In which we move into a haunted house at midnight to read a will… what could go wrong?
I’m a sucker for black and white horror films, especially those from the 1920s and 1930s. There are a couple of things I believe explain my fondness for them. Firstly, they’re not very scary and I’m hopeless with scares – I’m too drawn in by film, too tense. The only modern(ish) horror film I truly love is The Thing. I don’t like gore, torture, jump scares or even the idea of being scared. On the flip side of this, I love learning about horror films. I’m a huge fan of Dead Meat, a YouTube channel all about horror films (most of which I’ve never seen).
Secondly, I love the way the older films are shot and designed. Bride of Frankenstein might be my favourite film (depends which day you ask me) thanks to its gothic look, creepy performances and comic tone.
Much of those attributes apply to The Cat and the Canary too, the story is a classic haunted house tale, but the fun comes from the oddball characters, each one an easy suspect for the audience when the bodies begin to drop.
Adapted from a 1925 stage play, the film follows one night in an old mansion where a loosely connected group of characters assemble to hear the reading of Cyrus West’s will. With his family declaring him mad, Cyrus had a little fun with his last wishes. It was to be read at midnight 20 years after his death and the beneficiary has to be proven sane to inherit, otherwise his fortune goes to a mysterious second heir.
Annabelle West, Cyrus’s niece, is revealed as the primary heir but with the group locked in the house overnight and the others aware of the second will she must try to survive and stay sane until the morning to retain her newfound riches.
Though is sounds like a slightly macabre episode of Scooby Doo (in fact there is one where Scooby inherits a fortune but must spend the night in a haunted house), the mix of gothic and expressionist design with genuinely funny characters make this a wonderful horror-comedy.
Each of the potential heirs/suspects plays their part in keeping the audience both amused and unsure of themselves. They’re all real enough to be believable but odd enough that any could be putting on a show for the others. At the centre, Annabelle West is well played by Laura La Plante, but given little to do other than scream, faint and generally be a victim.
The film became a key influence as Universal Studios developed their slate of horror films into the 1930s and hit their stride with the classic monsters soon after this. In fact, set designer Charles D Hall went on to work on two franchise-starters in Dracula and Frankenstein and Frankenstein director James Whale’s The Old Dark House in 1932 was a direct evolution of The Cat and the Canary.
There’s a lot to enjoy for fans of horror, comedy, horror-comedy and even comedy-horror with The Cat and the Canary. Though not a forgotten classic, it deserves a place alongside the more famous Universal horror films of the time. Gothic, suspenseful and all together kooky, it’s been the template for haunted house film for almost a hundred years.
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