The Cat and the Canary (1927)
I am a sucker for old dark house stories; the older and darker, the better. These stories were clichéd from practically the moment they were created, but like many clichés, they have a sense of fun to them that few more original narratives manage to approximate. One of the earliest such narratives – on film at least – is The Cat and the Canary, a silent film from director Paul Leni, one of the oft-forgotten masters of German Expressionism.
The film opens with the slow madness and then death of millionaire Cyrus West, who inhabits a multi-turreted Gothic mansion somewhere in the bleak and inaccessible countryside. The intertitles inform us that West was slowly driven mad by his grasping, greedy relatives, as they gathered around him like “cats around a canary.” So West decides to pay them back for their avarice, writing a will to remain locked in a safe until the 20th anniversary of his death, when his lawyer Crosby (Tully Marshall) will open it and announce his heir.
Fast forward those twenty years to one dark and stormy night. The relatives gather for the reading of the will at the Gothic mansion, still presided over by Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox), a leering and creepy old housekeeper if ever there was one. When Lawyer Crosby arrives to open the safe, he discovers not one but two wills, with instructions to open the second if the first is not fulfilled. He’s more disturbed by the presence of a moth, indicating that someone has opened the safe in the past twenty years. Then the relatives arrive: Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carewe), Charlie Wilder (Forrest Stanley), Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), Aunt Susan (Flora Finch) and her daughter Cecily (Gertrude Astor), and finally Annabelle West (Laura La Plante). As the family gather round for the midnight reading of the will, the clock strikes for the first time in twenty years and thunder shakes the house.
The heir, of course, turns out to be Annabelle West, the only member of the family who still bears the West surname. Her relatives are predictably disappointed, but things get interesting when Crosby raises a caveat to the will. The heir must be proved to be of sound mind by a doctor arriving that night; if she’s insane, then the fortune passes to the person mentioned in the second will. So with the set-up for potential murder and madness in place, everyone heads off to dinner.
The Cat and the Canary is a surprising film for a number of reasons. Its highly Expressionist opening and rather clichéd structure make it appear like a quintessential early horror film. When a guard from an asylum turns up to warn the house’s inhabitants of a lunatic in the neighborhood – one who “tears his victims apart, like a cat with a canary” – we are solidly in the archetypal realm. Even the characters are less characters and more types: the ingenue, the maiden aunt, the dashing hero, the coward, and the creepy housekeeper. But as the film goes on, the types will be gradually played with and subverted, their roles thrown into relief as the night brings out the madness in them all.
The film manages to hit all the buttons that we might expect from an “old dark house”: a possible ghost, a hidden treasure, a fair maiden in danger, secret passages, vanishing corpses, and a dark and stormy night. It then injects a healthy dose of humor into the mix: cousin Paul is a coward of the first order, diving under tables, and at one point secreting himself beneath Cecily’s bed, where he unfortunately witnesses Aunt Susan and Cecily getting undressed (Wikipedia claims that the pair are mother and daughter, however I always thought that Cecily was just another cousin). As the night drags on and creepy things continue to happen, the extreme reactions of some of the family members provide more humor than fear.
Which is not to say that there aren’t some seriously scary moments in The Cat and the Canary. With the disappearance of Crosby, Annabelle’s sanity comes into question – and only the audience has seen the vague, shadowy figure ducking into secret passageways. It’s amazing what can be done with a long-nailed hand coming out of a wall, or a bizarre shape creeping past a window, made all the more bizarre due to lack of ambient sound.
While not exactly a film to provide jump scares or raise your heart-rate, The Cat and the Canary is curiously haunting. It will be remade two more times, once in 1939 and then again 1978, but the silent one is really the best, combining humor and horror, strong practical effects and Expressionist sets. The scares are still there, almost a hundred years later. It’s hard not to shiver when that hand comes out of the wall.