Welcome back to another entry in “Horror in Black and White,” a weekly series celebrating the monochromatic horror that shaped the genre and still gives us chills to this day. Up this week: The Cat and the Canary (1927), our first featured silent film!
Directed by Paul Leni, based on the play by John Willard, The Cat and the Canary helped establish one of the earliest tropes in the genre as its main players gather at the home of their deceased relative to hear the reading of his will twenty years after his passing.
The opening sequence is absolutely gorgeous as a gloved hand wipes away cobwebs and dust to reveal the film’s title before the opening titles explain that the deceased, Cyrus West, spent the latter part of his life like a bird in a cage surrounded by hungry cats.
Leni’s film, which is actually more sepia-toned than black and white, uses all of the tricks in the expressionist handbook as the film gets underway superimposing images over one another to create a creeping feeling of dread in the viewer.
That dread is intensified as West’s former maid, who seems to have lived in her former employer’s house for two decades on her own after the man’s passing wanders the halls, waiting for his lawyer and family to arrive.
They do, in turn, and each seems more menacing than the last save for the comically clumsy Paul Jones (Creighton Hale) and the beautiful and innocent Annabelle West (Laura La Plante).
Annabelle, of course, is named the estate’s sole beneficiary, but there are requirements, not the least of which is remaining in the house and submitting to an exam by a physician to determine if she is sane.
Before long, a murder has been committed, priceless jewels have been stolen and everyone is a suspect!
Walking the tightrope of dark comedy and horror, Leni and his cast each give memorable performances as their archetypal characters.
As previously mentioned, La Plante is rather radiant as Annabelle, though she, as was and is so often the case, is given little to do other than react to the horrors going on around her, and Hale is hilarious and charming as Paul.
Meanwhile, Martha Mattox and Tully Marshall almost seem in competition for the creepiest people in the house as the maid, Mammy Pleasant, and West’s lawyer, Crosby.
Gertrude Astor, the first woman to sign a contract with Universal Studios, is glamour personified with her perfect curls and makeup as cousin Cecily opposite Flora Finch’s frumpy and matronly, though admittedly high-strung, Aunt Susan.
What’s so amazing about The Cat and the Canary, however, is just how influential it has been on the genre. Certainly James Whale (Frankenstein) and Tod Browning (Dracula) were inspired by the film’s imagery, but they were hardly the last.
In fact, one could almost argue that its DNA can be found in almost every film about haunted houses and treacherous family that followed including The Old Dark House and not-so-surprisingly, Scooby-Doo.
Don’t let the fact that the film is silent deter you either. The version currently available for streaming has a pitch perfect score and William Anthony’s titles do an excellent job of filling in the few points the actors are unable to convey.
When it opened in September of 1927, The Cat and the Canary was declared a box office success and lauded by critics.
In fact, the film, and the play upon which it is based, was so well-loved that it was adapted five more times in the decades that followed including the 1939 version, which brought the text’s comedy to foreground, starring Bob Hope.
The Cat and the Canary is available for rent on Amazon and FlixFling starting at $2.99, and it’s perfect for a cold winter evening with the lights down low.
Check out the a clip from the film below and for more Horror in Black and White, check out last week’s entry with The Bad Seed!