finch is the stuffy Aunt Susan; Martha Mattox plays the inappropriately named Mammy Pleasant. It's an ensemble cast that comes alive on screen in a way that may surprise those not so well acquainted with silent cinema.
Yes, the storyline, with all its twists and turns, is the stuff of genre cliche. But the thing to note here, is that these devices were already cliche in 1927. The fun of the movie is the way it plays with them, the way it takes all the ingredients we're familiar with, and can still dazzle us with something unique. It's a visually beautiful film, which is only enriched by the intervening 83 years, allowing it to be further appreciated as a snapshot of a time and place in genre film history.
The Cat and the Canary is an important film. I'm extremely glad I stumbled across it and gave it a chance. And I strongly encourage you to do the same.
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