A Classic Horror Film Without a Monster to Sell It

Rotating bookcases, a Creeping Hands, Disappearing Bodies, a Madman on the Loose, Suspicious Family Members After the Family Jewels — All in a Spooky Old Mansion

There’s no iconic monster in the title of Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927, Universal) or in the film itself. Maybe that’s why very few people show it during late October. Nosferatu, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Phantom of the Opera are about Dracula, Mr. Hyde, Dr. Caligari and Erik the Phantom. There’s no giant demonic cat or canary terrorizing people in the film. (Although, wouldn’t that be something?)

The Cat and the Canary is one of my favorite “spooky silents”. It’s one of the films that establishd the look of Universal horror films, and is the film that launched so many other horror and horror-comedy films about a bunch of people gathered in an old cobwebbed mansion to read the will of an old rich man and are stuck in the place for the night. It’s got great production values, a great ensemble cast, several good scare moments and nice comedy relief bits here and there. Laura LaPlante and Creighton Hale — who is great in just about anything — are the anchors of the film. The two of them are surrounded with a stable of veteran character actors: Billy Engle, Flora Finch, Lucien Littlefield, and Joe Murphy, plus two faces familiar from Griffith films George Siegmann and Martha Mattox.

There is an excellent DVD of the film available, a restoration by Photoplay Productions (Kevin Brownlow’s company). MoMA has an excellent 35mm print, sourced from a preservation of a nitrate 35mm they got from Universal in the late 1930s, one of the museum’s first round of acquisitions.

I got to present and accompany The Cat and the Canary on Halloween, and both the audience and I had a lot of fun with the picture. I guess that’s what got me thinking about it again. The film is a lot of fun, but I always have a hard time convincing people to program it, because of the lack of name recognition and the lack of a monster.

I wonder if pitching it to theaters and programmers as a silent film version of Rocky Horror or Clue is the way to go.

The Cat and the Canary production still
A production still of THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) showing the cast and crew on one of the sets. Note the on-set musicians at the far right.

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