One year after the Art Deco silent horror masterwork The Bat made the jump from stage to screen, Universal Studios got their feet wet in the horror game with an adaptation of a very similar play, The Cat and the Canary. Along with the much lesser trifle Midnight Faces, The Bat & The Cat and the Canary combined to establish what would become a very popular subgenre of early horror: the “old dark house.” In the “old dark house” story, guests at an ancient, spooky mansion are terrorized by seemingly supernatural events & a mysterious killer. At the story’s natural end the killer’s identity is revealed and all of the preceding supernatural events are explained to be their doing. This was a very popular murder mystery/horror plot form the 30s throughout the 50s until the murder mystery aspect was dropped & the supernatural elements were played up & developed into the “haunted house” genre. By the 1970s & onward the “old dark house” plot was spoof fodder for properties like Murder by Death, Clue, and Scooby-Doo, but in the 1920s it played remarkably fresh, with The Cat and The Canary standing as a prime example of the horror genre’s merits as an artform. Unfortunately, in retrospect the film feels a lot less special & a little more flawed than it did to the audiences it floored in 1927, especially with the towering presence of The Bat casting its shadow over the ordeal.
A wealthy eccentric on his death bed bemoans the fact that his family hungers after his money like a gang of cats circling a caged canary. In order to fight them off, he sets the reading of his will 20 years into the future, when the family returns to learn that the money has been willed to his most distant relative. There is then a conspiracy to drive this distant relative insane as a means to strip them of their newfound wealth due to incompetence. In the meantime anyone foolish enough to get in the way is mysteriously murdered and, because the mansion setting is so very spooky, their deaths are blamed on “ghosts.” The Cat and the Canary boasts a very straightforward plot structure that calls a lot of attention to its stage play origins, but what the film lacks in a unique narrative, director Paul Leni makes up for in pure atmosphere. The German Expressionist filmmaker brings an incredible eye for visual play to the big screen, a bridge between art house Europe & the more rigid spectacle of Old Hollywood that I believe would guide the heights of Universal horror productions for decades to come. Leni unlocks the silliness of the film’s stage play origins and allows the camera to move in subtly haunting ways, as if exploring a crime scene with a flashlight (quite literally in an early moment). He also relies heavily on German Expressionism’s penchant for drastic lighting & dreamlike imagery. Gigantic cats & medicine bottles tower over a dying man. Overlaid images like a doorknocker, an envelope, and a gloved hand shift large in perspective, foreshadowing the deep focus technique Citizen Kane would pioneer in the early 40s. Just examining gorgeous, isolated frames of the film, it’s no wonder that The Cat and the Canary was known as the definitive & haunted house movie, inspiring no less than five other feature film adaptations of the same play & influencing horror giants like Alfred Hitchcock with its visual style.
The problem with The Cat and the Canary is a fairly common one with old school horror productions. It’s actually the sole reason I had to knock a half-star off my rating for the otherwise flawless The Bat. In order to soften the cruel blow of the film’s supernatural (and potentially blasphemous) terrors, old fashioned horror was often mixed with hokey yuck-em-up comedy, particularly in American productions. In The Bat, a dopey, dim-witted maid makes an ass out of herself by continually mis-guessing the true identity of The Bat. In Midnight Faces, the “old dark house” genre’s other founding father, the comedy takes the ugly form of racial caricature in a scaredy cat black sidekick. The Cat and the Canary, unfortunately, stretches the comedy element across as many characters as it can, turning what is otherwise a beautifully-constructed art film into a painfully hokey farce. Now-tired gags like a scared character stuttering, “G-g-g-g-ghosts!” & incomprehensible relics like, “It’s about time you climbed on the milk wagon,” (what?) drag a lot of what makes The Cat and the Canary special down into the depths of eyeroll-worthy comedic tedium and it’s honestly a damn shame.
There’s certain old-world cheese that I can forgive given this film’s ancient release date, such as the way it hammers home the central cat & canary metaphor that gives it a title over, I believe, three separate repetitions. That I can live with. The way the film’s hokey comedy routines drain the blood out of its supernatural horror, however, is a true bummer. The Cat and the Canary is ultimately a film at war with itself. As a cornerstone of what American horror would come to look like in it wake, the film is an indispensable artifact and an occasionally breathtaking one at that. It’s also a failed comedy, though, which is up there with the most difficult kinds of films out there to enjoy. This is a problem made even worse by the fact that it’s bested by The Bat in every single possible regard, especially in the look of its central killer antagonist, which is not at all catlike in his visage in comparison to the other film’s humanoid creature. The result is a flawed work that I admired, but also found a little disappointing. I hope somewhere else in Paul Leni’s career there was a film that made proper use of his stunning cinematic eye without cheapening it with broad humor.