The Cat and the Canary (1927) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
15May/100

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

Danny INDIFFERENTThere's an old mansion on the hill, filled with cobwebs and billowing drapes from long broken windows. An old woman haunts the halls as she has for the last twenty years, dreading tonight. At midnight the rich old man's will will finally be read, and the bickering family has gathered to find out who inherits the millions. Will it be the scaredy cat, the drama queen, the crotchety old aunt, the bland blonde, or the two shifty eyed men? And whoever it is, will they survive the night to collect their inheritance?

But that's only where this story begins. We haven't yet gotten to the black cat in the road, the ghost, the escaped mental patient, the secret passageways, or the lawyer who turns up dead.The Cat and the Canary is prototypical of the 'old dark house' genre: creepy goings-ons abound in a haunted mansion where hidden panels and spooky cellars. Sadly, this genre is way more common in film than they ever are in real life. While I'm sure building a mansion full of trap doors and elaborate mechanisms is one of those dreams that the truly eccentrics among us dwell upon, the pleasure of the genre is seeing a terrifying funhouse for the audience, with the protagonists as our surrogates as they take a ride without the metal bar against their laps.

Um, assuming the funhouse you mentally picture is a ride and not one of those ones you walk through. Because some are like that.

Okay, sorry if I'm delaying the critical analysis here, because it's not like there's nothing to look at. Directed by German auteur Paul Leni, he was brought to Hollywood to inject some expressionism into the film adaptation of a hit Broadway play. It shows that some effort has been made; close-ups, intertitles that shake with fear, billowing drapes, dust and cobwebs injected into every frame.

There are sequences that are simply a visual treat. Considering the medium shot regularity that a lot of silent films seem drawn to, these stylistic flourishes make it, not necessarily frightening, but fascinating. I can't say this happens in much more than spurts, though, so unless you're watching the film specifically to try and pick out some bravura camera techniques or to look at a fad genre at its storied beginnings, it probably isn't worth the time.

Speaking of the genre, it's pretty far out of favor now, and you can pretty much pin that on one thing: "Scooby-Doo". It is pretty difficult to go back to this formula after it's been shown and dissected on television every Saturday morning for 40 years.

This movie doesn't disappoint with the big reveal, the mask being ripped off and everything, though there is a disappointing lack of blame laid on 'meddling kids.' That might be because our bland heroine spends most of the movie fainting and being terrified. All of the other women in this film tread the same lines; either scared or foreboding until they disappear in the last act.

No one in the film gets much of a character arc; even the heroine, who is supposed to be slowly driven mad by the proceedings can't do anything but the usual silent overacting and eye rolls that indicate a moderate amount of distress.

The only person who gets to do anything is the heroine's other cousin, John Paul, who spends most of the movie cowering in fright (played for laughs, of course) until the villain appears and he suddenly decides the best way to express his fright is with his fists. Since he finally becomes man enough to rip off the mask, his relieved cousin offers to share her home and new fortune with him; luckily, the movie is ambiguous enough to leave the idea of them as kissing cousins up in the air.

In all, there's a lot of spirit and some fascinating scenes here, but they're drawn out. The women are cardboard and the men not much more interesting, and while I do believe that style over substance is a valid goal, here it still falls short of the line.

And into the trap door, that is.

The Cat and the Canary is in the public domain, so it's available on Netflix Instant or on Archive.org.

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Trailer | IMDB
Directed by Paul Leni
Written by John Willard
Starring Laura La Plante and Creighton Hale

Posted by Danny

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