Cult Movies: Silent-era chiller The Cat and The Canary is a groundbreaking slice of Hollywood hokum

This week, Ralph reminds us why we should appreciate Paul Leni’s vintage ‘haunted house’ thriller

A scene from 1927's The Cat and The Canary
Paul Leni’s 1927 film is one of the great haunted house thrillers

PAUL Leni’s 1927 film The Cat And The Canary has a fairly good claim to being the greatest ever ‘haunted house’ thriller. It’s certainly one of the first and most influential films in that great tradition at any rate.

It’s the film that inspired The Old Dark House from director James Whale - to all intents and purposes an unabashed cinematic love letter to Leni’s original vision that arrived five years later - and its impact on the successful horror cycle that would prove a box office bonanza for Universal in the 1930s is undeniable.

Born from the craze for mystery plays that swept through post-First World War America, it’s based on a 1922 stage production by John Willard and tells the tale of a family grappling for control of an estate when a rich millionaire by the name of Cyrus West dies.

Bizarrely, the old man has stipulated that two decades must pass before his fortune will be passed on, so 20 years on from his death, the usual ragbag of grasping relatives gather at his dusty old mansion on the Hudson River to hear his lawyer Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall) read his last will and testament.

It seems Cyrus has left all his fortune to his niece, Annabell (Laura La Plante), on one condition: she must be judged to be legally sane. If she fails on that front, the money and a selection of sparkly diamonds will go to someone else, whose name is kept in a sealed envelope.

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A scene from The Cat and The Canary

As the disgruntled relatives settle down to spend the night in the creaky old, mansion they are informed that a crazed murderer nicknamed The Cat has escaped from a nearby asylum and is believed to be lurking somewhere nearby on the grounds.

Before he can reveal the name of Annabelle’s potential successor, Crosby mysteriously disappears, and suddenly a chain of terrifying events is set off that keeps the family firmly on their toes and leaves the poor niece doubting her all-important sanity.

A scene from The Cat and The Canary

Leni directs with assured confidence throughout and, while the acting and staging might be a little ‘broad’ for some - what you’d expect from a silent offering, I suppose - there’s much to enjoy here all the same.

The sets are imposing, the effects impressive for their time and the atmosphere is genuinely spooky throughout.

The blend of mild chills and occasional laughs is handled well by Leni, a German with little English who leaned on his writer and directorial assistant Robert F Hill to liaise with the cast and crew, and there are fine performances from La Plante as the beleaguered benefactor and Flora Finch as the gossipy old Aunt Susan.

A scene from The Cat and The Canary

Next month, a long overdue 4K restoration of Leni’s groundbreaking slice of Hollywood hokum is released through Eureka Entertainment, and a more lovingly crafted and extras-engorged package of cult movie delight would be hard to imagine.

Boasting a selection of audio commentaries, video essays and a collector’s booklet offering fresh writing on the film, it’s is the perfect way to enjoy some proper old school cinematic thrills one more time.