God bless film restorers. When I first saw the Hollywood film that established the template for haunted house movies, I thought it was an above average flick, but I couldn’t recommend it because the scratched up, herky-jerky quality of the available print detracted so much from the viewing experience. But cinematic magicians at the Museum of Modern Art later rolled out a beautiful restoration with superb visuals and an evocative new score, leading me on second viewing to enthusiastically recommend the 1927 version of The Cat and the Canary.
Based on John Willard’s hit Broadway play, every plot element of this film will sound stale to modern audiences because of being copied so many times. But here goes: At midnight twenty years after the death of eccentric millionaire Cyrus West, his surviving family members gather at his spooky old mansion to hear the reading of his will. To everyone’s surprise, Cyrus leaves everything to his niece Annabelle, but with the strange stipulation that she is only his heir if she is judged sane by a physician who will visit before dawn. A menacing storm then traps everyone overnight just as they learn that Cyrus’ ghost is said to walk the grounds, a homicidal maniac has escaped from a nearby prison, and a fabulous diamond collection may be hidden somewhere in the house (Otherwise, looks like a pretty dull evening…).
Of course it’s all a bit silly, but that’s intentional. This is not a slasher film: it’s as much intended to evoke chuckles as shivers, and it does that very well with a fast-moving story that combines agreeable farce with some high-tension scenes. Laura La Plante, as the imperiled Annabelle, is the biggest star in the film, and she’s certainly toothsome and appealing. But the most memorable performance is given by Martha Mattox as the housemaid/caretaker Mammy Pleasant. She creepy and funny, a bit of precursor to Judith Anderson’s famous turn in Rebecca. Creighton Hale, looking a bit like Harold Lloyd, is also winning as a fellow who has to overcome his fear to save the day and win our heroine’s favor in the process.
Producer Carl Laemmle did many wise things through his “Universal Monster Movie” years, both silent and talkie, and one of the wisest was bringing Paul Leni to Hollywood. Leni was a master of German expressionist sensibility who knew how to make the style accessible to American audiences. Shooting in tinted black and white and mixing in some double exposure shots, he created the look you can see in almost every subsequent “Old Dark House” movie (including of course, The Old Dark House).
Among other flourishes, I believe this movie has one of the first dolly shots in cinema history (Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, which came out six months earlier and which I also recommend, is usually credited as the first). Indeed, if you contrast The Cat and the Canary with another one of my recommendations, the early talkie horror Murder by the Clock, you can see how much more camera and actor movement late silents had than early talkies because they were not constrained by fixed point, low-quality microphones.
Leni would go on to make another one of my recommendations The Man Who Laughed. The Cat and the Canary isn’t in the league of that all-time classic in significance or artistry (what is?), but its got more than enough scares, laughs, and fun to keep you entertained any dark and stormy evening. And you can watch the glorious restored print any time for free at The Internet Archive.
p.s. This film has been remade many times under the same and different titles, but as I’ve seen none of those versions I only vouch for the original.