Stars: Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale
Genre: Haunted House, Horror, Mystery, Comedy
The Cat and the Canary, directed by German expressionist director Paul Leni (Waxworks, The Man Who Laughs, The Last Warning), is an early Universal Horror film that perhaps influences the Haunted House genre more so than any other film.
A group of family members gather in the mansion of the deceased Cyrus West on the 20th anniversary of his death to read the will he left and see who will inherit his fortunes. But, with loose lunatics, ghosts, and murderers running about, the mansion quickly turns into a haunted house.
Not the first Haunted House film (Georges Melies' The Haunted Castle dates as far back as 1896) but certainly the most influential. It wrote the recipe that so many films of the genre would later follow, such as The Old Dark House (1932), House on Haunted Hill (1959), and not to mention the numerous remakes that this film saw.
This was Paul Leni's first American film, having previously only worked in Germany, primarily in the German Expressionism genre with his most notable work being 1924's Waxworks. You can certainly see the German Expressionist influence here; there's great use of shadows and lighting, dazzling sets, awesome imagery, and some very imaginative camerawork. Towards the beginning of the film there are some creeping dolly shots that push you around the mansion and even a wonderfully effective POV shot of the killer (mind you this is more than 40 years before POV shots were a staple in horror films; perhaps this was an influence on the gialli and slashers of the 70s and 80s which came to use the technique so frequently).
The great imagery and impressive camera angles and movements and set design and scene set-ups all work together to build a spooky atmosphere. Compliments to Paul Leni for his fine directing and to Gilbert Warrenton for his excellent cinematography work. And I shan't forget the wonderful score composed by Hugo Riesenfeld (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sunrise, Tabu, White Zombie) which not only compliments the film well but is an impressive work of musical composition in itself.
It should be noted that the film has some fairly heavy comedic elements as well. After all, it was adapted from a black comedy play written by John Willard. It's not exactly a hilarious film but the comedy works well, I think. It never obstructs the horror elements or spoils the atmosphere; it rather gives the film a freshness to it, an extra dimension if you will. Plus it makes the characters seem real. A fine example of an early Horror Comedy, a breed that was more prominent than you may think in the 1920s.
The film also makes interesting use of its intertitles. Rather than having the intertitles merely inform you what the characters are saying they become more a part of the film and do good to represent the emotions of the scene. You'll see the text jump out at you and cover the whole screen or the text will slowly crawl across the screen as if in a whisper and some other pretty cool things like that. Very creative.
One complaint is that the film seems to drag a bit towards the end. The first half is definitely the superior when compared to the second and, though the film isn't long (82 mins.) it could of perhaps been a bit shorter.
All in all though it's a fine film that's stylish and atmospheric. A must watch for any fans of Universal horror, German Expressionism, or Haunted House films.
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