Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Cat and the Canary

In this silent horror/comedy/mystery, the family of an eccentric millionaire gathers at his creepy old estate on the 20th anniversary of his passing to find out who will inherit his fortune. An heir is named, but soon the family is being bumped off one-by-one by a maniac known as "the Cat," most likely a family member trying to get the fortune for themself.

Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary is a hell of a lot of fun, an old-fashioned "bump in the night" type horror tale that mixes bonkers German expressionism-esque visuals with goofy, screwball comedy. Clearly influential on the whole "old dark house" genre of horror films, it gets a lot of mileage from it's deliberately over-the-top style, providing constant matting/visual overlays, gothic set design, exaggerated shadows, stylized performances and more. It's one of the only silent films I've seen that uses the expressionist style for fun and humorous purposes rather than dark, soul crushing misery.

The film feels very ahead of its time, although maybe that's just because I don't give 1920's filmmakers and audiences enough credit for how genre-savvy they could be. It was released in 1927 but already has a perfect understanding of the visual and narrative tropes of horror cinema, and then playfully tweaks and exaggerates them for comic and satirical effect. I try to work in at least one silent movie every October, but this might be the first one I've seen that is just a flat out good time; a knowing, winking take on a film genre that maybe wasn't as much in its infancy as I always assumed.

Rating: B

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