Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

So have you ever wanted to see an American silent horror-comedy that heavily draws upon the cinematography of German expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari?   That's a stupid question - Who hasn't?  The Cat and the Canary, a 1927 Universal film that's clearly one of the forerunners of that studio's famous horror series, is around to help us all scratch that particular itch.

Before I begin, I'm told that with silent movies it is more than usually important to specifically indicate which version one is referring to.  Thus, I should say that I'm reviewing the Kino International release of the film that was included in their "American Silent Horror Boxed Set".  It's a color tinted, which in this case mostly means sepia, reconstruction from the original nitrate prints and has an original score composed for the DVD release.  Technically speaking the image has some grain as well as the odd pop and scratch, but it's also 85 years old, so I have no complaints about it.

Based on a 1922 stage play of the same name, The Cat and the Canary is pretty straightforward creepy mansion fare that will no doubt remind many modern viewers of Scooby Doo not only with its tone, but also with much of its plot.  Try this on for size: Cyrus West, a rich old man distrustful of his vulture-like relatives for fear that they only care about his money, has died.  Twenty years later a group of his relations has gathered in his supposedly haunted mansion (at midnight, no less) for the delayed reading of his will.  The relatives are a motley crew of archetypes including West's three nephews - rivals Harry and Charles and the benign-but-anxious Paul, his shifty-looking sister Susan and her dim-bulb daughter Cecily, and finally his virtuous young niece Annabelle.  We soon find that Cyrus has left his entire estate, including a hidden cache of diamonds, to Annabelle, much to Susan's undisguised dismay.  There's a caveat, however: Annabelle must undergo a psychological exam that very night to prove her sanity.  Should she be deemed unfit, the estate will instead revert to another relative whose name is disclosed in a secret document stashed in a sealed envelope.

That's all well and good, except that the presiding solicitor discovers that the sealed envelope has been tampered with and thus someone knows who the alternate heir is and therefore stands to profit hugely if something happens to Annabelle.  The poor girl's situation, perilous as it is because she's surrounded by potentially murderous relatives and her late uncle's ultra-creepy maid Mammy Pleasant1, soon becomes even worse when a guard from the local lunatic asylum suddenly appears at the house.  He explains that a madman, who "fancies himself to be a cat and rips at his victims as though they are canaries" is somewhere on the grounds.  Soon afterwards, the a clawed hand pulls the solicitor into a secret passage and he's later found dead.  The night just goes downhill from there.

Again, the plot sounds like an episode of Scooby Doo, but you have to keep in mind that this movie's nearly a hundred years old.  What sounds completely cliched to an audience in 2012 was probably pretty fresh in the 1920s.  Furthermore, the light-hearted whodunnit formula works for Scooby and it works here too.  It's a fun movie that's genuinely humorous despite its age.

Maybe more interesting than the plot itself, however, is the way the film is shot.  If you've ever watched many old American movies, say from the 20s or 30s, then you know that most of the time the scenes are composed in a pretty static way.  The camera stays in one place, the actors remain more or less on the same plane as one another, and overall the whole thing has tendency to look like a filmed version of a stage performance.2  That kind of film-making can still be fun to watch, but there's no doubt that it also looks unmistakably dated.  The Cat and the Canary does something different.  For starters, the film uses a lot of composite shots and overlays, such as old man Cyrus on his deathbed surrounded by ghostly giant cats and enormous pill bottles. In another scene a semi-transparent hand banging a door knocker superimposed over a group of characters to show the audience something visually in lieu of the use of a soundtrack.  The film also makes great use of shadows, such as huge silhouettes moving along walls long before the actual character comes into frame. Oftentimes items on the set are arranged so to cast bizarre shapes against the background.  All of this makes the movie more visually interesting and gives it almost a comic book feel.3

The Cat and the Canary also uses not only a moving camera in some scenes, but also extended point-of shots, which really surprised me.  The opening sequence, in fact, is a long moving POV shot in which the audience sneaks through the dusty old Cyrus house from the villain's perspective, skulking through mouldering corridors by flashlight and breaking into the safe to steal a peak at the old man's will.  For 1927, that's a pretty freaking dynamic shot.  The film even makes use of animated intertitles during a couple of sequences, which is something I'd not seen before.4

As an aside, in silent movies there's often a lot of dialogue that you can see happening onscreen but that doesn't receive any intertitles, so you never know what's being said.  I've always wondered if the actors actually followed a shooting script in these movies, even though no one would ever actually hear their lines, or if they just got to improvise and have fun.  Realistically I guess in this movie they're probably just following the script from the stage play, but I'd really like to know for sure.

In any event, if you have any interest in early twentieth century horror films, you should check out The Cat and the Canary.  Silent films can be weirdly intimidating to some folks, but this one is easy to watch thanks to its more "modern" cinematography and a modest 80 minute run time, making it a good place to start if you're new to the genre.  It's a lot of fun and has a great haunted-house-on-a-blustery-night vibe that's sure to make you smile.  I highly recommend it.

Interestingly, there were several other adaptations of The Cat and the Canary, including a 1930 talkie that is now apparently lost, a 1939 version with Bob Hope, and Swedish and British adaptations from 1961 and 1979, respectively.  No doubt a Michael Bay version, in which the Annabelle is an eighty foot robot from the sun, is in development somewhere at this very moment.
1.) Ha!

2.) This no doubt has to do with the fact that tons of old movies really were just direct adaptations of stage plays.  Hell, both Dracula and Frankenstein were based on stage adaptations rather than the original novels.

3.) EC and its famous horror comics were still decades away when this film was made, but  I was reminded of them quite a bit while watching this movie.

4.) Granted, by my count I've only seen four silent movies.

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