May 21, 2024

THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) and the Shape of Things to Come

1927 / 86 min
Review by Mr. Paws😺

Though not the first horror film - and arguably not horror at all - 1927’s The Cat and the Canary certainly laid the groundwork for Universal Studios to corner the market in the genre. Without the success of this one, would they have taken a chance on the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein?

Maybe that’s a stretch, but director Paul Leni’s unique aesthetic undoubtedly influenced a great number of films, horror or otherwise, including those which made “Universal Horror” a brand name. The film’s overall tone, however, is another matter altogether. 

It’s a story that’s been told many times over the years since John Willard wrote the original play in 1922. Eccentric millionaire Cyrus West dies, leaving explicit instructions for his will to be opened and read 20 years later. When that day arrives, several relatives gather at Cyrus’ old mansion, including niece Annabelle (Laura La Plante), who ends up inheriting everything on the proviso that a doctor certifies her to be sane.

Throughout the night, several incidents occur around Annabelle that may or may not be supernatural, prompting some in attendance to believe she’s as crazy as her dead uncle. Is it Cryus’ ghost, or is someone plotting against Annaelle for the inheritance?

Harry Potter's trippy college years.
Like another “old dark house” film Leni would make the following year (The Last Warning), The Cat and the Canary maintains a breezy, semi-comedic tone, largely due to the plethora of (intentionally?) exaggerated performances, most notably milquetoast nephew Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), the closest thing the film has to a hero. But it's Martha Mattox who steals every scene she’s in as Cyrus’ amusingly-intimidating housekeeper, Mammy Pleasant.

Storywise, it’s a fairly enjoyable film, but what makes it truly interesting are Leni’s considerable visual skills (honed during his years as a pioneer of German expressionism) and some surprisingly mobile camerawork for the time. Granted, my experience with the silent era is somewhat limited, but unlike similar films of the time, I was stricken by how much the camera becomes part of the action with tracking sequences, quick zooms and POV shots. 

This new disc from Eureka Entertainment (part of their Masters of Cinema series) features an excellent video transfer, as well as a great DTS-HD Master audio track. Additionally, the film comes with some interesting bonus features related to the history of the film and the “old dark house” subgenre. For fans of this era in film history, The Cat and the Canary is worth owning on Blu-ray.


NOTE: Free Kittens Movie Guide was provided with a promo disc for review purposes. Physical supplemental material included with the final product (booklets, artwork, inserts, etc) were not available for review.

MYSTERIES MEAN DARK CORNERS - A pretty entertaining video essay about the early history of “old dark house” movies, with an emphasis on director Paul Muni and The Cat and the Canary.

2 AUDIO COMMENTARIES - 1) By Kim Newman (who’s always worth listening to) & Stephen Jones; 2) By Kevin Lyons & Jonathan Rigby.

INTERVIEWS - Individual interviews with critics Phuong Le and Pamela Hutchinson.

A VERY ECCENTRIC MAN and YEAH, A CAT! - Audio clips from the original play.

LUCKY STRIKE - A cigarette ad featuring director Paul Muni.

No comments: