Saturday, October 3, 2015

Film Review: The Cat and the Canary

"The Cat and the Canary"  **** (out of ****)

The guests are the canaries and the scary old mansion is the cat, which hunts down its prey in the silent horror classic, "The Cat and the Canary" (1927).

Although it may not have the scares modern movie fans expect from today's blood and guts slasher films "The Cat and the Canary" was an extremely influential film released by Universal Pictures and directed by the brilliant German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni.

"The Cat and the Canary" helped established the "haunted house" sub-genre of horror films. Director Leni displays great innovation using visual techniques such as superimposition and dissolves while using extreme long shots and close-ups for dramatic effect, creating an eerie atmosphere.

What makes "The Cat and the Canary" so entertaining to watch is not that it is scary. It is not that there is Oscar worthy performances or even an original plot. What makes it so enjoyable is the way this story is told. It is a wonderful example of style over substance. You will take delight in the now standard shots of seeing an empty hallway, expecting someone to be at the end of it. Hands appearing in frame about to attack unsuspecting victims.

A small group of relatives gather together for the reading of Cyrus West's will, twenty years after his death, in his abandoned creepy old mansion where only a caretaker, Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox), has lived and claims Cyrus' ghost haunts the estate.

The relatives of Cyrus West were believed to have driven him insane due to their greed and desire to get their hands on his fortune.

Arriving at the mansion is Annabelle West (Laura La Plante), Cyrus' most distance relative, his three nephews: Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), Harry (Arthur Edmund Carewe) and Charlie (Forrest Stanley). Cyrus' sister Susan (Flora Finch) and Cecily (Gertrude Astor) Susan's niece.

It is suspected one of them opened the will prior to the reading when the envelope which sealed the will in a locked safe is discovered to have been unsealed. With the family fortune at stake each of them is a suspect. What will the family do to the one that does inherit the West fortune?

To make matters worst we find out the mansion is not far from an asylum, where one of the inmates, known as the Cat, has escaped. An asylum guard informs everyone he followed the inmate to the mansion.

"The Cat and the Canary" does a very good job combining comedy with horror (though I'm reluctant to refer to it as a comedy), often in the same scene. The character of Paul Jones serves as the movie's comic relief. He is terrified of his own shadow and is often seen with the female characters hiding. This is the role Bob Hope would play in the 1939 remake. After seeing Creighton Hale's performance you can see why Hope would be a perfect fit for the role.

There is also a bit of risque humor in the movie. One scene involves one of the male characters afraid there is a ghost and hiding in one of the many bedrooms in the mansion under the bed. What is not realized is the bedroom is being used by one of the female characters who begins to undress, getting ready for bed. The viewer only sees everything played out at the ground level from the point of view of the character under the bed.

The star of the movie, Laura La Plante, is shown to be a damsel in distress not the heroic, tough women we see in many of today's horror movies. She is reliant on the male characters to help defend her yet at the same time the question of who can she trust arises. Each character could potentially be a killer trying to murder the remaining family members so they inherit the family fortune.

Paul Leni may be best known to movie fans for directing the German silent movie "Waxworks" (1924) and the American silent movie "The Man Who Laughs" (1928), which featured a character that inspired the look of the Batman villain The Joker. Unfortunately he is not often put in the same category as other German filmmakers such as F.W. Murnau, G.W. Pabst or Fritz Lang. Mostly because he career did not last as long as theirs. Leni died in 1929.

"The Cat and the Canary", which was based on a 1922 stage play, is an extremely inventive, entertaining haunted house story filled with great camera techniques and visual style. It may lack the big scares today's movie fans have become accustom to but there is no way to deny the influence this movie has had on future horror films. "The Cat and the Canary" is a masterpiece which deserves much more attention. I hope Criteria buys the rights to it someday and gives it a proper DVD release with a new musical score (the only weak point of the movie). But don't wait until than to see it!