In conjunction with my feature article this month on Universal’s Silent Horrors, it’s only fitting that the DVD selection be a film from that genre. Plenty has been written about the original The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the original Phantom of the Opera so my choice is 1927’s The Cat & the Canary.
This classic “old dark house” comedy-thriller set the stage at Universal for the Golden Age of monster movies that followed and beyond. Everything from James Whale’s Frankenstein and The Old Dark House to, of all things Scooby Doo, Where Are You? (I kid you not).
The storyline is now immortalized as cliché’ but it had to start somewhere. Several people are summoned to a spooky old mansion for the reading of an eccentric millionaire’s will. Shortly after that a hooded figure with a grotesque face and claw like hands eliminates the lawyer and then goes after the rest of the heirs. Ultimately the killer is captured in the end and unmasked as one of the heirs but which one?
None of the stars involved (as big as they were in their day) would mean anything to a 21st century audience. What WILL mean something is the remarkable camerawork and the highly atmospheric visuals and evocative settings that German director Paul Leni uses. It remains genuinely creepy even after almost 90 years.
While Cat & the Canary won’t scare you, it’s guaranteed to entertain you. That is if you can handle a silent film. For those of you not used to silents, this is an excellent place to start. Come see where all the haunted house clichés originated and you’ll see how it influenced countless movies to come. The film is now available on Blu-Ray in a beautiful restoration from England’s Photoplay Productions.
by Chip Kaufmann