History of Horror: The Cat and the Canary

Dir. Paul Leni, USA, 1927

Opening with a hand clawing away cobwebs to reveal the opening titles, The Cat and the Canary deploys all the tricks of German and American cinema in a virtuoso, last-minute masterpiece of silent film-making. It’s rife with all kinds of neat touches – from animated intertitles that deploy different fonts, punctuation and crash zooms to mimic the cadence of the human voice, to superimposed skulls, giant cats and medicine bottles that reflect the inner lives of the characters.

The story – the family of the late Cyrus West is gathered at his gothic mansion 20 years after his death to hear the reading of his will – has become a horror cliché. Whether it felt hoary to contemporary audiences is a moot point, because it’s merely a way to gather together a cast of oddballs. There is the scaredy cat nephew Paul; the dashing Charles; the brooding Harry (played by The Phantom of the Opera’s Arthur Edmund Carewe); highly-strung sister Susan and her glamorous niece Cecily. The latter pair provide most of the requisite comedy sequences – searching for men under the bed, or running about in terror – but much less tiresomely than in a lot of contemporary pictures.

The actual beneficiary of West’s will is his distant relation Annabelle – with the catch that she must be judged sane before she can inherit. Sadly for Annabelle, not only are her relatives circling like hungry cats, but no sooner has the will been read than a guard arrives declaring an escaped lunatic is at large and heading for the house. In quick succession, the solicitor has been murdered, Annabelle’s jewels have been snatched, and the rest of the family are starting to suspect her sanity.

German director Paul Leni brings a muscular kind of expressionism to the movie. The West house is gothic, but not ethereal. The camera may roam its empty corridors, curtains billowing, but the murderous Cat’s presence is grotesquely physical – initially manifested by a reaching claw, sharply taloned, that emerges from prosaic hidden panels to seize its prey. Similarly solid is Martha Mattox’s hatched-faced housekeeper, who lurks sinisterly about the house, oozing resentment towards the unwelcome interlopers. The final reveal of the Cat is satisfyingly nasty – boggling eyes and tusk-like teeth turn out to be a costume concealing the real murderer. Even more disconcertingly, the unmasked killer is seen to quite mad, which adds a real frisson to a climax that could, in lesser hands, have been bathetic.

Though flirting with the kind of supernatural horror that Universal fully embraced in the following decade, The Cat and the Canary finally reveals a non-supernatural – if far from reassuringly rational – explanation for its terrors. But in its synthesis of all the hallmarks of the spook movie with elements of crime drama and psychological thriller, it rightly stands as the acme of the ‘old dark house’ strand of horror movies.

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