Not technically a horror movie, but director Paul Leni definitely knows the most standard gothic conventions–a turreted mansion, secret panels, passageways behind bookcases–as well as the stylistic devices of the horror films that came before. But rather than simply employ them, Leni transforms them into opportunities for humor.
The general premise of The Cat and the Canary (1927) is that a rich man dies but not before accusing all the greedy relatives who coveted his wealth as having been “cats” who tormented his canary self all his life, driving him mad. When his will is read twenty years after his death, a lot of money-grubbing relatives show up hoping to be named his sole beneficiary, but the money goes to the most likeable of them all, Annabelle. But there’s one condition: she must first be declared sane when examined by a doctor who will show up shortly. If she goes crazy before then, a second relative will inherit all the money. Obviously, this second relative is the one whom Annabelle should fear the most during her night in the mansion, but before the lawyer can tell her the name of the relative, he is suddenly snatched into a secret passageway hidden behind a bookshelf by a creepy hand. Moments later, a man rushes in to say that he has pursued an escaped maniac to the mansion. And now the games begin.
But even though there are some dastardly deeds, creepy conventions, and even a death, The Cat and the Canary is a comedy. And good lord this movie is FUNNY if you, like me, love slapstick. Most of the time I really struggle to enjoy older films because the conventions they rely upon are so discordant with those I’m used to. But–I’m not kidding–I had to PAUSE the movie because I was laughing so hard I was crying. And I swear I’m not just saying that. I won’t try to describe the specific scene (it’s a you-had-to-be-there sort of thing), but it starts about 45 minutes into the film and involves Paul, the buffoon/hero, hiding under the bed unbeknownst to his cousin and her mother. The whole scene is pretty spectacular, but it’s the moment when Aunt Susan looks under the bed that did me in. The Cat and the Canary has reminded me of how much I loves me some slapstick (which means that I’m adding the Marx brothers to the 1930s film list when I get there).
I’d wager that the film has influenced a lot of humorous Gothic texts. You only need watch a few minutes of it to see similarities to Scooby Doo, and the housekeeper “Mammy Pleasant” is a dead ringer for Young Frankenstein‘s warm-milk-serving Frau Blücher (“YES! He vas my . . . boyfriend!”). The movie takes classic gothic/horror iconography and turns it on its head, such that the Dr. Caligari-looking doctor turns out to be ridiculous rather than terrifying.
This is not to say that the film relies on silliness and not style. Far from it. The film uses some brilliant tracking shots to give us a first impression of a creepy, haunted mansion, dissolves, low-angle shots (not something I recall seeing yet), and even title cards with animated text. When one character says, “Gosh, what a spooky house,” the words slowly float as if to embody her tone, and when Annabelle screams, “Help,” the words pulse to signal her emotion.
One last thing: at one point Aunt Susan manages to escape the mansion with a milkman who is (as milkman must have done in that day) beginning his deliveries in the middle of the night. When the cops pull them over (for equine speeding?), Susan tells them that a ghost is murdering people back at the West mansion. The cop, assuming she’s nuts, responds, “It’s about time you climbed on a milk wagon.”
I don’t know what that means, but it’s my new favorite expression. And I’m pretty sure it self-applies.