Color Tinted, 1927, 86 mins. 50 secs.
Directed by Paul Leni
Starring Laura La Plante, Forrest Stanley, Creighton Hale, Tully Marshall, Martha Mattox, Flora Finch, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gertrude Astor
Eureka (Blu-ray) (UK/US R0 HD)

Even to this day it's tough to find a The Cat and the Canarycomprehensive horror book or online overview that doesn't give its The Cat and the Canarydue to The Cat and the Canary, Hollywood's biggest old dark house hit of the silent era and the source of tantalizing stills involving clutching hands and cavernous hallways. The film marked an auspicious stateside debut for German filmmaker Paul Leni, who had impressed Universal head Carl Laemmle with his stylish horror film, Waxworks. This adaptation of a brisk, gimmicky, and horror-laced mystery stage play by John Willard enlivened the material with considerable visual panache, setting a template that would be followed by numerous similar films and multiple official remakes (most notably as a Bob Hope / Paulette Goddard vehicle in 1939 and an all-star Radley Metzger version in 1978. Every element of this story including a reading of a will, a sinister housekeeper, and a rising body count has been assimilated into countless later films, but this one is already quite self-aware and funny with its tweaking of genre conventions. Unfortunately Leni passed away at the young age of 44 at the very end of the silent era, leaving behind a brief but important body of work including two subsequent American horror gems, The Man Who Laughs and The Last Warning.

Besieged by greedy relatives, dying millionaire Cyrus West makes a peculiar stipulation: everyone will have to wait two The Cat and the Canarydecades after his death before his will can be taken out of a safe and read by family attorney Roger Crosby (Marshall). When the time comes, the lawyer reunites with the stern housekeeper, Mammy Pleasant (Mattox), and is startled to find a living moth and a second will inside The Cat and the Canarythe supposedly unopened safe. At midnight, all of the relatives congregate with the last to arrive being niece Annabelle West, who becomes the sole recipient of the inheritance including a tip-off to the location of the legendary missing family diamonds. The night is quickly disrupted by the arrival of a guard who informs them that an escaped lunatic with sharp, cat-like nails is on the loose and prowling the area, and when the first murder occurs, everyone begins to doubt Annabelle's sanity -- which also happens to involve a clause in the will. Who will survive until morning, and what is the murderer's secret?

A fine example of visual storytelling on multiple levels at a time, The Cat and the Canary works in plenty of cheeky touches right down to its subtitles (such as misty proclamation of "Ghosts?" drifting across the screen at one point) along with nifty camera tricks involving double exposures, distorted lenses, and forced perspectives. As much fun as the other versions are that came along later, it's fascinating to see how this one remains so much more audacious with a striking bit of cinematic sleight of hand popping up at least every couple of minutes. There's very little in the way of character development here by design, with everyone fitting neatly into an archetype including our potential romantic couple, the lawyer who suspects too much, the conniving relatives, and so on; instead it's an excuse for style run riot with Leni's background in German Expressionism coming through bright and clear. The film proved to be one of Universal's biggest silent horror hits along with The Phantom of the Opera, paving The Cat and the Canarythe way for decades of genre classics to come from the studio with this one serving as a very clear influence on The Cat and the Canarymany major titles.

Numerous home video editions of this film have turned up over the years, with the frame rate adjusted wildly in some cases with the running time bloated up to around 100 minutes in some cases. The best options on DVD came from Image Entertainment (in 1998 early in the format's history, using a damaged but respectable master prepared for laserdisc) and a Photoplay Production edition from Kino Lorber in 2004. However, those are all easily surpassed by the much-needed Blu-ray edition from Eureka (one of the U.K. label's first releases across the pond in the U.S.) featuring a beautiful presentation of a 4K restoration of the original negatives from the Museum of Modern Art. The color tinting seen in first-run engagements is restored here a la many other silent classics, featuring blue for outdoor night scenes and the opening, gold for most interiors, and green for some creepy bits in the last third. As beautiful as the restoration is, it's equaled by the marvelous DTS-HD MA 5.1 music track featuring a spooky and sometimes silly score by Robert Israel "compiled, synchronized and edited by Gillian B. Anderson, based on music cue sheets compiled and issued for the original 1927 release," which includes some excellent sound effect The Cat and the Canarytouches as well (that door knocker!). The film is also augmented with two new audio commentaries, The Cat and the Canaryboth featuring familiar and welcome pairings: Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, then Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby. All of them have great gusto here as they dive into the prototype for Universal Gothic horror, the popularity of the stage play, the use of camera fluidity, Leni's career, recurring visual motifs in this film and subsequent Universal horror, and plenty more. Don't skip either of 'em. In the featurette "Mysteries Mean Dark Corners" (29m2s), David Cairns and Fiona Watson contextualize this feature within the tradition of old dark house plays and early films preceding this one going back well more than a decade (including The Bat), though most of them are of course lost and/or forgotten today, as well as its successors. An interview with writer-critic Pamela Hutchinson (13m4s) explores the mixture of theatrical comedy and German Expressionism that collided here with giddy results, while an informative discussion by film critic Phuong Lee (9m11s) about the film's genesis with Laemmle and onetime set designer Leni's enthusiasm for tackling an English-language project, as well as the director's background leading up to this film. Also included are two new audio dramatizations of bits from the play, "A Very Eccentric Man" (3m11s) and "Yeah, a Cat!" (2m15s), and an amusing Lucky Strike cigarette ad endorsement by Leni. Packaged in a limited edition slipcase with art by Graham Humphreys, the release also comes with an insert booklet featuring essays by Richard Combs, Craig Ian Mann, and Imogen Sara Smith.

Reviewed on April 13, 2024